Making training stick

October 27, 2009

“Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath – a book widely recommended on various blogs on presentation and management. Its about how to get ideas to “stick”, and the principles outlined can be applied in various contexts, but the one I’m interested in is teaching and training.The core idea in the book is that to make ideas stick the message need to have a number of attributes, summed up by the acronym SUCCES. They should be

* Simple

* Unexpected

* Concrete

* Credible

* Emotional

* use Stories

The last of these is particularly important as stories usually involve concrete examples, can get to the core of the idea and can be framed to include unexpected and emotional aspects. The Heath’s practice what they preach with stories (lots of examples) forming the basis for the book.The occupational hygiene profession is not very good at making things “sticky” – the very name we use for our discipline is perhaps a good example of this!

Although we often can work out what our core ideas and principles are, we are not always very good at using the other aspects discussed by the Heath’s to put them across to an uninterested audience we are trying to influence, whether management, workers or regulators. For example, I was discussing the COSHH principles of good control practice with a colleague a few days ago, and we both agreed that while the principles are good and sensible, they are anything but “sticky” and its perhaps not surprising that very few people, including many general safety practitioners, have not really heard of them. From a training and teaching perspective, making ideas “sticky” is important if the learners are to remember what you’ve tried to get across, and the SUCCES principles can be applied to make the instruction more memorable.

Making things “simple” doesn’t mean “dumbing down” but making sure ideas, however complex, are put across in a way that can be understood by learners new to the principle. Things that seem obvious to an expert need to be carefully explained. This can be made easier if the ideas are illustrated by concrete examples. Every good trainer will have “war stories” that can be used to illustrate application and implementation of the principles. Case studies too are types of stories and can be based on concrete examples and are a good way of getting the learners to think through the principles. The stories and case studies clearly need to be credible if they are to be seen as relevant by the learners.

The idea of using emotion might seem a bit airy fairy but is really about making the ideas relevant to the learners by showing them that what they are learning is relevant to them, either as individuals or as part of a group. Unexpectedness is probably the most difficult principle to apply – I think that it can only be used sparingly – you can’t make everything unexpected. However its a good way of waking up the audience and grabbing attention and can be particularly useful during awareness type training, particularly where the audience might be uninterested, and can help to get the emotional “buy in” you are trying to achieve.

One thing isn’t covered in the book, which is particularly important in making training and teaching “sticky”. The book focuses on getting a message across and making it stick by presenting people with information i.e. by presenting the information verbally or in writing. Learning isn’t just about listening and reading- quite the contrary. People learn best by doing – sometimes finding things out for themselves or reinforcing the points put across in presentations and written material. Perhaps some of the ideas in the book could be applied to practical exercises. As I’ve already mentioned above, they can be applied to designing effective case studies.

So all in all, a useful book. The ideas it contains have certainly stuck with me!

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