The Fine Art of Training

Allen Faulton
10 min readNov 2, 2022

An Article of the Modern Survival Guide

Photo by 祝 鹤槐:

You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog I’ve been writing about key lessons that we all need to learn to survive and thrive in the modern world. Today I want to talk about training because, whether you realize it or not, you will spend a good chunk of your life training other people, and every time you do so it will be important.

None of us last forever, and none of us can do everything in life on our own. Consequently, training people to help us (or take over for us) is one of those things that not only affects our lives, but affects our job, our community, even our nation (when you look at it in the aggregate). It’s pretty important to get training right, if only so you don’t have to repeat yourself too often!

Now, here’s the hard part: training is an art form. I can tell you how to do some of it, but the rest you’ll do and you will find out if you’re any good at it. A good trainer is a combination of an instructor, mentor, comedian, and performance artist, and some of that is just down to basic personality. Other elements of being a good trainer require deep knowledge and correct decisions based on your particular situation. However, there are some key tips that you should know, which will help you the next time you have to train someone how to do pretty much anything. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Specificity is good
  • Repetition is always necessary
  • Funny is good
  • Documentation is good
  • Yelling is bad
  • Different people learn in different ways
  • Everyone needs a cheat sheet
  • Competence comes from practice
  • Training has a shelf life

Let’s go through these one by one, because rule #1 of training is that you need to be specific. Actually, there are a lot of rules for training, and they’re all more or less equally important, so brace for a few more rules #1.

Specificity is Good

Whenever you are training someone, you should be careful to be specific. This is rule #1 of training: the more concepts you throw at someone at once, the less likely they are to remember them. Keep your focus narrow, keep your language on point, and try to avoid going off-subject.

Don’t mix and match topics at random, either — try to keep a logical flow, and if you’re going to change subject, tell the class that you are changing subjects. Never assume that anyone is going to instinctively follow the logic of your presentation, and always clearly state the point and purpose of each section of your training program.

And now, for art: Figuring out how and where you need to limit your scope of discussion can be very hard. You can see me struggle with it in this article! Just about everything in life is more complicated than it looks on the surface, and keeping on-subject can get hard when you have to provide background before your subject makes any sense. Drawing these lines isn’t easy; this is a judgment call. What I can say is that you should always tailor your training to the time you have available, and practicing that may help you to cut unnecessary items from your agenda.

Repetition is ALWAYS Necessary

Rule #1 of training is that even the best trainer will only pass along a portion of their knowledge. This is a critical point. I’ve heard all sorts of estimates (ranging from 40% to 90%, depending on who you ask) of how much information the best trainer can impart to the best student. The key takeaway is that no one is going to absorb everything you tell them on the first try, and there is a hard limit to how much information they will take away at all.

With that in mind, repetition is necessary. You have to repeat yourself, often several times over several occasions, before a message sinks in fully. Politicians know this (it’s the foundation of the Great Lie), as do advertisers and religions. Training is no different. The more often you repeat a key point, the more likely people are to remember it.

Therefore, when training anyone or any group, it’s important to repeat yourself and it’s important to have them repeat the lesson back to you. It’s equally important to schedule recurring, required training on any topic that you consider sufficiently important that everyone involved must remember it.

And now, for art: Repetition can get old really fast. There’s a fine line between repeating yourself enough for the lesson to sink in, and beating a dead horse. I can’t necessarily tell you exactly where that line is. In general, I’d say repeat any lesson three times before assuming that the students have got it, but you’ll need to tailor it to your audience, your presentation, and the time you have available for training sessions in general. You’ll also need to decide how often recurring training is needed.

Documentation is Good!

Playing off the former point, rule #1 of training is that, at the end of the day, your audience is going to immediately forget at least some of the training you try to give them. This is where documentation comes in — always distribute your training documents using a method that is easily accessible, open to the group, and in a known location.

Sometimes email is the best way to accomplish this goal, other times you might use a Teams (or similar product) channel or an online document repository to meet this need. But whatever you do, make your documents available, give clear directions on how to access them, and make sure everyone involved has access.

And now, for art: Not everyone has a high degree of skill in writing, and those who have it do not always possess the same skillset. A technical document is different from a novel, which is different from a memo, which is on a whole other plane from legal documentation. Me telling you to “go write a document” is only useful if you make a good document; otherwise, you’re wasting time. Get yourself a proofreader, and a friendly person to give a constructive review, and you’re halfway to being able to tell if you have a good document. But at the end of the day, you can either write or you can’t, and teaching writing is outside the scope of our discussion here.

Yelling is Bad

Rule #1 of training is that if it’s not boot camp, yelling doesn’t accomplish the goal you’re looking for. If you find yourself becoming frustrated with a group, take a breath, count to ten, do whatever you need to do — but don’t yell. Yelling (or any other aggressive or passive-aggressive action, for that matter) triggers fight or flight responses in the audience, and that isn’t the mental state that is best conducive to learning lessons; it’s an emotional mental state that is going to result in associations, not lessons.

To put that another way, people will forget what you did for them, but they will remember the way you made them feel, and they will use that memory when you want to work with them in the future.

When you yell, the other person is either going to view you as someone to fear or someone to dislike, and neither of those options are going to result in the kind of trusting environment that is necessary for serious training. Remember that in most cases, if you tick off your audience they’re free to just leave. What it will do is assist in hammering in a reflexive reaction, which is why drill sergeants do it. But it doesn’t promote thought. That may or may not be a bad thing.

And now, for art: Sometimes, sometimes, not all the time or even most of the time, but sometimes… yelling works. If you’re a drill sergeant, yelling is important. If you’re not a drill sergeant, probably not. But sometimes… yelling works. Sometimes you need to put the fear of God into someone to make a point, or to break through to them. You’re going to have to make that judgement call. I will go ahead and tell you right now, though, if you take that route you’d better brace for fallout.

Different People Learn in Different Ways

This shouldn’t come as a shock, but rule #1 of training is that not everyone can read an instructions manual and come away with a perfect understanding of how something works. I would say that most people probably can’t do this (the research is currently all over the place on that subject). Everyone learns in a slightly different way; some people are visual learners, some are audio learners, some can only learn by doing, some people simply can’t learn in a group, some people need props and examples, and some require multiple types of training before they catch on.

There’s no right or wrong here, it’s simply that we are all different, and a good trainer takes that into account.

With this understanding, it’s worthwhile to plan your training sessions to use as many types of teaching aids as possible. Give your students documents, have presentation slides, use lectures, promote discussions, plan one-on-one sessions when you can, have a hands-on activity whenever possible, etc. The more types of learning methods you use, the more likely it is that something will stick.

And now, for art: How you mix and match your training aids is going to be a situational adjustment, depending on the time, resources, and attention you can devote to this. You might have to pick one or several different training presentation options, or focus more or less attention in one area. In fact, if you don’t have to make this kind of call, consider yourself very lucky. I’ve only encountered one professional training course that met the mark here, in my opinion, and it was one of the more expensive ones.

Everyone Needs a Cheat Sheet

Speaking of different types of training aids, one of the most useful is the time-honored cheat sheet. What’s a cheat sheet? Simple, it’s a one-page document that outlines the most critically important lessons you want to transmit. It doesn’t give explanations, it doesn’t give extra information, it just gives the answer — the takeaway, the critical point, the key fact, whatever — in the simplest language possible.

Sometimes that’s all a trainee needs to know. Sometimes it’s a useful aid to remind people what they need to know. Sometimes it’s just a link back to the explanatory document. Regardless of how you set it up, rule #1 of training is that cheat sheets are always useful in any situation where there are a multitude of facts or key concepts that the trainee needs to learn.

And now, for art: Building a good cheat sheet is a skill all on its own, since doing so requires that you are able to accurately identify and then parse down the most important parts of your presentation. That’s not a given in more cases than we might like to admit. And then there’s formatting. Quite often, it really is art that makes a good cheat sheet — just figuring out how to fit everything onto one page can be a game of Tetris.

Competence Comes from Practice

Now for the hard truth: there is no training, and has never been any training, that was or is good enough that you could send someone through the training program and have them emerge from the other side as a fully competent practitioner of a discipline. People don’t work that way. Rule #1 of training is that competence comes through practice, not training. Training, at best, gives someone the basic knowledge they need to get started. Experience is the only way to turn a newbie into a master. So don’t set the bar too high for people, and always figure out how to get your trainees some practical experience if you want them to retain their training.

And now, for art: Not all practice is equal, and it’s not accurate to say that practice makes perfect. It will often be the case that your students simply are not able to practice the skills you are trying to impart, because they don’t have time, or it’s not their job, or they just don’t want to. Figuring out ways to ensure that people get adequate practice to support their new skills is a management discipline all on its own, as is judging which trainings people should take in the first place.

Which brings us to the final point…

Training Has a Shelf Life

Last but not least, rule #1 of training is that it doesn’t last forever, and any knowledge gained will start to fade immediately after your students leave the class. You should expect that people will lose the majority of their training after about two weeks, if they have not had to engage in actual practice during that timeframe. In some cases, particularly for “boot camp”-style programs, the training might not even last that long — cramming isn’t nearly as effective for long-term memory retention as regular practice.

And now, for art: Determining the best ways to ensure that trainees retain information for as long as possible is very, very hard. Your best bet is to throw every training technique you can think of at them, give them post-training support resources, then put them into a job that requires that training and hope something sticks. Unfortunately, that runs you right into the teeth of problems related to timing, resources, money, and practice options; figuring out those variables is definitely a situational thing.

Wrapping Up

So, what have we learned? Be specific, repeat information, be funny, provide documents, don’t yell, teach to different learning styles, provide cheat sheets, encourage practice, and take the training shelf life into account. If you can do all of that (or even remember everything from that list!), you’re probably on course to be a pretty good trainer.

If you can’t do all of those things, triage. Try to identify the most important things you can do for your particular circumstance, and implement those. If nothing else, always try to provide documentation. The nice thing about training documents is that they are portable, typically reusable, and persistent. Those things do not necessarily apply to in-person training. That being said, guided personal training is still the gold standard to shoot for — it is the most likely method to result in knowledge retention and good experiences.

Best of luck, and happy trainings!

If you liked this article, check out the Modern Survival Guide Volume I, and my current work on Volume II! It’s an utterly random assortment of things I think people ought to know; there’s something in there for everyone.