Tip #368: How to Make a Boring Topic Interesting
“Never fail to know that if you are doing all the talking, you are boring somebody.”
Helen Gurley Brown
“Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring.”
There are no boring topics, there are only boring training methods. Topics that are highly technical and very dry are typically considered boring. However, the topic is really not the problem. The problem is the training method, which is almost always a lecture. There are many ways to enliven a highly technical or dry topic:
1. Approach the topic from a different perspective.
Instead of citing rules and regulations, put the participants in the role of individuals who need to work within or apply those rules and regulations.
For example, a state training program for new supervisors initially involved a long lecture about hiring policies and procedures. The topic was made interesting by having the supervisors assume the role of the personnel staff who would have to review the hiring-related documents submitted by the supervisors. In their personnel roles, the supervisors saw first hand the importance of providing specific and complete information in accordance with the hiring policies and procedures. Without it, there would be a frustrating delay in the hiring process (while the necessary information was collected) or the resulting candidates would lack the necessary training and experience (because the supervisor did not completely or accurately identify the position’s requirements).
2. Provide a self-discovery activity.
Instead of citing rules and regulations, have the participants find the key information themselves.
For example, for a training program on sexual harassment laws, the participants are given a worksheet that asks them to identify either where key provisions of the rules and regulations are located and/or what those key provisions are. They work in pairs to review copies of the relevant rules and regulations. To expedite this activity, the information that the participants are asked to find has been highlighted. As a result, the participants not only know what the laws say, they can now locate those provisions.
Another example: for a training program on industrial fans, the participants are given a worksheet that asks them to identify the appropriate fan for a specific application. Rather than lecturing on this information, the trainer provides reference sheets from which the participants can determine the correct answers.
3. Use an experiential learning activity.
Instead of telling the participants about the rules and regulations, give them an activity that will enable them to experience the impact of those rules and regulations.
For example, a learning goal of a training program for state rule writers was for them to recognize the impact that different state regulatory rules had on small businesses. Rather than a lecture or discussion of this topic, the participants were divided into teams of five and asked to name their “business.” They were then given large plastic tinker toys, with the assignment to build a merry-go-round according to directions.
Each team also had two additional participants who acted as the Voice of Reality and the Observer. The role of the Voice of Reality was to continually interfere with the team’s building process by adding various rules and restrictions. To avoid having to put the Voices of Reality into a witness protection program at the end of the activity, they were told to stop interrupting the building process after ten minutes so that the teams could successfully complete their merry-go-rounds.
The impact of this activity was much greater than a lecture could have. The rule writers experienced the frustration, anger, and powerlessness that small businesses experienced when they were regulated right and left by different departments in the same state agency, sometimes with conflicting expectations.
4. Incorporate a case study.
Instead of telling the participants the theory and steps involved in a process, let them see firsthand what it looks like when the steps are followed or what results when the steps are not followed.
For example, a training program for supervisors to build delegation skills begins with small groups reviewing a case study in which the delegation is poorly handled. The groups are asked to identify what went well, what went wrong, and what, if anything, they would have done differently. The case study shows what happens when the three key components of delegation (responsibility, authority and accountability) are mishandled.
5. Organize key information into a questionnaire.
Instead of lecturing on a topic, isolate the major information and create a questionnaire around that information.
For example, a training program on performance evaluation begins with a questionnaire that consists of twelve statements about the topic. The questionnaire is used as an organizing device to introduce the various topics in the sequence that they will be covered during the session. Working either individually or in a small group, the participants have to decide whether to agree or disagree with the statements. They then report and explain their answers, but the trainer does not confirm the correct answers at this juncture.
The trainer refers to the relevant question at the beginning of the section on that topic. The trainer asks the question again at the end of the section, when the participants should know the correct answer. Only then is the answer to that question finally confirmed.
6. Bring the topic to life.
Instead of listing work expectations, provide a newspaper clipping that illustrates the impact of appropriate or inappropriate conduct.
For example, for a training program on customer service and public relations, the participants were given an actual letter to the editor in a local newspaper. The letter writer was very angry about how the company had mistreated her. It was an excellent example of how the company did not want to be perceived by the public.
7. Include real-life stories.
Instead of going through work rules, have the participants review real-life situations to determine if they were handled appropriately.
For example, for a training program on organizational ethics, the participants were given the descriptions of ten different ethics-related scenarios. These scenarios were based on actual employee behaviors. The participants had to decide whether or not the behavior was ethical and consistent with the work rules. If they decided it was not ethical, they had to propose an alternative behavior that would be ethically appropriate.
These seven training techniques will make a highly technical or dry topic interesting and engaging, because they actively involve the participants in the learning process.
May your learning be sweet.