How to Fail at Live Training

Lisa woke up slightly terrified about today. Fresh out of college and in her first “real” job as the Training Coordinator for a retail chain, she faced a moment that, at least in her mind, would define her job success – her first live training event. She held sole responsibility for the success or failure of the event and how her boss viewed her in this new role to the company.

For weeks Lisa prepared her two-hour presentation on selling skills and dealing with difficult customers. Her education degree drilled into her the importance of interaction, short training segments to keep the learners engaged, and using visuals that aided the material without becoming the material. But there were so many details surrounding a live event, she was terrified she’d forgotten something in the logistics. She’d spent all her focused effort working on the curriculum.

At the end of the day, Lisa felt her presentation went fairly well. The audience only seemed somewhat engaged and Lisa worried they didn’t learn very much. Post-event surveys showed the audience felt like Lisa did a good job presenting, but there were many negative comments about the room, food, venue, and general logistics of the event. Lisa was puzzled by the negative surveys and comments on “unimportant stuff.” Thankfully, she had a mentor who watched the whole day unfold and was ready to help her understand where things went sideways.

When preparing for a live event there can be hundreds of details to plan, order, track, and verify. Many of these are separate from the actual curriculum planning for the event, and significantly increase the burden on the training team, especially if it’s a one-person team! Building yourself a checklist so things aren’t missed can go a long way towards running a smooth event. Here are some items and questions that should be included:

How will you have the room physically set-up?
Will the attendees be seated in rows of chairs, at round tables, half-round tables, or rectangular tables? [My rule of thumb is always to seat 2 people to a 6-foot table and 3 people to an 8-foot table. This is less than hotels and conference centers normally to (they sit 3 people to a 6-foot table) so it’s a special request, but the attendees are much more comfortable.] Will the set-up need to change part way through the training day due to the agenda? How is this arranged with the banquet staff? What will the traffic flow of the room be like when people need to get up during the event and leave the room? What about at dismissal times such as breaks? Will everyone bottleneck in certain locations? What about in an emergency?

What will the atmosphere of the room be like? (The learning environment)
What type of music will be playing when the attendees arrive and during breaks? [I prefer soft jazz.] How will the room be decorated? What will table center pieces be if sitting at round tables? [One time, for a sporting goods training, my team decorated the tables with spent shotgun shells that were picked up at the local gun range.] What types of banners or graphics will be displayed around the room? What types of banners or graphics will be outside the room so attendees can find it easily? Are there things about the room that will distract attendees such as large windows onto crowded areas, bar TVs, strong heat or air conditioning returns, close proximity to recreation areas such as a pool, etc., and if so, can you minimize their impact?

What type(s) of audio and visual equipment will be needed?
Do you need a microphone? If so, a wireless, lapel, handheld, or other special type? More than one? Do you need speakers to plug into a computer? Do you need a projector or more than 1 due to room size? If there is more than one speaker, will successive speakers be hooking up their own computers to the projector [nightmare! avoid at all costs] or providing their slide decks to the organizer which are then put on a common computer for presentation?

What is the plan for food and refreshments?
Will the tables have water? Will there be other drinks available in the room such as coffee, tea, or sodas? Will there be snacks in the room all the time or only at set breaks that are pre-arranged with the banquet or support staff? Are the snacks chosen to reflect how alert/tired the attendees will be throughout the day when they are served? [On a two day training seminar, I always choose high-sugar snacks for the afternoon to give everyone a sugar rush before the end of the day.] What about breakfast/lunch/dinner? Is there another place for attendees to go eat or does the training site double as the eatery? Is there any possibility that ‘extra’ people will show up for meals such as company leaders? What preferences do the attendees reasonably have for food and drink? [For example: if the group lives on energy drinks during their normal day, Mtn. Dew might be a good, less expensive alternative to stock heavily.]

How will the arrangements foster interaction?
Can people see each other for discussion times? Will attendees have name tags and are they designed so critical information can be seen from a reasonable distance? What about name plates/name tents at the chairs for the speaker to see who attendees are? Can short group discussions happen easily given the seating arrangement or are people too crowded to move around? Are attendees seated in a certain order or can they sit where they will? Does that cause problems one way or the other?

Other considerations:
Do any special arrangements need to be made for key people due to food allergies, travel times, etc.? Is there a back-up plan in case things go wrong? [I’ve seen everything from hotels losing power to projector bulbs exploding in the middle of events.] If the event is heavily attended by one sex or the other, are there alternate bathrooms to use during breaks?

I could keep going, but I think the point is made about how many details there are to cover. Any one of these, done wrong, can be a big enough distraction to the attendees that even the best curriculum fails. My pet peeves: sitting too tight, bad audio (especially when speakers try and convince me their voice is loud enough to not need a mic,) running out of food or drinks, and hotel staff that isn’t easily accessible if something goes wrong.

I’m really lucky to work with an exceptional hotel in Bozeman, MT, for most of my large events. The best hotel staffs will guide new trainers through a lot of these issues if they are asked for help. Never be afraid to ask the venue staff for advice. It’s what they do professionally every day.

Live events aren’t easy, and take way more work than most people realize. Start early and plan in advance as far as possible. (I try to start details up to six months out when possible.) Oh, and once you get all these things nailed down, then you need to start planning the curriculum…

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