10 things Great Trainers Do - Venn Leader

Things Great Trainers Do


Recently I asked my friends and fellow training facilitators, “What are things great trainers do?”  I asked the question on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Email.  Almost immediately I received dozens of responses.  Thanks to all of their input I came up with 10 things I believe great trainers do.

  1. They take care of themselves.
  2. They prepare and then double check. They sweat the small stuff.
  3. They never stop learning.
  4. They make people feel safe outside their comfort zone.
  5. They are comfortable with discomfort.
  6. They adapt.
  7. They understand and embrace their role as a leader.
  8. They coach through the moment.
  9. They respect the participants.
  10. They make mistakes.


Based on my own experience and the responses I received from more than a dozen highly qualified trainers I could have made this a list of 20-things great trainers do.  Maybe I’ll make #11 “The continuously improve” when I write the next version of this.


1. They take care of themselves.


Great trainers and facilitators are ready to train mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Regardless of the topic good training requires facilitators to be on their game and full of energy.  Several of the respondents to my question included suggestions of getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising.  To maintain a strong presence in the training environment we have to be able to go the distance, to set the example for students.  The performance triad of sleep, nutrition, and activity are a framework for outstanding performance as a trainer.


Sleep: Simply getting a good night’s rest before training isn’t good enough.  Great trainers maintain a good sleep cycle.  This is the key to being fit and ready to be in front of a group and pour yourself into it.


Nutrition: Fuel the trainer’s brain and body before and during training.  An all-day course is demanding in every respect.  Some of the best tips included getting a good, healthy breakfast before training and don’t skip lunch – but don’t eat heavy either.  Students tend to crash after lunch and trainers need to be on their game from the moment they reconvene.  Having a salad or sandwich during lunch will provide most trainers with the fuel to get them through the rest of the day.  I also like to have a fruit juice as my first after lunch drink. For me it gives me that little bit of extra sugar to kick my brain into high gear for the rest of the day.


Exercise: This post is written for trainers and facilitators of all topics.  Personally, my topics range from running back and forth for an entire day during a “Team Live Fires” to providing three back to back 4-hour customer service classes to school administrators. Both of these examples and everything in between require a degree of physical endurance that can only be achieved through exercise.  Whether you’re in a suit and tie teaching Advanced Microsoft Skills to bankers or in full kit training Combatives to SWAT Teams trainers need to be fit and ready to perform all day.


“I believe in the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, it is continuous improvement. As stated well by others above, it is continuing research, networking and most of all asking some students in private, how did I do? & how can I improve? As a LEO, I try my best to utilize this philosophy in my job performance, self-care & fitness and in my relationships. Progress beats out perfection.”  – Mark St Hilaire


2. They prepare and then double check. They sweat the small stuff.


Every training session is a new event – regardless of the topic – regardless of how often the trainer trains it.  When I posed the question on LinkedIn, Sergeant Major Riki Hawk responded with, “Simple: they give a damn.  Everything is important.”  He and I share the same view on preparing for training because of our military backgrounds.  We have a saying, “sweat the small stuff.”  For trainers, the devil is in the details and when we take the time to check and double check to make sure we’re ready the students benefit.  One of the things that John Burdock reminded me is that great trainers prepare their gear the well in advance of the training.  He mentioned attire, and for those that spend their training days on the range or in the field checking gear ahead of time can make a world of difference on the training day.


“Planning: I try to do a training outline and lesson plan specific to every class I teach. Even if it’s the same material, I will review it to make sure that it fits where I’m teaching. As a result, this forces me to do some investigative work on the location that I will be teaching and identify what issues might be prevalent in that area.”  – Tim Sharpee


3. They never stop learning.


When I asked, “what are the traits of great trainers” the most common responses from the field were in this category.  From my own perspective, I think it’s important to point out that great trainers push the edges of their personal development and enlightenment in 360-degrees.  They lean way outside of their comfort zone.  A tip I got from my friend and business partner, Brian Nelson is to go 180-degrees from my norm.  Read books, articles, and blog posts that disrupt my normal thoughts.  Watch videos from sources I find disagreeable and make myself think about them objectively and critically.  Like Albert Einstein said when asked about giving the exact same test two-years in a row, “The answers have changed.”  The trainer who is a perpetual student is always searching for the most accurate answer for this year’s “test” and although they remember the answers from last time for context they are prepared with the new ones right now.


“After training I review my own notes from the day, complete self-evaluation of presentation (pro’s and con’s) review student feedback if any for adding additional information and or removing outdated material, send out some follow up “thank you” emails to host agency. Ensure all required paperwork, rosters etc. are completed and turned in.  I reflect and see if any changes are warranted in the PowerPoint, presentation and or drills and equipment used.”  – John Burdock


“I think the number one habit of highly effective trainers is the habit of learning. Reading books, blogs, and articles. Listening to podcasts and audio books. Engaging in professional development membership sites. Watching webinars. Continuous learning is an important habit if you want to be a great trainer.”  – – Brian Willis


“Innovators and perpetual students” – Marie D’Amico


4. They make people feel safe outside their comfort zone.


Adults learn best when their inner child can explore new and exciting things and when what they’ve been presented with things that can be linked to experiences they’ve already had.  The most effective trainers are those who create training that is so emotionally safe that the inner child wants to explore and even challenge what the adult thinks they already know.  But, on the flip side of that they leverage the confidence in their adult learners by giving them space and time to connect new lessons to old memories.


Dr. Paladino, a friend of mine that trains possibly the widest array of topics among the trainers I know reminded me that some trainers accidently teach participants to “pull punches.”  Great trainers do not allow participants to simply go through the motions.  They use appropriate training aids and techniques to ensure participants can fully practice the training they receive.  He also reminded me that great trainers are those that force students to practice in other than ideal conditions.


“When I teach my residents procedures, I do not assemble all the equipment for them (except the first time, so they know what is needed). After that, part of the training is knowing where that equipment is under stress to do that procedure in the trauma bay.”  – Dr. Lorenzo Paladino, MD EMT-P


“Great trainers create a “safe” environment for learning. This is particularly challenging in law enforcement and military, because so much training is “sit there, shut up, and we’ll get through it as quick as possible”. A safe environment is one where students actually feel comfortable participating in the class. When questions are posed by the instructor, people answer. The instructor needs to emphasize the safe environment from the outset.”  –  John Bostain


“One of the reasons icebreakers are an important component of good course design, but often left out because people think they’re “just games” or they don’t have time to do it.”  – Kerry Rempel Avery


    “Icebreakers matter. And good icebreaker IS content. People think they’re just games when breaking the ice or learning names is the only objective. Find ways of making them meaningful on multiple levels, and you’ve fixed that problem.”  – Aaron J Schmookler


“Bring funny memes, short stories, quotes and YouTube shorts. It will help liven up the class and relax everyone including yourself.”  – Jeff Kassab


“Create thinkers, or create the freedom to share thoughts/experiences within the presented material.”  – Wayne Hoover


“Drill Work/Repetition – Repetition – Repetition: Limit time lecturing by utilizing short lecture, demonstration, slow for form practice and finally building to full speed exercise demonstration. Then Repeat!! No difference in the classroom. Incorporate exercises and group discussions that will help you as the instructor to continually assess whether the material is being learned and retained. Also by breaking up and limiting lecture time you’re staying within the rules of the adult learning theory.”  – Tim Sharpee


“They ask questions. Really uncomfortable, challenging questions. Of themselves. And their learners” – Louis Hayes Jr.


5. They are comfortable with discomfort


The days of the sage on the stage are long gone and great trainers already know it.  The safety and comfort of being the all-knowing oracle instructor ended when the first student walked into training with a smart phone.  Literally carrying with them access to the knowledge of the entire world.  Within seconds everything an instructor is saying can be cross-checked with any number of videos of equally (or even more) competent trainers.  AND THAT IS AWEOME!  The best trainers are those that are comfortable with questions and new perspectives. Great trainers thrive on the challenge of competent and curious students.  I really like the way John Meyer puts it, “great trainers teach a way, not the way.”  If you want to test yourself as an instructor, give the students all the reading material and any tests weeks in advance of the training.  Emily Barnett from Invista Performance Solutions reminded me of one of my favorite techniques, “Management by Proximity.”  She suggests being very intentional about moving in and around the training area to provide supervision and emphasis by presence, “If I’m standing next to a trouble maker they are much more well-behaved.”


6. They adapt

Training is less like a train and more like an ATV… Sometimes the most effective way to get to the objective is to leave the track.  Great trainers are those who can purposefully and gracefully handle a sharp detour off the training path and masterfully bring it back on line.  One of the most important elements of doing this well is to master #2 above… Prepare and be ready.  When we know the material, we’re prepared for the projector to fail, we ready for that random tough question that was unexpected but must be answered before we can move on.  My friend, Steve Johnson reminded me of a trick that I’ve seen great trainers use over the years.  He suggested using break times to jot down notes of things that were missed or still need to be covered.


“Training that’s codified and consistent can be good. Training that’s on rails and isn’t responsive to the trainees is ineffective and frustrating.  An effective trainer pays close attention to the trainees, notices even fleeting micro expressions that may signal boredom, incomprehension, confusion, impatience, etc. Then, they don’t assume their interpretations of those expressions were correct. They test their assumptions by asking.” – Aaron J Schmookler


“Adapting to the individual needs/learning style of the participant and PATIENCE. It’s not about the Instructor it’s about making sure the student is understanding and retaining the Training.” – Heather-Frank Eckert


“Evaluate: What worked, what didn’t and make corrections. This should also be done during the course as well. If  something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change on the fly.” – Tim Sharpee


“Self-Reflection: I kept a journal as a high school teacher in which I wrote daily/weekly about what worked and what didn’t work.” – Emily Barnett


7. They understand and embrace their role as a leader


Trainers are leaders.  Though many of them are not formally bestowed a leadership title or leadership pay they are given space and time to perform critical leadership functions.  The definition I use for a leader is one I’ve adapted from the United States Army’s, “A leader is anyone who inspires and influences people to accomplish goals. They motivate people to pursue actions, focus thinking and shape decisions for the greater good of the organization.”  Great trainers have embraced their ability to influence the future performance of an organization and formal leaders within organizations have intentionally leveraged talented trainers throughout history to do just that.


“Trainers are leaders. Therefore, good trainers should exhibit the traits we expect from good leaders. Integrity, drive, and high social IQ are my top three.” – Jason Der


 8. They coach through the moment


As I was preparing to write this I had the opportunity to talk with several fellow trainers facilitators.  One of the most well-known and respected goes by, “Coach.”  Bob ‘Coach’ Lindsey is known throughout the law enforcement training world as one of the most inspiring and authentic trainer leaders.  During a recent conversation with Coach he said something that really stood out to me.

“When an instructor sees, a student operating under duress, or pressure, or fear… That instructor has a moral and ethical obligation to do what he or she can do to relieve that and bring the student back to the path.” – Bob “Coach” Lindsey

Whether we’re training hard tactical skills such as movement under direct fire or soft skills such as leadership students find themselves in positions of discomfort and fear.  As trainers, we need to see that and be the voice in their heads the next time they face this moment without us.  To get through real-world intensity we need uninterrupted successful training memories.  Great trainers do not stop training – they coach the participant through failure and through fear to create a positive – “can do” memory.


9. They respect the participants.


Participants come to our training in all shapes and sizes in all different stages of readiness to train.  Great trainers respect the participants in their training through all phases.  Before the training, they make sure they are prepared and ready for whoever shows up.  During training, they start on time, they engage everyone equally and they challenge everyone to get the most out of the training opportunity.  Afterwards they keep their word to follow up with students.  As Marie D’Amico reminded me, if the student fails to learn, the trainer failed to train.  Great trainers are aware of this and go above and beyond to connect with different learning styles.


“Focus is on the participant, not themselves.” – Kerry Rempel Avery


“Top notch instructors are the ones, who are willing to offer help after the class has ended. In finding, referencing and continuing learning.  I would also add that a top notch trainers, knows when to say “I don’t know” – and stays within their lane/wheel house, and doesn’t stray or pretend to be an “expert”  – Dr. Matthew Stiehm


“Never discount the collective experience in the room – the trainee’s experiences are not yours and yours are not theirs…. stay “open” – even as a trainer….”  – Tony Marks


 “Fair-Firm-Friendly. Teach to the benefit of the student, not the instructor.” – Renee Meador


“Respect for their students.” – Jim Hatcher


“Note any innovations that students present that you might want to check into, i.e. newer technology, new ballistic test, new holsters, etc.”  – Steve Johnson


“They appreciate that the audience is the hero, not them. The message only becomes reality if the students choose to make it so.” – Ellen McDermott


“Highly effective trainers see every student/trainee as brilliantly capable.” – Jenifer Dunfee


They make mistakes.


Even the greatest trainers make mistakes.  It’s bound to happen.  I saved this one for last because it’s through intentional implementation of the preceding nine behaviors that most of us are none the wiser when they make a little mistake.  This final point is the main reason I started writing this.  An aspiring facilitator mentioned to me that he was worried about messing up.  Of course, you’re going to mess up – no one is perfect.  You’ll get on a roll and forget to mention a bullet point before switching slides.  You’ll get side tracked and throw off your timing.  You might forget the words to something you’ve had memorized for decades.  You’ll demonstrate a tactic that’s worked dozens of times in training and on the street, and for any number of reasons it didn’t work this time.  It just happens.  Some of the greatest trainers and facilitators I’ve ever met can tell hours’ worth of stories of times they screwed up.


Some of the things I’ve used to help over the years are living by the first nine.  First, I Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.  Then I double check everything I’ve prepared.  I’ve also found that when I set conditions for participants to stay actively involved and make time for good conversation with them the mistakes I do make are more easily recovered from.  People notice hiccups during a lecture – but not so much during a conversation.


A note about safety and making mistakes: I make check lists of the things that cannot fail under any circumstance.  Much of the training I’ve done throughout my career involves high risk activities such as driving at high speeds, shooting live weapons very close to other people, and climbing up and down any number of high obstacles.  In these case mistakes are unacceptable so great trainers have shown me how to triple check for safety using checklists and unwavering safety standards for high risk activities.    Great trainers never sacrifice safety under any circumstance.