Tips and Suggestions from a Software Training Veteran

Diane McKeever has been a software trainer for almost 25 years and has taught over 100,000 students in the United States and Europe.  Every day she earns her title of “Certified Patient Person” by teaching some of the most complex material in a fun, easy to understand way.

What follows is an interview with Diane & Bloomfire, a software site geared for easily sharing knowledge and the discussions that surround it.

Q. Please tell me about your current responsibilities, current position.

I have been an independent software trainer for almost 25 years. I have worked for major fortune 500 companies such as GE, Aetna, GTE and Gartner Group.

My primary focus is on the Microsoft Office software but I also teach graphic programs (Photoshop, Picasa, etc.) and professional page setup programs (PageMaker, Indesign, etc).

I recently calculated that I have taught over 100,000 people between my corporate work, my classes at a community college, classes I conduct at most of the libraries in the surrounding communities and my continuing education classes.

A frequently expressed comment is how I am able to take complex concepts and break them down into an easy to understand and easy to follow series of steps and make the classes fun at the same time.

I believe that when people are laughing and having fun it makes it easier to learn.

Q. What workshop has been your favorite to teach?

This is a funny question because I start most classes by saying that the software I am about to teach that day is my favorite.

The reason I use that approach is because I feel that the participants (I never call them students) need to be excited about the product they’re learning about that day. If pressed, I would say that any Excel workshop is a good class.

Most people use the colleague/spouse/children resource group to learn new skills. This group probably learned from similar sources. As a result there’s a lot of misinformation and work around methods that have been passed on over the years.

After seeing how Excel is used in business and from my classroom experience, I can make a big difference in the users’ productivity in Excel in a few minutes.

I often hear, within a half hour of starting an Excel class, that the participant feels that the workshop has “paid for itself” in time saved.

Q. How do you make your workshops interactive?

Here are some of the techniques I use to get the group involved:

Don’t Give the Answers Away Easily

Rather than telling them where an option is in the program, I’ll ask them to think about where they feel Microsoft (or another software provider) would put that option.

The goal here is not to tell them the answer directly but to let them see that there is a logic (which may not always be there) behind where a command is listed.

Work Examples Through With Them.

When I’m teaching an Excel workshop as you can imagine we talk about formulas a lot. After the first two or three formulas that we do together I have the group “help” me fill in the parameters.

Of course they don’t always get it right but that’s an opportunity for me to encourage the thought process. Many times participants want to use hard numbers in formulas although I encourage them to use cell references.

So if they respond that “27” should go in the formula, I would say that they were technically correct but ask what another way is to have it use “27” other than typing in the number. They will generally come up with the correct answer which would be “B4” or whatever the cell address would be.

The Power of Silence.

Silence in the classroom can be powerful. Just throw a question out and stay silent. The participants need to think for themselves before real learning can take place.

Stickers Can Be Magical Tools.

If it’s a really quiet group, and this generally happens on Mondays, I will encourage questions first by telling the group that quiet classes make me nervous because I’m not sure if they’re awake or not. That usually gets a chuckle and starts some interaction.

If that doesn’t work I will wait for the first question and give that person a sticker that I always have with me, generally smiley faces. I know it seems really silly to give adults stickers but it really works.

If I forget to give a sticker to someone later in the session the participant often complains that they didn’t get one. I know a trainer who carries sweets and tosses one out as a reward for questions.

Utilize the Time You’re Given.

If it’s an all day class, (I discourage clients from scheduling classes of more than 3 hours.) I will give them “lunch homework.” This is something I want them to think and talk about at lunch so that we can work on it in the afternoon.

Since I’ve been with my clients so long I often have repeat customers in the class who know the rules and know that I don’t bite. They become my “plants” and I don’t need to resort to the stickers too often, but I always keep them handy.

Q. Have you ever faced an awkward moment while training?  If so, how did you deal with it?

I will never forget my most awkward moment. It was a time I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been to teach a class. I had taught the beginner level of this class before, but wouldn’t consider myself an expert in the subject.

Turns out the group wanted to know the new features of the software and the advanced concepts. I realized early on that I was in trouble. I remember sitting in the bathroom stall with the manual on my lap hoping I could get enough information in 10 minutes to make the class go on for another hour and a half or that I would pass out and they would feel sorry for me.

Unfortunately neither happened. The students crucified me and I was never invited back to this client. I learned a big lesson – Never accept an assignment unless you really know the material.

I made sure that this never happened to me again. I had heard new trainers respond to questions they didn’t know the answer to that the response to that question would be answered in the next level of the class. Nobody likes that answer.

A better way to respond is that “the answer is a little complicated and not a part of the current class but if you stay a few minutes after class I’ll talk to you about it.” This person will generally stay after class.

Less dramatic moments happen often such as how you handle the person who wants to monopolize the class. You always want to encourage questions but sometimes there is one person who, because of their questions, is taking the class in a direction you don’t want to go in or isn’t allowing you to cover all the material you want to.

My technique is to answer a few of the questions, but if I can’t nip it in the bud, I say something to the effect of “You have very specific needs in this program that are not generally covered in this class. Why don’t you stay a few minutes after class and we can talk about them?” The funny thing is that person will rarely stay. They wanted the attention in class, not after it.

People are better prepared now when they come to class and have fundamental mouse skills – but I remember in the early days when I said to the class, “Move your mouse up to the File menu,” and I saw a woman with the mouse on the monitor.

In this situation I accepted full responsibility for not giving more specific instructions. Recently I was showing the class how to zoom the magnification of a window in and out. I told them to hold down the Ctrl key and roll the wheel of their mouse away from them to enlarge and towards them to reduce the magnification.

One woman turned her mouse over and told me that her mouse didn’t have a wheel because it was an optical mouse. When I got her back on track she said she had never noticed that wheel before. It’s important to never make people feel stupid so I always take responsibility for not giving good directions.

I remember another awkward moment when I was teaching the class about using keyboard shortcuts. I saw one man struggling with the commands and when I went to help him I realized that he was missing most of the digits on his left hand.

This made it difficult for him to hold down the Ctrl key with his left hand, while he did something with his right. I suggested he might want to stick with the menu methods rather than the keyboard shortcuts.

My suggestion is to use humor and make fun of yourself – never the participants.  It often gets you past awkward moments.

Q. Are there any last thoughts you’d like to express?

I would just encourage anyone who has an opportunity to teach a class to do so. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences they can have.

Sharing information and getting people excited about new skills is very exhilarating. There are days I teach three classes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and an evening one too.

You would think that after standing on my feet for 8 hours talking non-stop I would be tired, and I am, but I’m also feeling great about how I may have made a little difference in someone’s life.

Helping someone easily understand something that was once difficult for them is very rewarding.

Gena Taylor

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