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What does 70:20:10 actually look like for a self-directed learner?

If you've been in L&D for any amount of time, you probably have heard of the 70:20:10 framework. But what does it actually look like in action? And what can instructional designers learn from one woman's self-guided learning journey? Today's podcast offers some answers.

Heidi Nielsen has proven to be a successful virtual trainer for a large facilities management company, helping to implement a variety of software systems. She hasn’t always been a virtual trainer, however. She began as a technical subject matter expert, but has engaged in a (mostly) self-guided journey to become the best virtual trainer she can be.

I had an opportunity to talk with her recently, and as she described her learning journey, I was struck at how closely it aligned to the Center for Creative Leadership’s well-known 70:20:10 framework. If you’re involved in developing learning programs to help people build new skills, the concrete examples that Heidi offers over the course of this conversation could help offer you some insights and ideas for what, beyond formal training (ILT, virtual sessions or elearning) you might be able to do to help others learn new skills.


Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of a little training design company called Endurance Learning. And today I’m joined by Heidi Nielsen, who is a Virtual Software Trainer for a large facilities maintenance company. We’ll get into Heidi and her own learning journey in just a minute.

But before we get into any of that, I want to remind you that we are sponsored by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for about 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing live, instructor-led training. Whether it’s in-person or virtual, you basically tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, what your seating arrangement looks like – if you’re doing things in-perso, what platform you’re using – if you’re doing something virtual, and what your learning objectives are. And then Soapbox instantly generates a training plan for you with clusters of training activities designed to help you accomplish all of your learning outcomes. If you want more information or if you want to try it for free for two weeks, visit

All right. That was a mouthful, but I’m excited to get into this conversation with Heidi because Heidi and I were talking earlier this week, and she was explaining to me her learning journey in terms of how she’s kind of taught herself to do some of this virtual training. And so I want to focus on that. But before we get into any of that, we need to introduce Heidi. So Heidi, welcome. How are you?

Heidi Nielsen: Thank you. Welcome to you too. I’m good, thank you. I’m excited to talk to you today.

Six-word Biography 

Brian Washburn: Well, excellent. And so just so that the people who are listening can get to know a little bit about you, how would you summarize you, your experience, and your life in exactly six words?

Heidi Nielsen: “I aspire to be a captivating trainer.”

Brian Washburn: I love that as an introduction. And I want to get into this because you and I were talking earlier this week, and I was so fascinated by just the journey that you have been on and it’s been kind of a journey that you’ve initiated. And so I introduced you as a virtual trainer for an organization, and you lead virtual training sessions to help people adopt technologies at your organization. Did you study how to train people virtually in school, or did you land in this role more because you were good at adopting technologies yourself? And so someone said, “You’re good at this. What do you think about training other people how to do this?” How did you get to where you are right now? We’ll talk specifically, but kind of in general. How did you get where you are?

The Journey to Becoming a Virtual Trainer

It was by chance - I had opportunities handed to me and I was willing to take them. A lot of it was because I had the experience and knowledge.

Heidi Nielsen: Well, I would say the latter of the two options that you mentioned. It was by chance – I had opportunities handed to me and I was willing to take them. A lot of it was because I had the experience and knowledge. So I did originally start as a live trainer and then was asked to go virtual. So that’s when I had to learn a little bit more about virtual training, but I could give you some background as to where that experience came from, if you’d like.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, I’d love to hear because– so you’re a subject matter expert, basically, that was then converted into a trainer because you were good at what you were doing.

Heidi Nielsen: Yes.

Brian Washburn: Okay. And so, I’d love to hear a little bit more about that experience, and maybe in order to hear a little bit more about it, let’s give this a little structure. So the Center for Creative Leadership has come out with a model that’s really well known in training circles called the 70-20-10 Model. And just for the people who aren’t familiar with that, it basically says that about 70% of what we learn comes through informal opportunities. You know, just doing things or learning through trial and error or stretch assignments. About 20% of how we learn to do things comes through supportive relationships, like supervisor coaching or mentors, and about 10% comes through formal training – webinars, eLearning, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by this model as somebody who makes a living developing training because of– you know, instructor-led or virtual or eLearning- of those formal learning experiences, really– and it makes sense when we think about it. People only learn maybe about 10% of what they do or what they do well through those formal experiences.

And I know that this is a model, right? They’re even numbers 70 and 20 and 10, so it’s kind of ‘ish.’ But it makes sense when you think about it. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your journey to become the best virtual instructor you can be. And I’d I’d love to start– I actually, you know, I sent you the questions in advance, but let’s start where you feel most comfortable. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about the 70%, or 70 ish, kind of part of that model in terms of how you got to where you are through experiences? Do you want to talk to us about the supportive relationships that have played a role? Do you want to talk about the formal training? Where would you like to start here?

Heidi Nielsen: Well, actually I thought I’d give a little history on my work history.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Heidi Nielsen: And that would lead into all the 20, 10, and 70. So I started working in maintenance as an admin because my background in school was business.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Heidi Nielsen: So you can pretty much be an admin anywhere, and I landed on a maintenance admin job. So I was assigning work orders to technicians, and then in that same department, I moved into a preventative maintenance scheduler which was a position where I had to learn about equipment and machines in more detail than just handing out paper. Thank God we don’t have paper anymore. But I had to learn what is the equipment that they’re working on and all the different terminology. So I really had to dive into the pieces of equipment, and it was critical for that job because I applied the correct frequency and tasks for the maintenance people to work with.

This greatly improved my technical skills in the aid of creating the documents, and it started my passion for teaching.

So then from that I moved into an IT position and they asked me to join a project and implement SAP. So that’s where my role included compiling training documentations or reigning training schedules and delivering the actual training. That was my first training. So this greatly improved my technical skills in the aid of creating the documents, and it started my passion for teaching.

Brian Washburn: Okay, so I want to pause here just for a second, and I want to point out this idea that your first foray into training was documenting things. Documenting things that other people– you didn’t even have to talk to other people about it. You just created these documents. Other people would access them and be like, “Oh, okay, I see what we’re supposed to do. Okay.” So I think that’s a really interesting way to get into it. It’s very different from how I got into training, but it makes sense, right? So, and this is something that a lot of people do, whether or not they consider themselves trainers, being able to figure out a way to share their institutional memory with others so that people aren’t reinventing the wheel.

Heidi Nielsen: Mhm.

Brian Washburn: Okay. So, that’s kind of how you started, right? So documenting your stuff. So– and then where did you start to kind of fall down that slippery slope that led to becoming a trainer?

Heidi Nielsen: Well, once I did the training for the SAP, my next company that I worked for, they offered me a project lead to implement the same kind of software, different brand, of course is still– it’s under the umbrella of CMMS. And, it was a company called Infor EAM, and I implemented that software in three countries. So it just kept growing.

Brian Washburn: When you say that you implemented the software, were you doing technical things or were you helping other people adopt the software?

Heidi Nielsen: First I had to learn the software myself and input all the data, all the assets, the locations, the PMs, and the schedules. And then I had to teach my current site I was at. And then I traveled overseas to Luxembourg and I taught there. My third country, I didn’t travel there, it was all virtual, so that was an experience because it was Shanghai, so it was even a different time zone.

Brian Washburn: Okay.

Heidi Nielsen: I hope– I don’t know if that answers the question.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That absolutely does answer the question. All right. So, you started with documentation, then you started helping people learn and implement software.

Heidi Nielsen: Mhm.

Brian Washburn: And, so– and it started– it sounds like you started to– you went from doing things that were onsite and in-person to virtual.

Heidi Nielsen: Mhm.

Brian Washburn: And is that where you became a virtual trainer or was there another step in there?

Heidi Nielsen: There’s another step again. So the virtual was me teaching the other site about the product and then how they would teach their technicians at their site because of the schedule.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Heidi Nielsen: So that was just virtual meetings, that wasn’t even training at that point. But I learned a lot about virtual training from doing the virtual meetings. I asked to be mentored by expert people in their role. So the person that hired me on that last position, he took me under his wing and basically mentored me all the way through, told me what to focus on, what not to focus on. Basically looking at the bigger picture and not maybe all the little detail to make sure that everything was running on that project.

Brian Washburn: This is such an interesting story because it falls into that 70, 20, 10, model, right? So you were given an assignment and told, “Go– you’re good at this. Go help other people do this.” And so you were trying to kind of feel your way into helping to train others. And then at some point, you were able to forge that relationship with a mentor who could kind of show you the ropes and help you with a little bit more. At what point did, or has, formal training ever played a role in this? Or has it all been kind of self-discovery and working with other people who kind of know what they’re doing?

Has Formal Training Played a Part in the Journey to Becoming a Virtual Trainer?

Heidi Nielsen: So you’re asking about my formal training? The 70%?

Brian Washburn: The 10%, yeah.

Heidi Nielsen: Or the 10%, sorry.

Brian Washburn: Yeah.

Heidi Nielsen: Backwards already. I actually took FMP– I am FMP certified and I took five exams through IFMA, which is International Facility Management Association.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Heidi Nielsen: And the funny thing is, I took that after I already had 25 years experience in maintenance. But I knew I had to do something.

Brian Washburn: Did you learn something new?

Heidi Nielsen: Oh, yeah.

Brian Washburn: Even after 25 years?

Heidi Nielsen: Yes.

Brian Washburn: Okay.

it did help me as a trainer because I now train technicians and their managers who have never used the software, so I had to understand their role in it. It's a different audience, right? So that was a huge help for me to be even having the right terminology to talk to managers, let alone train them.

Heidi Nielsen: Yeah, more the management style of the maintenance positions versus the technical side. But it did help me as a trainer because I now train technicians and their managers who have never used the software, so I had to understand their role in it. It’s a different audience, right? So that was a huge help for me to be even having the right terminology to talk to managers, let alone train them, right?

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Heidi Nielsen: And the other formal training is fairly recent that I’m taking is Toastmasters.

Brian Washburn: Say more about that. So how– because I know that there’s a member of our team who was very involved in Toastmasters, and she said it helps her tremendously and it had nothing to do with the content that we do. It helped the way that she presents herself. Can you talk a little bit more about the impact that Toastmasters has had on your ability to present and train?

Involvement in Toastmasters as a Way to Grow Formal Training Skills

Heidi Nielsen: Well, I’m still learning because I’m fairly new to it. But it has built a lot of confidence, and you know there’s different roles you have to be when you’re in Toastmasters to grow in the pathway. And one is like a grammarian, a timer, an evaluator, topic finder, all these kinds of things. And as an evaluator and timer, I realized, “Wow, there’s a lot of people that say ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.'” And pauses are better, you know? And now I watch and I listen every time. I’m like, “Oh, they said so many ‘ums’ in that.” And I’m almost distracted by what I’m learning in Toastmasters. I’m trying to perfect that in myself, and Toastmasters allows you to repeat speeches over and over and over and apply what they’ve been giving you back for feedback. So each speech you do is better and better and better. So it goes on for a lifetime. It’s not something you just take a course and you’re done.

Brian Washburn: I heard you explain two different areas where you got some formal training. One on the technical side, right? Even after 25 years, you went through a certification program and learned more on the technical side that helped you with the vocabulary and other things like that. The other area where I heard you getting formal training and development is through Toastmasters, which is more of a soft skill. That’s more speaking, right? And so I’d love to hear from your perspective, what role each of those played in helping you become more confident? And do you think that it’s been more helpful to have kind of the soft skills side of being able to present without ‘uhs’ and ‘ums,’ and just maybe working on your body language and coming across more confident? Or was it more helpful to have a deeper foundational knowledge of the technical side of things? Or maybe it was both? I don’t know.

What Role Have Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills Played in Your Development as a Virtual Trainer?

Heidi Nielsen: I wouldn’t put one over the other.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Heidi Nielsen: I think they’re both needed. You have to be that SME, which is that expert on the topic.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

Heidi Nielsen: So, the certification gave me the confidence fully. I mean I learned a lot of it on the job, but I was never a technician. I was never a manager in FM. So that definitely built confidence there with the background of the technical side of things. And with the Toastmasters, like you said, the soft skills is what makes you feel more confident, but it also makes other people look at you and think, “Wow, she knows what she’s talking about. There’s no ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ and pausing and it’s just more organized.”

Brian Washburn: And so for people who are listening to this– now, I think there’s a couple of different audiences who are listening to this. One are people whose job it is the train and do instructional design training. The other audience that I imagine is listening to this right now are people who might be considered subject matter experts that are trying to figure out how do they become better trainers? So for anybody who’s listening right now and trying to pick up a new skill, what might be one specific piece of advice that you’d offer that’s been really helpful for you and might help other people pick up a new skill? For you, it’s been presenting, but it can probably be transferable to learning lots of new skills.

Advice for Professionals Seeking to Build New Skills

Heidi Nielsen: Well, that’s tough to answer in one. I answered it in three.

Brian Washburn: Okay.

Heidi Nielsen: So, you can cut out whatever you want.


Create a positive and supportive environment for the participants. Let them know that you're there, even after training, that they have the support.

Heidi Nielsen: So the advice that I would share that was helpful for me is to create a positive and supportive environment for the participants. Let them know that you’re there, even after training, that they have the support. I mean, I reference documentation so they don’t feel they have to memorize things. and the second point was what we’ve already talked about, knowing the material, but also knowing the audience.

be passionate about what you're teaching. Because if you're passionate, you're enthusiastic. And if you're enthusiastic, it's going to engage them because they're going to wonder what's the hype?

And I use two examples is one was I was teaching technicians who may not have even had software training ever – they’ve always used paper. Two – teaching managers and admins at an advanced level. Also the difference between teaching kids versus adults is completely different. So you gotta know your material and your audience, and then the third one is to be passionate about what you’re teaching. Because if you’re passionate, you’re enthusiastic. And if you’re enthusiastic, it’s going to engage them because they’re going to wonder what’s the hype?

Brian Washburn: Heidi, I really appreciate you taking some time, reflecting on your own journey and sharing it with the people who are listening here. So thank you so much for giving us some time in this conversation. Thank you everybody else for listening to another episode of Train Like You Listen. If you know somebody who might find today’s topic on controlling your own learning journey to be helpful, then please do pass along a link to this podcast. Even better is if you are to listen to this podcast on Spotify or Apple or wherever you’re getting your podcast and give us a rating, or give us some comments and feedback. Until next time, everyone, happy training.

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