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An elearning and in-person facilitation lesson from my interaction with a drug dealer

If we don't put some effort into developing rapport with our learners - either in-person or via elearning - we're making a grave mistake.

Drug-free Zone

“Come back here after the sun goes down and we’ll see how brave you are then.”

I’m pretty sure that was the first and only time someone’s made a sincere threat on my life. As I reflect on the mistake I made that led to the above quote, I think that L&D professionals make the same mistake in their instructional design and facilitation every day.  

My Interaction with a Local Drug Dealer

It was a Saturday morning and I was running a basketball practice with my GED students. I noticed that another young man – not one of my students – had dropped by the basketball court and stopped to watch us practice.

As he watched, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and started examining the contents. The envelope was full of marijuana, we were practicing at a local middle school and this guy was standing underneath a sign that clearly said “Drug Free School Zone”. There was obviously only one thing for me to do.

I walked up to him, asked if he saw the sign behind him, and asked him to put it away.

He didn’t care for my approach and let me know.

My team stopped their practice and gently extracted me from the situation.

As I reflected on the events of that morning, it dawned on me that I didn’t know this guy. He didn’t really know me. He was an adult and I certainly hadn’t treated him like one. I made no attempt to establish a connection or build rapport. I made no attempt to leverage the relationships between my basketball team and this guy.

I simply expected him to listen to me because I felt I was in a position of authority, because I said so, and because it was the right thing to do.

How often do we take the same attitude in our instructional design and facilitation approach?

Application to Elearning Design

What do the first few screens of your elearning projects look like?

In a presentation that we co-facilitated last year, my friend Mike Taylor shared his observation that way too many elearning programs start out like this:

Slide 1

And this:

Slide 2

Followed by a few more slides of navigation and administrative details until you get to something like this:

Slide 3

Which is a bit of a false start because the next screen may look something like this:

Slide 4

Elearning design like this is conventional and puts no effort into establishing rapport with the learner. Learners resent being told that they need to take training courses. Learners will give very little benefit of the doubt to a course that has put no effort into establishing some sort of rapport or engaging the learner.

But Brian, you’re talking about elearning. It’s not alive… how is it supposed to establish rapport?

Elearning may not be alive, but it can have personality. Let’s go back to a second example that Mike Taylor cited that began with this screen:

Solution 1

If you’re a cheeky sort of learner, you may click “No” just to see what would happen. This is what you’d get:

Solution 2

And then as you get started, you encounter more personality:

Solution 3

Though learners may still resent being told to take even this kind of elearning, they may be a little more willing to give the course the benefit of the doubt and pay more attention as it gets started.

Putting some effort into engaging the learners isn’t a nice-to-have. It can make the difference as to whether learners click through your course on one screen while multitasking and catching up on email on their second screen or whether they’re interested and engaged and willing to give the course the benefit of the doubt.

Application to In-person Facilitation

On presentation day, there’s a lot that a facilitator needs to take care of. Will the computer work? Will the projector work? Why are the chairs set up classroom-style when I requested round tables? Why is it that the only time the photocopy machine jams is 10 minutes before the presentation is supposed to begin?

All that said, the minute participants begin to walk into the room, we need to remember that we’re here to serve our learners. We need to establish rapport with our learners, otherwise we’re just another person telling them what we think the right thing to do is, without any regard to their actual situation.

That’s nice Brian, but what are we supposed to do?

Honestly, we don’t need grand gestures.

Welcome them as they enter the room. Learn their names and use their names when you call on them.

One thing I like to do is make a flipchart that says “Welcome!”. If I can draw a landmark representing some sort of local feature (the Space Needle for a training in Seattle, the logo of a client, the sunrise over the mountains in Colorado, etc.), then I’ll add it to the flipchart.

Another thing I like to do is surprise learners with a scrolling slide show that includes some trivia – ideally about the content they’re going to learn. It might look like this:

[slideshare id=61004143&doc=presentationskillstrivia-160417062814]

A third thing I try to do is simply connect with the learners by keeping things light. “Want to know the answer to this question… I’ll tell you after our mid-morning break!” Having a sense of humor and letting your personality slip into your delivery can go a long way toward getting your learners to accept you not only as a facilitator, but also as a person.

In Sum

Nobody – not six year olds, not drug dealers, not busy professionals – wants to hear someone say: “…because I told you so” or “…because it’s the right thing to do”.

Unfortunately, as instructional designers and facilitators, it is a message we need to deliver. The way in which we choose to deliver it can go a long way in determining whether the message lands well and inspires action, or if it inspires resentment and resistance.

How do you develop rapport with your learners?

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