Introduction to Adult Learners: Creating Presentations and Trainings for Impact

In a post a few weeks ago, I highlighted some of the best parts of the professional development training event that I designed and conducted in Denver. What I didn’t mention were the sessions that could have been better, including the one where attendees started to leave while I was still talking.

The sessions that went well all had two things in common: I spent time planning and they were designed around adult learning principles.

I’ve been studying adult learning for the past few years and it’s been a challenge to find general resources on the topic that can be applied to a variety of situations.  I’m putting together a comprehensive resource collection that I’ll share soon – keep in touch!

In the meantime, this post will help you think about designing your presentation and/or training around adult learning principles so that your learners will be more likely to retain and use what they’ve learned.

Step One: Determine What You Want Your Learners to Take Away from The Training

My rule of thumb has always been to ask, “If learners can only take away one thing from this learning experience, what would it be?”

I know, I know, we always want learners to take away at least three things, but the reality is, unless you’re putting together a super hands-on, relevant training that directly applies to what your learners are going to do when the session is over, I would consider having them remember one thing to be a resounding success.

step one blog post

When I was working for the organization that helped me find my love of instructional design (ID), what we wanted our learners to do at the end of every session, regardless of who gave the presentation, who the learners were, or the content of the session, was to visit our website and subscribe to our blog.

We wanted our learners to take action, or do something when our presentation was over. But first, they needed to know how to do it.

I’ve found this to align with most professional development opportunities where the learners need to know or do something as a result of what they’ve learned.

I know it’s a bit more complex than this, but this is an introductory post. I’ll go into more detail about learning objectives another time. If you really can’t wait, I recommend this resource on writing learning objectives.

There is one specific adult learning principle to consider here, if possible:

adult learning 1
According to Malcolm Knowles’ 4 Principles of Andragogy
Step Two: Determine Who Your Learners Are

I want everything I design to be a learning experience, not another mandatory session or hour-long waste of a valuable lunch hour (also known as the standard webinar).

Designing a learning experience is a lot easier if you know who your learners are. Of course, this is one of those things that can get complicated, even political, but at the very least, try to find out who you can expect to be in your audience.

If you have attendee lists available, check them out for sure! I get a bit obsessive about attendee lists because they contain so much valuable information, but I’ve found them to be often overlooked.

Here’s how I use attendee lists for ID purposes:

I always look first to see if I know anyone that’s attending or coming to my session. That way, if you haven’t planned the exact content to cover, you can ask someone you know what they want to learn.

This is more than being social, it’s abiding by another adult learning principle:

adult learning involved
According to Malcolm Knowles’ 4 Principles of Andragogy

Asking the audience at the beginning of a session what they want to learn works too, just use their questions to provide context as you present, if you can.

After scouring for any familiar names, take a look at the titles – are there more managers, entry-level attendees, or gasp, VP’s and high-level folks?

Maybe you already know who’s coming. Perhaps you give the same monthly overview to new hires or you’re preparing for an annual event for a national network of new directors.

In my former life, I received a request to do a general presentation of what my program was all about, which was to provide technical assistance to a national network of refugee employment service providers. The request came from the organizer of an event that another program in my office was putting together – Children’s Services.

It would have been easy to provide the same old 45-minute schbeel about what we did and how they should subscribe to our blog when they left the session, and that’s what we were asked to do.

But I just couldn’t do it – our standard presentation was for adults that worked with adults, not adults that worked with kids.

I wanted them to learn something they could actually apply when they got home.

In the end, I’m not sure it was worth the effort it took, but I was able to build my Piktochart skills and put together a damn good youth employment resource guide for anyone that ever needs one.

For more on this topic, I recommend this learner analysis resource ).

Step Three: Determine Where You’re Presenting

Is this going to be an in-person event or a virtual one? In today’s fast paced, high tech world, it could also be a combination – a blended learning approach.

Regardless of how your presentation is going to be delivered, there are so many options for designing great trainings, it just takes a little creativity and hard work.

If you’re designing a webinar training session, do some research on the software. Look to see if you can upload resources for learners to instantly download, or my favorite, encouraging interactivity with quizzes.

If it’s in-person, do you know anything about the room? It’s amazing how much the setup of a classroom can impact the effectiveness of a training.

Here’s an infographic that covers classroom setup.

If you’ve ever been thrown off by the setup of the space you had to train in – virtual nod of understanding and apology.  It’s kind of the worst. But, as I’ve heard “them” say, the show must go on.

We had some significant space challenges in Denver, but we made it work. A computer lab wasn’t our first pick for the motivational presentation without slides, but it worked, and the assessments for this session were some of the best of the entire event.

Copy of Day3-35
The crowd loved it when he tripped over the cords. IT did not.

This group of managers/supervisors was a lot bigger than we anticipated, but the real leaders must have emerged when this session moved into the hallway for a productive, safe and structured way to discuss the difficulties of managing a staff.

Copy of Day3-21
When the room is too small, head to the hallway!
Step Four: Determine When You’re Presenting

If you’re scoffing at why this is even a consideration, I’ve got three words for you: after lunch session. If you’ve got this time slot, I’m sorry, and I can relate.

The dreaded after lunch time slot needs something a little extra to get learners back and ready before the “three o’clock slow down” kicks in. Regardless of what you’re covering, if you’ve got this time slot, try to get people up and moving around at some point during the session.

Be prepared to end the session a little early if you’re right before lunch – we’ve all found ourselves packing up early to be the first one in the lasagna line. Respect your learners’ time and they’ll respect yours.

Did you know that there are best practices as far as when to offer webinars? According to ON24’s 2017 Benchmarks Report, the best time to offer a webinar is mid-week, which I’ve found to be spot on.

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 11.16.27 AM
ON24 Webinar Benchmarks Report 2017, page 7

For other great webinar stats and industry benchmarks, check out the full report.

Step Five: Determine Why You’re Presenting

As my dog would say, listen babe. No really, our dog Emmett, he talks and calls everyone “babe” – it’s so embarrassing.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re not just presenting because you have to. You’re like me – you want the people in the audience to learn something. You want them to walk away feeling like, “Yes! I can do this!” – whatever “this” is.

Sure, you’re not going to get that sort of passion and enthusiasm from a group of learners coming out of a session on mandatory reporting requirements, but imagine a world where you hear “That story about that office and how they botched that one requirement was crazy – I’ll never make that mistake!”

That reminds me of another adult learning principle:

Adobe Spark
According to Malcolm Knowles’ 4 Principles of Andragogy

The only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is learning from someone else’s. I always share my mistakes if they’re relevant to the conversation – personal stories help your learners feel more comfortable and can be a great way to build a quick connection with them.

For me, I take pleasure in the little things. Part of my holistic design strategy for the Denver Workshop was a free surprise resource bonanza on the very last day. I had been saving up posters and every piece of free snazzy gear I could find for a year. It was a resounding success with attendees, so I’m glad I paid that extra luggage fee to bring it along.

But nothing made me happier than when an attendee came up to me with a poster in his hand and said, “Thanks, I finally got something out of this event“.

Now that’s good design – a little something for everyone!

By figuring out the who, what, why, where and when of your presentation, you’re already designing with adult learners in mind.

Here’s one last resource – this one pager triggered my interest in adult learning principles, and after looking at it again for this post, I’m reminded why!

Keep up the good work and let me know how I can help!

Have fun learning, y’all!

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