If at first they do not learn, train, train again

(Image by amboo who? via Flickr)

(Image by amboo who? via Flickr)

Here are some words of encouragement for anyone asked to train people in a newsroom: You will fail.

Within weeks after your training is complete, you will realize that some people are doing poorly at whatever you taught them. Some are doing the opposite of what you said. And some aren’t doing it at all.

The encouraging part is that it happens to every other trainer, too. Even if you design the perfect class, you won’t have immediate, 100% success. In a newsroom, training can fail — in this sense — for many reasons.

The lessons got mixed up with conflicting advice about the same task

Part of my job was to teach people how to use the principles of search engine optimization to help their stories show up higher in Google lists. I taught SEO classes across half a decade. Certain rules stayed the same throughout, such as using key words in the headlines. But the specifics may have shifted: At first, we said the most important key words had to be in the first two words of the headline; that softened. Priorities changed or got clarified: In my initial training, based on what I thought I’d heard from those who taught me, I had people putting the names of criminals or crime victims at the start of headlines even if almost no readers would know who they were; later, we eased off. To try to fend off confusion, I learned to emphasize what was changing.

There are other potential causes for confusion: Someone read an article about the subject that disagreed with you. Their bosses boycotted the training and didn’t know what you taught, or just didn’t want their staff to do things that way. Those mix-ups can’t be fixed in the original class; they require follow-ups to track down why things are being done wrong.

They didn’t go to class

I never achieved perfect attendance for training. Vacations, breaking news, or sheer indifference kept people away. Some came late or (sometimes and) left early, or missed the middle to answer a phone call. Some were present in body but not in spirit; I caught reporters shoe-shopping during a blogging class.

We tried to schedule classes as conveniently as possible: Keep them to an hour or less at a time. Offer the same class on different days or different times to catch people who work weekends or night shifts. Use a sign-in sheet to keep track of who came; track down the missing while there’s still time to catch a class. For the few who legitimately cannot get to a class, provide one-on-one training.

Support from on high is critical as well. The top bosses should attend and participate in all training; setting an example is important. They also need to make it clear that middle managers must also attend, and must make any needed accommodations to give their staffs time to learn.

You, the trainer, need to be aware of what’s going on in front of you. Look around the room. Are all eyes on you or the screen? Don’t just lecture; ask questions to keep people on their toes.

They didn’t understand the class

A 1964 Sports Illustrated profile of minor-league manager Rocky Bridges contained the classic quote “I managed good, but boy did they play bad.” This is how you’ll be tempted to think about the classes where some people walk away and later prove to have had not a clue about your subject. And, yes, some people just won’t get it. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. It may just be the shock of the new: They’re overwhelmed by the information, and worried about how they’ll deal with this new task. It sometimes helps to salt classes with people from the newsroom who’ve already mastered the task, or some parts of it, to serve as role models and reassurance.

Sometimes, the ones who didn’t get it were distracted by worries — about the fight they had with their spouse the night before or the one they expect to have with their boss that afternoon. This is one reason to underline the most important points in your presentation in every way you can: Repeat them. Turn them into rhymes or mnemonics. Introduce them with theme music! Good trainers cannot be easily embarrassed.

But maybe the problem is your teaching. If you know the subject well, you may skip needed explanations. If you don’t know it well, your explanations may be confused. It helps to have a practice class before you launch into full training. Pick some people you trust to give you honest feedback, and listen to it.

Oh, and I’m presuming you set the classes up properly in the first place — that you’re teaching the task, not the tool.

They’re human

Learning is a continuous process. The more complex the task, the more likely that one class or one round of training won’t be enough. It’s perfectly normal to have to repeat training at regular intervals not just to update the newsroom on changes, but to refresh memories and point out common errors.

It’s also wise to extend the training outside the classroom. Print handouts that the staff can keep at their desks for easy reference. Send out weekly newsletters or at least short emails pointing out good examples and repeating the core principles. Walk up to individual staffers and praise them, loudly, for a good job. Or walk up to them and explain to them, quietly, what they’re doing wrong.

I frequently heard people in the newsroom who knew their stuff complaining with frustration and annoyance about those who didn’t. “We trained them and trained them! I sat down with him six times and walked him through it! How can she not get it right?”

Welcome to teaching, I thought. If you’re in a factory, you make a widget the right way and it comes off the assembly line properly and that’s it; that widget works. If  you’re a reporter, you check your facts and your spelling and have the story edited properly and that’s it; it’s correct. Widgets don’t nod their heads and pretend to understand. Stories don’t rewrite themselves. But people may not tell you if they don’t understand. And what they walked out of the classroom knowing may be turned upside down by something they hear or read afterward, or may be pushed aside by other concerns.

And, yes, some may just not want to learn. We got a Bloomberg terminal in our business section many years ago and trained every reporter how to use it to get certain data for corporate earnings reports. One reporter in particular didn’t seem to get it. Each time an earnings came up, an editor would have to join the reporter at the terminal and walk through all the steps. Eventually we got tired of this and insisted it had to change. Surprise: The reporter stopped bugging us, but the numbers showed up properly in her stories. Success? Not so much. We discovered the reporter had simply targeted colleagues. They’d gone through the same cycle of walk-throughs, and decided it would be even simpler to do it all themselves and hand the reporter the numbers.

Similarly, we had a reporter who screwed up every blog post, usually in pretty hideous ways that were obvious to anyone coming to the site. This wasn’t just an errant piece of code that showed up in the middle of a story. This was an entire story in 24-pixel-high type, or photos that disappeared and left just their outline boxes behind. And again, the end result was that this reporter usually got someone else to do the work, figuring it was easier to do it, correctly, than to try to fix the mess afterward. I swear some journalism schools have courses in passive-aggressive behavior. But that’s not a training problem; that’s a management problem.

With all of this working against you, you will fail as a trainer. But if you set the courses up properly and do your best, you’ll also succeed — a lot. And, at least for me, that was very satisfying.