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How To Open A Training Session With A Bang!

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Why settle for breaking the ice when you can open your training session with a BANG!

What do you see when you watch this video?

I’ve used this particular video to kick off countless workshops when one of the key learning outcomes is to focus on learning preferences, different communication styles, and adult learning principles.

After the group has had an opportunity to talk about the video, I use the discussion to transition to a key theme of the workshop: people can be in the same room, hear the same thing, and come away with a very different understanding of what was said and what actions they need to take.

As trainers, we need to understand and plan for that.

The video is always a conversation starter. As a creative asset, it’s known as the Big Bang. Participants often ask me to show it multiple times. It had a track record of success – until it didn’t.

On the day this video imploded, it started out like any other workshop. After introducing myself and welcoming the group, I said I was going to show them a video and after the discussion, we would do introductions. On this particular occasion, I teed up the video like I always do. But, instead of just saying, “How many of you saw the dancer spinning to the right and how many to the left?” I said, “What did you see?”

That was a big mistake. Without the framing of “did, you see her spinning right or left?” I opened a space that I wasn’t controlling. As it happens, one of the participants saw something I had never seen: a naked lady. It clearly upset her, and she seemed to question my judgment for showing the video in a business setting. That would not be a great situation at any point in a workshop, but when it is the first thing that any participant says, it is a showstopper. I was gobsmacked.

This was not how I wanted a three-day workshop to begin. Not only had I obviously offended a participant, but her interpretation of the nude dancer focused the entire group on a topic that had nothing to do with what I wanted to discuss. If I didn’t take the reins of the conversation back quickly, I would be setting a tone of confusion and non-professionalism.

Fortunately, her out-of-context response was a powerful example of what I wanted the video to demonstrate – that eight people could watch the same video and see very different things.

And, as far as starting a training session with a BANG…that is my most memorable one.

Is the Big Bang just a euphemism for an ice-breaker? I like to think the Big Bang is a category of ice-breakers. A Big Bang is something that gets everyone engaged despite themselves. In theory, all ice-breakers should be a Big Bang, but too often ice-breakers have become an expected, mundane and uninspired activity. Register for required training. Check. Go to training. Check. Do Ice-breaker. Check.

The trivialization of ice-breakers became sadly apparent as I was about to facilitate a leadership training workshop. About five minutes before the kickoff, one of the participants said, “I have a bet with John over there that you’re going to start the workshop with two truths and a lie.”

“You’re going to lose your bet,” I replied, smiling.

Later, when I reflected on that conversation, what struck me is the underlying message that the betting participant was sending me. ‘I’ve been to plenty of training workshops; they are boring, uninspired and trainers always have us start the same way.’

That’s the risk of having an ice-breaker that does not have a Big Bang – if participants are already familiar with your ice-breaker they will immediately feel like your workshop is going to deliver the same old, same old. Not an auspicious way to start.

Given that many people attending corporate training are only there because they have to be, a failed icebreaker– one that fizzles instead of bangs– makes the trainer’s job of getting participants engaged even more challenging.

Big Bang activities should have three key elements:

  • Make it fun. When people smile and laugh, they become more relaxed and comfortable.
  • Create a space where participants can learn something about each other. Not just their name and job title but something about their beliefs and point of view.
  • Be able to tie the activity to a key learning outcome: Create an activity that gets people thinking and verbalizing their reason for being there.

On the day that the participant had placed a bet on the ice-breaker for a leadership workshop, my Big Bang was to show a series of pictures of six people. Their task was to identify the person and write down if they were A Leader or Not A Leader. The list had the usual suspects including Churchill and Hitler and it also had Taylor Swift. While everyone agreed on Churchill, I had deliberately included Hitler and Taylor Swift because I knew they were controversial choices that would create a passionate conversation.

The activity worked for that particular workshop because one of the key messages we wanted to communicate to the participants is that they needed to define what leadership means to them. It worked because it was fun and hearing why participants thought a particular person was or wasn’t a leader helped them begin to articulate their beliefs about leadership.

Had I used the two truths and a lie, participants would have learned some facts about the other people attending the workshop but it wouldn’t connect to what the workshop is all about.

Two Truths and a lie is a fun activity. It was obviously overused in this particular organization. The danger of kicking off a workshop with an activity that has seen a better day is that it communicates that this workshop will not be innovative or fresh. When the icebreaker starts with a BANG people are energized; they become open to learning.

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