Tips For Effective Corporate Training: Information Is Not Instruction
Matej Kastelic/

"Telling Is Not Training" And More Tips For Effective Corporate Training

I recently read an article in a large industry periodical announcing an upcoming conference that would feature a renowned communications specialist. The president of the company hosting the conference explained that the featured speaker would "give the next set of tools to allow us to be more successful as sales professionals". Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read similar announcements describing the knowledge and skills a group or organization will acquire as they listen to a professional speaker. As I read these announcements I often wonder to myself; what will the speaker do to pass new knowledge and skills to their audience? Will the speaker give a speech or will they actually instruct their audience? Ringing in my ears are the words Dr. Merrill spoke during the first lecture I received as a doctoral student studying Instructional Design, "Information is not instruction" (Merrill, 1996).

Components Of Effective Instruction

Research and experience tell us that effective instruction includes 5 essential components; 1) explanation of the skill, 2) demonstration of the skill, 3) opportunity to practice the skill, 4) corrective feedback during the practice and 5) assessment of skill acquisition.

This article will describe each component and evaluate whether or not the typical speaker includes them in their typical presentations. I will also suggest ways the component could be effectively implemented in a speech.

Component 1. Explanation Of The Skill (Talk About The Skill)

The first and most basic component of training is an explanation of the new skill or knowledge the audience members are expected to acquire. This component seems to be the easiest and most natural for most speakers to include in their speeches. While acquisition of a new skill or ability typically requires some amount of foundational knowledge or information (i.e. the value and purpose of the skill or ability, contextual knowledge regarding the environment or situation in which the skill will be used), information or explanation about a skill is typically not sufficient for one to acquire a new skill (Merrill, 213, p.23). Effective instruction will always include a detailed description of each step one must follow to successfully complete a required task.

Ask yourself: Can a speaker explain the value of a retail salesperson responding appropriately to "I’m just looking" customers? Yes, absolutely. Can a speaker describe the steps a retail salesperson might follow when responding to "I’m just looking" customers? Again, the answer is "absolutely". Unfortunately, such detail is rarely ever included in most speakers’ presentations. Negligence can generally be attributed to 2 primary reasons. 1) Either the speaker lacks the necessary knowledge to discuss the steps, or 2) The speaker has mastered the skill so well they are no longer think in terms of distinct steps of the procedure. In other words, the steps in the procedure have melded together to become a single event.

For example: To teach an audience of salespeople to respond appropriately to customers who say "I’m just looking", the speaker would begin the instructional sequence by explaining several things about the skill. At a minimum, the speaker would assure the audience that "I’m just looking" is a common customer response and should not be taken personally. The speaker would also explain the value of learning the skill. Most importantly, the speaker would name and describe each step of the procedure for responding appropriately to customers who say "I’m just looking". They might follow these 4 simple steps 1) Let the customer know it is okay to look, 2) tell the customer something useful about the store, 3) encourage the customer to share the reason for their visit, and 4) let the customer look about the store.

Component 2. Demonstration Of The Skill (Show The Skill)

After the skill has been explained the instructional experience should become a demonstration. Merrill (2013) reminds us that this component is referred to as demonstration because it connotes the idea of showing the audience the application of the information. Most training is heavy on the tell and very light on the show. Textbooks typically lack the capacity to include a skill demonstration. Videos, on the other hand, can be an excellent medium for demonstrating a new skill. Unfortunately, most speakers focus on the explanation component, and rarely demonstrate the skill.

Ask yourself: Can a speaker present multiple demonstrations of a person responding appropriately to an "I’m just looking" customers? Absolutely. A meaningful demonstration requires the speaker to 1) know the precise steps of the skill and 2) explain the steps to the audience (Component 1).

For example: After explaining the skill, including the steps of the process, the speaker would demonstrate the skill. The best demonstration is an actual encounter during which the speaker demonstrates each step of the procedure. True fidelity is not typically practical in a large presentation setting. Instead, the speaker could either show video clips of someone carrying out the procedure or invite members of the audience to participate as actors in a series of demonstrations prepared in advance. Multiple demonstrations showing the skill in a variety of situations ranging from very simple to more complex will help the audience to understand the steps as concepts rather than simply as memorized phrases.

Component 3. Opportunity For Skill Practice (Practice The Skill)

Practicing a skill is the application of the new information in a real life (or mock) situation. While most speakers probably agree with the notion that practice is necessary for learning to occur, they typically fail to include practice in their presentations. While not impossible, the practice can be difficult to design, develop, and implement with an audience, particularly a large audience. Failure to include practice, however, prevents audience members from thinking about and applying a new material to the way they do their jobs. Practicing the skill in routine problems enables learners to use the skill in new and non-routine problem situations (Mayer, 1998). Rosenshine (2012) says that effective instructors "provide a high level of active practice for all students". If listening to speakers was all that was needed for learning to happen, then school teachers and university professors across the world would stop assigning homework, holding labs, and taking field trips with their students. They would replace those activities with additional lectures. Actual instructors know that practice is necessary for learning and change to actually occur for their students.

Ask yourself: Can a professional speaker provide an opportunity for audiences member to practice a new skill? Sure they can, although the difficulty level is likely to increase as the size of the audience increases.

For example: The speaker could divide the audience into groups of 3 or 4. Two members of each small group could role-play the new skill using a pre-written scenario. At the conclusion of their scenario, the remaining members of the small group could role-play the second scenario. This sequence could be repeated as many times as is necessary. The scenarios could be written out and displayed on a large screen or distributed on printed handouts.

Component 4. Corrective Feedback During Skill Practice

Receiving feedback during the practice of a new skill results in improved performance (Mayer 2008). Indeed, practice is greatly enhanced when the learner is told what portions of the performance are correct and which portions need to be changed.

Ask yourself: Can a professional speaker provide corrective feedback during a practice activity? Yes, although the difficulty level is likely to increase as the size of the audience increases.

For example: Members of the small groups who are not participating in a particular scenario could act as mentors and provide corrective feedback to those who are participating in the role play. The speaker could invite a few of the small groups to present their scenarios for the entire audience. The speaker could provide feedback regarding their use of the new skill.

Component 5. Assessment Of Skill Acquisition (Quizzes And Tests)

Merrill (2013) writes that the main purpose of an assessment of it to gather information about the effectiveness, efficiency and engagement level of the training. In addition to those purposes, the State of Victoria (Department of Education and Training) state the 3 purposes of assessment as 1) help trainers make inferences about learner progress to affect their instruction, 2) help learners reflect on and monitor their own progress, 3) help teachers make judgments about learner achievements. While information about the assessment tool is certainly useful to trainers and Instructional Designers, the more important value of an assessment is information the audience members can gains. The learner acquires a true understanding of their understanding and ability in regards to the new skill. That understanding either instills a need for additional training, or it instills confidence that they are prepared to successfully complete their job.

Think about: Can professional speakers assess how well audience members have acquired a new skill? Yes, they can.

For example: The speaker could use a projector to show multiple depictions of the skill being used at varying levels of effectiveness. At the conclusion of a scenario, the speaker could pose a question and ask audience members to select their answer raising different color flags (i.e. red = true & green = false). The correct answer can be shared once the speaker has ascertained how well the audience answered the question

In addition to these 5 necessary components of effective instruction researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered that "Immediately after the average person has listened to someone talk, he remembers only about half of what he has heard—no matter how carefully he thought he was listening". They also found that "Two months after listening to a talk, the average listener will remember only about 25% of what was said. In fact, after we have barely learned something, we tend to forget from one-half to one-third of it within eight hours". Rosenshine’s research shows that effective instructors "reteach material when necessary". Unfortunately, motivational speakers are rarely inclined to teach and reteach their content. Their audience members typically have only a single chance to absorb the content presented to them. The BigSpeak Speakers Bureau website states that 65% of all Fortune 1000 companies partner with them to advise and contract thousands of engagements. The website also states that "Studies have found that even mid-level producing salespeople improve productivity and revenue by at least 20% when they are coached consistently". In other words, consistent coaching is required before one can expect a significant improvement in productivity.

The Value Of A  Speaker

I can get pumped up and excited when I listen to a great speaker. Some of my best friends and favorite people are professional speakers. I’ll even admit that the entertainment value I get from listening to a motivational speaker can far surpass what I might get from a concert, Academy Award-winning film, or even an NBA game.

The objective of a motivational speaker is to inspire an audience while the objective of a trainer is to increase the knowledge and skills. Kristi Hedges ran a nationally ranked PR firm where she trained hundreds of CEOs and professionals leaders to be better presenters and speakers. She gave up her practice when she discovered that "for most people, public speaking training is not worth the time nor the money". And that students "could have nearly the same information (and save thousands of dollars) from reading a presentation skills book on [their] own".


HR managers should consider the purpose of engaging speakers for their organization. If they want their workforce to be temporarily inspired and entertained than hiring a motivational speaker may make sense. Those who engage professional speakers should ask themselves some pointed and important question before signing any agreement. What reasonable expectations should be placed on a speaker for events such as the one described above? What Return On Investment can be expected? Is it reasonable to expect a speaker to actually teach or train, or to just to entertain? Is there value in gathering a group of employees together to listen to a professional speaker? There are limits as to what a professional speaker can deliver and those who engage them must understand the limits. In regards to teaching and training, the limits are based primarily on research and experience in the science of instruction.