If you do any sort of training, you’ve probably struggled to come up with good examples to drive a concept home. Nothing crystallizes difficult material like the perfect example to make it all real. Every train-the-trainer workshop you’ve ever been to has doubtless spent time worrying about this. And if you’ve ever been through the experience of having one of your carefully constructed examples picked apart at the front of a training room, you’ll know that it’s important to think hard in advance about examples you are going to present. Very hard. Because having your example unraveled is not pleasant, especially when a few dozen sets of eyes are watching you every step of the way.

Many trainers confuse analogies with examples. Personally, I try never to rely on analogies to prove a point. Why? Because by definition, situations that are analogous are different. Same with similes and metaphors. If you find yourself arguing some point by saying “a project is like running a race…”, I guarantee half of your audience is thinking “no, it’s not”. And they are right. Projects are not races. They aren’t fruit either, and they can’t be “low hanging” or “sweet”. And managing using Cpk is nothing like parking a car in a garage. I could go on, but I probably don’t have to. I’m sure you’ve seen all the classic PowerPoint slides just like I have. Points made this way are inherently weak because if pushed, analogies cannot possibly hold. Even a mild inquisitor can undo you. Sure, use these devices to illuminate and enrich understanding, but don’t base your arguments on them. You need a more solid foundation.

Which brings us back to examples. Examples have a weakness too, which is that they are inherently specific. For every example that fits your argument, there will be another example that does not. So selection of illustrative examples in the context of training becomes very important. Not only do your examples have to be clear, concise, and obviously linked to the concepts in your material, but they have to be persuasive enough that folks can easily generalize from the specific to the general. That’s a tall order.

If you ask most audiences, they will tell you that they want examples that are clearly related to their work. Put another way, they want examples that are almost the same as what they will have to do in real life. Fair enough, but as a trainer, it is practically impossible to deliver those kinds of examples unless you have a lot of prep time, a very homogeneous audience, and a big library of examples to work from. If you are teaching a lot of classes in a row, or if the folks in those classes are working on different things, or if you are treading new ground, forget about it. There’s not enough hours in a day to do it right!

Happily, there is a way around this problem. One so blindingly obvious that a lot of people miss it. Eliminate the examples altogether and work on projects live, in class. Make all the points you need to make in real time, using actual situations being encountered right now. Go straight from presentation of the concept to application in a real situation. Know your project portfolio like the back of your hand, and rely heavily on project reviews to back up your points. This is old news to folks who run kaizen events, where the journey from theory to application is often measured in minutes. But for whatever reason it seldom seems to happen in longer Six Sigma training courses. Too, bad because it’s an extremely powerful way to make points. Not instructor friendly at all, but much more powerful in the long run than prattling on about making cookies to explain interactions.

The downside to this approach is that, in the short term, folks in the class don’t like it very much. People want the comfort of easy, familiar examples. Skip those examples and your scores on end-of-class surveys will plummet. Be prepared for that. You might even lose a few people entirely. Possibly those already on the low end of the distribution, and probably those that aren’t doing project work like they should. But who you should be catering to anyway? And is the job to change behavior and deliver results, or make participants feel good?

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