11 Adult Learner Turnoffs (AKA – don’t be THAT facilitator!)


Confession: Sometimes, I’m probably not the best participant in a training class. Not that I don’t WANT to participate or learn, but it’s just too easy for me to observe the facilitator and “compare notes”, rather than participate in what the group is doing. It’s not always a bad thing, necessarily…typically, I learn something, take away an idea that I want to recreate, or maybe…get a reminder of what NOT to do. So, today, I’m putting myself in the shoes of adult learners. Not long ago, I wrote a piece on adult learning philosophy (you can check it out here), but I’d like to take that a step further.  What is it that really bugs adults about a training facilitator? Here is a list of 11 turnoffs you should avoid when leading a classroom session:

1) The “Infomercial” Trainer

Sure, energy and enthusiasm is a good thing, but too much enthusiasm about your subject matter can be conveyed as insincere.  No one wants to be shouted at, even in a “positive” way.  Watch your caffeine intake!

2) The TMI Trainer

Keep your personal stories and anecdotes to a reasonable level. Now, it’s a good thing to build a connection with your participants. If everyone is sharing kid and pet photos during a break, feel free to show off your sweeties, too.  But when your presentation is full of irrelevant personal stories, you know you’ve gone a bit far. If you have a personal learning moment or endorsement for the training – a tip, perhaps, or maybe how the training helped you understand the subject matter better, that’s absolutely fine. Just keep it professional and remember the reason you’re there….to facilitate learning.

3) The Unprepared, Unknowledgable Trainer

Your participants trust you to give them the skills and knowledge they need for their jobs.  They are taking time out of their busy schedule to spend with you.  Make sure you are well prepared for your session, down to the smallest detail. And if you aren’t knowledgeable about your subject matter, it will show. Knowledge breeds confidence, and confidence breeds credibility. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more.

4) The Trainer who Accommodates Latecomers.

“We’ll just give everyone a few more minutes to show up, then we’ll get started.”  I know you mean well, and you don’t want anyone to miss anything, but you have a starting time for a reason. Your participants need to show up on time; if they know you will start whenever they decide to show up, you are enabling that negative behavior, which only punishes (and annoys) the participants who made an effort to be there on time. Tough love, perhaps, but if your session starts at 9:00 a.m., make sure you are starting at 9:00 a.m.

5) The Rigor Mortis Trainer

Okay, yuck….sorry if that’s a bit creepy. What I’m getting at here is the trainer who stands in one spot – completely stiff – throughout the entire session.  Move around! I’m not suggesting you dance on the tables or run laps around the room, but natural movement is a good thing.  Stiff and awkward sends the message to your participants that you are uncomfortable in front of the group, which only makes them uncomfortable watching you. If this is something that you struggle with, a good tip is to ask a trusted colleague or your manager to observe you while facilitating sometime, and ask for feedback.

6) The Out-of-Control Trainer

By “out-of-control”, I don’t necessarily mean crazy or unpredictable. I mean poor classroom management skills. It might be easy to think that “classroom management” is something only school teachers need to deal with, but it is a very, very real thing in the adult learning environment as well. We mentioned late-comers earlier. There are a number of other issues that can plague a training session, such as:

  • Disruptive participants – hijacking conversations/topics, asking irrelevant questions, walking in and out, arguing with the facilitator or other participants, sleeping during the session, etc
  • Disengaged participants – spending more time on the phone, emailing, or other “multi-tasking”, or simply zoned out and not paying attention

As the session leader, it is your job to keep these situations under control as they arise…even better, create an engaging environment to prevent these issues altogether. Check out some great insights by my friends at Langevin about managing difficult participants for a few helpful tips.

 7) The Know-it-All Trainer

“Knowledgeable” doesn’t mean “Know-it-All”.  Sure, you might have the answers the learners are seeking, but don’t talk down to your participants.  Often, turning a question back to the participants is a great method for overcoming or preventing this turnoff.  Adults bring a great amount of experience and knowledge to the table; capitalize on it! As a facilitator, you don’t always have to feed them the answers. Let them come to some conclusions on their own, when the topic permits. If a discussion gets off-base, or if the learners are not coming to an appropriate answer or solution, guide them in the right direction.

8) The trainer who overdoes silly games.

Games and interactive exercises can be a fantastic way to spice up your training sessions. In fact, “gamification” has become a trendy little concept in our industry that relies on the mechanics of games to solve problems or engage learners. If you are a fan of games, please keep the following in mind:

  • Keep games brief and relevant, so they are a compliment to your training.
  • Be mindful of your audience – not everyone enjoys competitive activities.
  • You are dealing with adults. Avoid games that are overly silly or childish (unless, of course, you are training a group of clowns, novelty store owners or comedians. Then you may have some flexibility on this one).

9) The trainer who reads slides directly to the group, rather than expanding on key points.

This is one of my pet peeves. I know how to read. If I could get everything I need from the slide deck itself, just email it to me, and I’ll read it myself.  Have you been there before?  Trainers, be knowledgeable about your subject matter, so you can speak to it with confidence.  This goes back to #3, so I will leave it with this:  Use slides or other visual aids sparingly. They should compliment your presentation. They should not be a crutch.

10) The trainer who crams too much content into the session.

And worse yet…doesn’t plan for short, frequent breaks throughout the session.  Adults need breaks.  I won’t get into the science of timing your modules in this post – that’s another discussion – but just know that planning an agenda is a skill that is learned over time.  What I will say is, trying to cover too many topics in one session is only discouraging retention and learning transfer.  Learners need ample time to process the content that is being presented to them, apply it in the session and receive feedback about what they’ve learned.  Trainers, I urge you…plan your agenda and your content wisely. Find balance, and make the most of the time you have with your learners.

And finally…Adult Learner Turnoff #11:

The trainer who doesn’t end the session on time.

People are busy.  If someone is expecting a session to end at 4:00, make sure you end by 4:00.  People have emails to answer, voice mail messages to listen to, meetings to attend and kids to pick up from daycare.  In other words, they have lives outside the training room.  Plan your agenda accordingly, so you can wrap up on time.  In fact, people will rarely complain if you wrap up a few minutes early.  Even 5-10 minutes is appreciated!

So, that’s quite a list, eh? There are a number of things that can irritate adult learners.  It seems like a lot to remember, but GOOD PLANNING and MINDFUL CONSIDERATION of your audience will help a learning professional create an environment that is engaging and conducive for adult learners.  The rest is up to you, the facilitator!

Your turn: Can you think of any other adult learner turnoffs?  How do you overcome them in your training sessions?

Like it?  Share it!

25 thoughts on “11 Adult Learner Turnoffs (AKA – don’t be THAT facilitator!)

  1. Michelle says:

    Ha! Jeff, you are not off the hook on this one! You know I want your feedback here! What other turnoffs do you see your workshop participants working to overcome??

    • Jeff Welch says:

      Well I’m not going to speak for my participants, but I will admit to being guilty of a few of the 11 turnoffs. None of us are perfect and becoming a skilled facilitator is certainly a learning and growing process. As a new trainer many years ago, I would have been thankful for a blog like yours because as Maya Angelou says “When you know better, you do better.” In most cases I didn’t know any better. So thanks for the insight. Michelle, not only are you changing the world one flipchart at a time, but you’re also influencing trainers all over the world, one blog at a time! Keep ’em coming!

      • Michelle says:

        Jeff, you are so kind. :) You are absolutely right – we are continuously growing and evolving…whether it is refining our personal facilitation style, adopting new techniques or simply learning from others. And I’m so glad to learn from you…you’re one of the best!

  2. Michael S. says:

    Under Classroom Management – control the “Chatty Cathys”. This can be “Chatty Chads” as well. As the facilitator of learning, be sure that you are not overbearing, but that your audience members are not either.

    • Michelle says:

      Hey Michael! This is a great point – it’s so important to find balance between maintaining control of your room, while encouraging dialogue…without letting the “Cathys” and “Chads” take over! Thanks for your comment – it’s great to see you here! :)

      • Meredith says:

        I am really pleased you mentioned the Chad’s! One of the turn offs for me (probably number 1) is the unconsciously (or consciously) gender or otherwise biased trainer … “Can one of the men help me move tables?”, “maybe the ladies can get lunch ready”, ‘you guys!’, “do any of you ladies need to get home for school pick ups?” …. GRGRRRRRR this turns me off at hello! Even worse when it extends to things like … “I know how you French are with food” or “This process map should make you German’s happy!” …. I mean seriously!

      • Michelle says:

        Hi Meredith!

        Oh, definitely! I know how easy it is to slip and say “you guys” to a group without even realizing it (sometimes even to a group of all females – yikes!). Over the past few years, maintaining an inclusive workplace AND learning environment has certainly become increasingly important. As facilitators, it’s important to be aware of the role we play in creating an ideal environment, and being hyper-aware of our own tendencies/habits and really working on it. Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Tiffany Crosby says:

    Good list. I agree with all of these. I would also add these:

    1) the distracted trainer – checking emails or text messages during breaks or small group activities sends two very bad messages. You’d rather be somewhere else and what they are doing is not worth your attention. Breaks are time for you to socialize with the group informally. Group activities is time for you to roam and connect on a more one-on-one basis.

    2) too many visuals – less is more

    3) too many objectives – have a main theme and stick to it. Tie everything back to it. You cannot drive proficiency in everything. Focus. Focus. Focus.

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Tiffany! I love your additions to the list; I see a common theme: too many distractions, too many visuals, too many objectives. Sometimes, less really is more…and I think we all need reminded of that sometimes! Thanks for joining the conversation!

  4. Dawn Stanyon says:

    Good article, Michelle. I have to laugh – one of the best trainers I know read your article and IMd me simply saying, “Everyone wants to see pics of my dog.” ;>) Her dog is pretty cute.

    • Michelle says:

      That’s awesome, Dawn! Making a connection with our participants is so important in facilitation…the name of the game is moderation, right? I know that’s hard to do when you want the world to see the cutest dog ever! Thanks for sharing…have a great day! :)

  5. shannon zolar (@SMZolar) says:

    Great article! You hit so many great points!! While you covered it inside other items, not preaching the information is a big one. I have seen too many trainers who are so busy proving THEIR expertise that they lose sight of the fact they are there to give OTHERS knowledge.

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Shannon! I love your comment…you are absolutely right; it’s NOT about the facilitator. It should always-always-always be about the participants! From the first mention of a training need, until the session (online course, etc) wraps up, the objective should never stray from that core principle! Thanks for joining the conversation!

  6. Catherine Davis says:

    Thanks, Michelle. I will be sharing this with my ID team.

    As you mentioned, I often find that facilitators try to cram too much into a session and/or don’t watch the time on their own proposed agenda. I suggest assigning a “time keeper” from the group if you are facilitator who really struggles with this.

    Also, if there is a need for more content than a session can allow, create a community space for post-training activities to keep the synergy of your training event alive. You and the participants can share more in-depth articles and links to other resources for ongoing learning and networking. Provide tweetable references to your event, publish your presentation, etc.

    • Michelle says:

      Hi Catherine! I definitely agree with your “timekeeper” suggestion…it’s a great way to keep a trainer on track, if that is a challenge. I also really like your idea for a post-training community. Creating a LinkedIn group, a Ning page or even something as simple as a Twitter hashtag can give participants a collaborative platform to continue the conversation long after training. Such a great idea – thanks for sharing!

  7. Andrew Barry says:

    Haha this is a great list! I stumbled upon this doing research for virtual facilitation techniques. I can see so many of these being relevant now in a world where more and more training will take place online. Thanks for this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.