Eleven Suggestions from A Keen, But Untrained Amateur Trainer

by Drayton Bird
(London, UK)

What I learned in school about training; the blessings of failure – and a few other rather obvious insights

About 15 years ago, I was more than a little flattered when the UK’s Institute of Direct Marketing named me their “Educator of the Year”. I was surprised, too.

I guess I am an amateur who got lucky, because I have never been trained to train. However, delegates don't normally complain. I say “normally” because on one recent course I got a set of evaluations so damning I decided I am quite hopeless.

Perhaps, then, my text should be from Daniel Defoe, who wrote: "The mariner to sail with is he who has been shipwrecked". I am constantly appalled by my mistakes and I notice those of others. So much of what you are about to read is about what to avoid rather than what to do.

Why teaching often fails

Looking back on a life generously chequered with failure, things started to go wrong at school. From an early age I loved history. So I was mortified when, at sixteen, I failed in history for my GCSE, which is an important exam in England.

I immediately asked my teacher to put me in for a retake - and forgot about it until a year later. A week before the exam I was reminded. The prospect of further humiliation galvanised me. I read the syllabus from the set books in three days and got a distinction.

This is not told to make you think how clever or even forgetful I was. But why did I fail the first time and pass the second? The answer was simple. The teacher was unbelievably boring. So boring, she out-bored the textbooks. And that takes some doing, believe me.

So my first advice is, for God’s sake, don't bore people. Try to entertain them, make sure you have lots of jokes and anecdotes to jolly them along through what can be a very long day. Every time I hear a good joke or story I wonder if I can use it when teaching.

The trainer’s worst temptation

But why do we so often bore people? A lack of jokes is only one reason. The great temptation is to show off rather than instruct. The thought of having thirty odd people who have paid money or whose employers have paid money to listen to you often brings out the worst in most of us.

We all love the sound of our own voices (nobody more than me) but delegates are rarely so enchanted. Training is not an excuse to show how clever you are. It is an opportunity to make other people clever. Too often we resort to our favourite subject – ourselves – rather than the audience’s, which is themselves. We talk about our past triumphs, rather than their future prospects.

We also talk at them, without giving them enough opportunity to talk back. When you are teaching always allow people time to respond and don't worry too much about the long – seemingly endless - silence after you say, "what do you all think? Does anyone here have an opinion or an experience of this?"

A second great error is teaching by injunction, rather than giving practical advice with relevant examples. By injunction I mean orders to 'be imaginative' or ‘set priorities’ or ‘have a plan’.

This is all very well, but unfortunately some lack the imagination to understand what you mean by imaginative, others have no idea what you mean when you talk about plans and fewer still know how to prioritise. They all leave saying, “But how?” And that is fatal, because the one thing they are there for is to know how. So tell them.

Give examples – and include flops

One relevant example is worth a ton of exhortations to do better. I have over 1,000 slides and videos, which I use for this purpose. I am always seeking examples that make particular points. Whenever I propound a principle, I try to illustrate it.

I quoted Daniel Defoe earlier. Very often failure teaches more than success. When we have done well the temptation is to go out and celebrate. This is all very well, but when we have a failure, if we are sensible we confront it, and consider why we failed and what to do next time.

After all, only God is perfect. So include failures in your examples. If they are your own, that’s even better. Admitting you have made horrible mistakes is not a bad idea. It makes you more credible; it is often funny; and sometimes it endears you to people.

I have strong views on the notes given out by trainers. I believe most are inadequate, for a selfish and illogical reason. This was once put to me by a colleague who said I was unwise to make my notes so detailed. He felt no potential client would want to come to our agency if we gave the game away in advance.

One thing you should never do is have too many words on your slides. This causes lingering death by PowerPoint – for you and the audience. Pictures are more fun and better remembered.

Don’t try to sell

But training is not an excuse to sell your services. You may well want to, and many – perhaps most – trainers try. But it is a mistake. The audience often resents it. I cannot think of any business I have gained through overt selling and I try hard to avoid the temptation.

No less an authority than David Ogilvy, for whom I have unbounded admiration, complained about my doing too many seminars. "Why do you keep giving away all our secrets, Drayton?" I quoted Kipling, who wrote a poem pointing out that people can copy just about anything except the way you think. I think people worry too much about their precious secrets.

I also said training people did me good. Every time you train you are forced to consider what you are talking about. Anyhow, you are if you want to do a decent job. Sooner or later those who constantly repeat the same thing by rote bore themselves and their audiences. As do those who don't think about what they are teaching every time.

Your notes should not merely give delegates a vague reminiscence of what you said, with a few pictures and the odd cryptic point. They should be so comprehensive and clear that when people leave they can put them to work immediately. So the notes for the events I run are full of checklists delegates can use and refer to.

Repetition – and surprise

Some of the principles of teaching are so simple that today many teachers appear to have forgotten them. The most basic is that we learn by repetition. That is why the times table or little songs to learn the alphabet when we are children work so well.

But another thing that makes things stick in the mind is a surprise. So try to introduce surprises into your training. These, again, are often best presented in the form of examples. In my own talks I frequently get audiences to try and guess the results of various tests. Many of the answers come as a great surprise.

There are many things I have not covered here because you already know them. There’s getting people to introduce themselves to everyone at the beginning and give you a detailed reaction - what they now call feedback – at the end. There’s also the need for plenty of exercises – some with a competitive element; the danger of droning on too long, and especially overrunning, which is depressingly common.

My greatest sin is not taking enough interest in each delegate. Perhaps the best trainer I know is an old colleague, Brian Thomas, who was the managing director of an agency I once owned. I have never seen anyone take so much interest in his delegates. He deserves the Educator of the Year Award far more than me.

I have always suffered a disability so crippling that I stand amazed I have succeeded at anything, let alone training. Some people cannot put names to faces; others cannot put faces to names. I can do neither and I am grateful that so many people – even some I have trained - still talk to me.

An 11-point Check List


1.Don’t be a bore

2.Don’t show off

3.Don’t just tell them what; tell them how

4.Use relevant examples

5.Feature failures – including your own

6.Don’t try to sell your services

7.Have fewer words, more pictures

8.Make your notes comprehensive and practical

9.Don’t ignore the power of repetition

10.Surprise people

11.Take a genuine interest in delegates

Drayton Bird has long been one of direct marketing’s best known teachers and authorities.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing named him, with others such as Tom Peters, Ted Levitt and Philip Kotler, one of the 50 individuals who have shaped modern marketing.

As one advertising agency head has commented, he “doesn’t just teach. He inspires you.”

He was the leading trainer for Ogilvy and Mather direct worldwide, later creating and conducting a special training course for American Express senior executives. He was named Teacher of the Year by the U.K. Institute of Direct Marketing. Click here to find more about him (a lot more)!

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