How to Get Employees Talking During Training

"Now, I'd like this training to be interactive - feel free to ask questions or comment at any point in the presentation."

How many times have you said something like this during in-person legal training, only to get to the end and find you're the only one who said anything?

In this article, I discuss (1) why employees don't participate in legal training, (2) what happens to your training if employees don't participate and (3) steps you can take today to improve participation.

Why don't employees participate?

There are 2 main reasons why, despite your encouragement, in-house counsel have trouble getting participation during legal training:

  • Employees don't want to look stupid - Don't underestimate this factor. Often when people don't understand a topic or don't think they have anything of value to add to a conversation, they clam up! Nobody wants to look stupid by saying or doing something "wrong".
  • Employees are bored - You only have yourself to blame for this one. If you're reading the standard black text of the Robinson-Patman Act off a white PowerPoint background, you've lost your audience. Who wants to participate when your terrible presentation destroyed their will to learn?

What happens when employees don't participate in training?

  • Nobody learns - Look, if there's no employee participation in your training, there's no engagement. No engagement means there's no learning. It's that simple. Think about it. How likely are you to take the dramatic steps of (1) learning a new skill or concept, (2) retaining it for the foreseeable future and (3) implementing it in your everyday routines if you're not engaged with the training materials? I think it's very unlikely. 
  • Your training never improves - You should be constantly seeking to improve your training materials. There's no better way to know how to improve the content than getting immediate feedback through employee participation. You've struck gold if a slide related to an anti-corruption hypothetical inspires 20 minutes of conversation about situations employees actually encounter in the field. Think of all the valuable information that flows from that encounter!
  • The company suffers - Ultimately if your employees aren't engaged and your training never improves, how can your company adequately prepare itself to deal with future risks? Answer - it can't. Training is a critical element in any risk reduction program. Employees need to understand how they're expected to act in advance of encountering risky situations. 

How you can improve participation:

  • Be specific with your requests - Making a general request for participation at the beginning of your training presentation just isn't good enough. You need to plan specific requests for the audience when you're putting the presentation together. Isn't it more effective to ask the audience to share the last conversation they've had with a competitor instead of asking for general comments on anti-trust law?
  • Call on specific employees - I know what you're thinking, but this is not like your law professor's Socratic method. To improve participation, call on employees who can elaborate on the topic you're covering. For example, call on the employee in charge of logistics when you're covering trade compliance. Have her tell a story related to an issue with customs to illustrate compliance challenges. This will encourage other people to build on the foundation of her story, ultimately creating a conversation (and avoiding a lecture).
  • Involve quiet employees - Even if you get great participation during training, it is often dominated by a small group of employees. If you really want to build a culture of engagement, actively solicit participation from employees who are typically more reserved. While you're feeling out this strategy, you may even want to email a certain employee to give them a heads up that you may be calling on them to discuss a topic or tell a story. Involving quiet employees will inspire others who are normally observers to participate.
  • Design a better presentation - How do you counter lack of participation from bored employees? You design better presentation materials! Here are a few ideas:

Don't just give up when you don't get the participation you want. It's not easy, but if you follow some of the improvement tips in this post, you'll see more participation and more engagement during your legal training.