When I was just out of college a roommate and I realized somebody was going to have to learn how to cook. As I was the more-frequently unemployed one that fell to me (she was better at cleaning, which is still not part of my skill set). We didn’t have that fancy internet then so I relied on cookbooks, usually from the library and some donated by my dad, often in the form of church-and-women’s clubs fundraising collections of favorite recipes.
Somewhere along the way I picked up the first edition of Marina and John Bear’s wonderful How To Repair Food. Now in its third edition with their daughter Tanya Zeryck, the book told you what to do after things went wrong, and what to do next time. There are wonderful tips for things like desalting soup, rescuing overcooked brussels sprouts, stretching stew, and adding flavor to bland peaches. Also why you should always have a can of evaporated milk on hand, which spices to keep at the ready, and what to do if you have too much of something -- including unexpected guests. Among other things the book taught me that very few mistakes are the end of the world, that nearly every failure can be rescued, and if something is beyond repair you can often improvise something else. (TL;DR: Almost anything can be improved by throwing some cheese on top.) But let me be clear: How to Repair Food is not a cookbook. Rather, it tells you what to do after you’ve started and things are going wrong.
Fast forward a few years to 2003 when, as book reviewer for Training Magazine, I received an advance copy of the first edition of Jennifer Hofmann’s Synchronous Trainers’ Survival Guide (now in its 11th edition), a common-sense compilation of tips Hofmann described as “a diary of things that went wrong and how I fixed them”. It offered reassurance at a time when virtual training was new to, well, all of us, and helped me become an early adopter of the approach. This ended up serving me very well.
As I reflect upon the "just jump in and train" course of action some have adopted these past years, the two forementioned books have come fresh to mind. The juxtaposition of the two books got me thinking about how so much of what we do involves sometimes excruciating needs assessing and documenting and lesson-planning and facilitator-guiding. And the fact is: You can’t plan for everything. Some days you end up with 1/3 the attendees you were expecting. Or three times what you were expecting. Or there’s the technology-fearful participant who, after elaborate coaching and encouragement to set up his computer, decides to work from home that afternoon using a different computer. Or despite your expertise and a producer in the background the &*%$ slides simply will not load. Or your mic crackles today when it has not crackled before, nor will again. Or just as you are starting a program news comes that the thing you are teaching people has just been changed by HR. (My own favorite: Jennifer’s story of trying to run a class full of participants on dial-up internet the day the whole world was downloading the just-released Ken Starr report about the Clinton presidency.) Or you name it. You’ve probably been there.
Alas, I have no magical technical advice or research-based solutions for you. Here are some suggestions, though:
- Focus on your goal for the event. Slides won’t load? Your job is not to read slides about office ergonomics. Your job is to help others learn about office ergonomics. Switch to video and demonstrate things yourself. Take a 5 minute break and find some websites with similar content you can share. And is there a way to just eliminate the problem? A past Insync blog post says: If the video is causing the problem, consider turning it off.
- Watch your language. I remember a friend’s mother wringing her hands while announcing that Thanksgiving dinner was ruined because the rolls had burned. Ruined. I have long fought the phrase “disaster recovery” as—really? In the scheme of things is disaster the right label?
- Don’t harp on the problems –fix it, move on. You don’t want your session to be remembered as the day that trainer freaked out. And remember that panic, angst, and fear can be contagious. Try not to telegraph your emotions to your participants.
- What resources are available? Always have links handy as well as the phone number for someone – next-level support, the platform’s support, your own IT department—who can be reached live during the event.
- Learn to punt. The more experience you have the better you’ll be. Work with different products. Watch other facilitators. Don’t throw up your hands and leave the technology up to someone else: Pay attention to how a good producer troubleshoots a problem – especially with a frustrated, half-listening participant – and make yourself notes about what the fix was.
- Of course it’s best to head off trouble as much as you can. In addition to reading the latest edition of Synchronous Trainers’ Survival Guide keep a record of your own lessons learned for next time. Much like reading through a recipe before you begin, be as proactive as possible. Have a pre-session checklist. Rehearse. Test under what Hofmann calls “combat conditions”. If you typically use a particular platform or work with challenging content, know what situations you encounter most often. Know your content and plans backward and forward so that you can flex when something unexpected happens -and be very clear on what it is you are supposed to be accomplishing. Fill your toolbox with strategies for dealing with high-maintenance participants, managing large groups, quick troubleshooting tips, and the like.
- Finally: Don’t let the moment run away with you. This isn’t the end of the world, and don’t signal to participants that it is. Take a breath and think about how to move forward. Try to find the humor in the situation: SocialKNX founder Gina Schreck and I still joke about the day we broke the Internet but used pink duct tape to fix it. (You had to be there.)
Many lessons from How To Repair Food can transfer to our work, like know how to spice up bland things, stretch limited resources, and accommodate surprise guests. Perfect though your exquisitely prepared plans may be, sometimes things just go off the rails. Keep breathing, communicate confidence and attitudinal vitality, and help all your guests enjoy the meal – even if you end up sending for takeout.