Training: Make it sticky

Oct. 8, 2014
So long as the trainer role is unavoidable, why not be good at it? Training is made up of the combination of the subject matter, the trainer, and the learner Subject matter-centered training Instructor-centered training Learner-centered training My definition of training is that the trainee’s brain picks up and retains information

Did you always want to be a teacher? Probably not. But aren’t you one anyway?

If you’ve been in the HVAC industry more than a year or two, there have been times when you’ve had to show the new guy what’s going on. Or on a service call the end user didn’t know how to work the digital thermostat.  And if you have kids ... well that training job just never ends.

So long as the trainer role is unavoidable, why not be good at it? Why not teach in a way that what you say or show makes sense and is easy to remember. Why not make your training “sticky.”

Training is made up of the special combination of the subject matter, the trainer, and the learner. All three are critical. But which is most important?  Your answer will say something about how you think about training.

Subject matter-centered training

My dad the electrician was one who believed the subject was most important. His responsibility was to leave absolutely nothing out. Before we could talk about how to wire, we had to cover the theory of electricity, formulas for various laws, electrons, safety, mechanical drawing… It mattered not that I had no use for the details or even understood what he was talking about — the information itself was sacred.

I would put in this category thick “comprehensive” text books and graph-packed Power Point presentations. The slideshow presenter says, “I know this is a lot of information, but it’s important, so I’ll keep on going.”  Sigh...  Check the time; pray for a break; oops, got a cell phone call — I’m outta here.

Instructor-centered training

Who is this guy, strutting back and forth, flailing him arms, shouting at us like he’s a revival preacher? He adjusts his shirt sleeves so that the cufflinks sparkle just right. Whoever he is, to him at least he’s very important.  Fortunately, we don’t have many — if any — of these in our industry, but we know this type.

Learner-centered training

Remember the fourth grade science question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, is there a sound?” The training equivalent is, “If an instructor teaches a class and no one else is there, did training happen?”  That one is easy — no. (Of course you could get clever and say that maybe learning happened when the instructor figured out why no one came.)

If the instructor talked through his Power Point slides while there was at least one other person there, did training happen? Some would say yes, training took place. Everyone gets credit for attending. 

This is pretty much the definition of training in our industry and probably most others. Carol offers an electricity class. Technicians come to the training sit there two or three hours. Hopefully they get free pizza. At the end they get a certificate that says they were trained. Did training happen?

Let’s go back to the tree in the forest. The question really is about the definition of sound. Is sound simply the presence of sonic energy in the forest? Or is it sound waves that fall upon a human ear?

In the same sense, is training the presence of sound waves coming out of the instructor’s mouth? Or is it sound waves falling upon the trainee’s ear — and those sound waves being translated by the trainee’s brain into information?

To take a step even farther, let’s say we have a trainee who learns best by doing — hands-on activity. This trainee has a habit of tuning out sound, especially if it’s a voice that goes on and on. If instructor sound waves hit this trainee’s ear, is there learning? 

If the trainee is really good at tuning out, is there even sound? This takes us back to the tree in the forest. What is the definition of sound?  What is the definition of training?

My definition of training is that the trainee’s brain picks up and retains information. That means that of the three choices — subject matter, trainer, or trainee — the trainee is the most important.

Uh-oh. How can we control what happens with the learner? We have to meet the learner where he is and find ways to make information stick. This is simpler than you might think.

There is a list of how to make information sticky in the book “Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. Here it is:

Simplicity: Prioritize and present only the most important information. If you had only five minutes to make your point what would you say?

Unexpectedness: Create curiosity. You could talk all day about the theory of gravity, but if you dropped a book to show it, the trainee would certainly pay attention.

Concreteness: For the people in our business, touching and manipulating is the real deal. Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s make it go!

Credibility: This one pairs nicely with “concreteness” for us techies. Can the hot and neutral wires be reversed and labeled wrong? You betcha.

Emotions: This means feeling things for people, not abstractions. When you hear how the guy jumped to the ceiling when the wire was labeled neutral, that’s memorable.

Stories: Stories are called a mental flight simulator. Dan Holohan, one of our notable industry educators, calls himself “just an Irish story teller.”  What makes his training notable? We all connect with stories.

You, the great trainer: Even if you never thought of yourself as a trainer before, there are times when, want to or not, you are just that. You may be the official “tell ‘em how it’s done” guy. Or perhaps you’re the one who’s hissing, “Psst, by the way, you keep doing it that way you’re gonna get hurt.”

Call it what you want — teaching, training, coaching, giving a bit of advice.  When you do it, keep the trainee in mind, and “make it sticky.”

Carol Fey is author of a series of hydronics and HVAC books, including “Quick & Basic Hydronic Controls: A Contractor's Easy Guide to Hydronic Controls, Wiring, and Wiring Diagrams.” To review purchase these books go to:

Carol Fey is a veteran HVAC industry trainer and writer. She is Mountain West Regional Manager for the Viessmann Manufacturing Company,  You can find her at, email [email protected]

About the Author

Carol Fey

Carol Fey is a technical trainer and writer, specializing in easy electricity, hydronics and troubleshooting books.  She also writes about HVAC work in Antarctica. 

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