Jennifer was an excel whiz. The things she could create in excel were mind blowing, but not quite as mind blowing as the way she moved through the functions. Like a wizard on fast forward, she flew the cursor through the screen, jumping from function to function, and producing masterpieces.

“Ok so now you all understand”.

Except no one understood! Whilst everyone was very impressed by what she did, no one had a clue how she did it, which was unfortunately the whole point of this training session; to teach people how to do what she can do.

Jennifer’s problem was something called The Curse of Knowledge. When we know something so well, we can do in one step what other people need one hundred steps to accomplish. We forget all the minute details that make up the skills we have, because we’ve already naturalised and automated them, and actually forgotten them as well.

We gave Jennifer a brief round of applause for effort but acknowledged the challenges she was having training this. So, we asked her to run it again, but gave her a simple piece of advice; “Step back”.


Step Back

What does that mean exactly? It means to get the learners to do more, whilst you step back and watch. But we all knew this would be hard for Jennifer, because even she didn’t realise all the steps she was taking. So, we decided to make it a game. Every time she forgot to step back, we’d shout “Pause” and explain to her how she should have stepped back just then. And it worked so well.

As she ran through, and we hit the pause button and recorrected her, gradually she started to remember all the steps she had naturalised so many years ago. And instead of explaining these steps to everyone, she asked people to guess, she gave hints and asked people to try, she invited volunteers to come to the front and give it a go.

The end result was an incredibly engaged audience who were hanging on to her every word and action. They actively volunteered, they asked lots of questions and they remained interested throughout. But more importantly, they remembered everything they learnt.


Learning Takes Time

Now one implication of this approach is that Jennifer had to cover less content. Her goal was to get people to make a chart, then format the chart to match the company’s branding, all whilst making it neat and tidy as well. There were actually a lot of steps involved in this, and a lot of functions and shortcuts people hadn’t seen before.

In her first session she rushed through the whole thing in 10 minutes. In the second session, where she stepped back and invited more interaction, she only managed to get up to creating the chart, and it took 20 minutes. This is the reality of learning; if you take shortcuts, people forget.



How to Step Back

To step back, you need first to invite the learners to step forward. And to do that, you need to give them a challenge to complete.

In Jennifer’s example, one of her steps was to convert a table into a chart. So, once they had made the table, she pointed at it and said to the learners “Now we need to convert this to a chart, how can we do this?”. As you can probably imagine, volunteers were coming forward and offering their suggestions. Such a simple technique led to such high levels of engagement.

So, the next time you are training and need to step back a little, remember the following steps:

  1. Focus on one step at a time
  2. Present the goal of the step
  3. Challenge learners to show how to achieve the goal
  4. Give feedback to help them, or praise if they successfully complete it