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How to Make an Emotional Connection with Learners

Posted by Jeff Welch on 6/11/12 4:37 AM
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As trainers, we’re often tasked with presenting large amounts of content and material. Our public speaking and instructional skills must be top-notch in order to be considered effective.


There is no shortage of information on becoming a better public speaker so many of you probably have a good handle on the basic mechanics. If you’ve mastered the basics, you know how to properly organize the delivery of your training; you’re effectively using techniques to grab your audience’s attention; you know what to do in the case of a PowerPoint mishap; perhaps, you’ve even conquered the nerves and anxiety that plague a novice speaker.


But have you ever walked away from a presentation or training session with that awful feeling that you just didn’t connect with your audience? It could be due to the fact that you failed to reach the individuals in your audience on an emotional level.


There are a number of reasons for disconnects between a trainer and his/her learners (e.g. an audience comprised mostly of “prisoners,” irrelevant content being presented, rushed delivery due to poor scheduling, etc.); however, if these types of issues aren’t a factor, and you’re still not connecting with your learners, it might be worth examining the human or emotional side of your instructional style.


Don’t get me wrong, mastery of the content and the public speaking mechanics are imperative; however, it’s also important that we, as trainers, make an emotional connection during our training sessions. From my experience, you’ll have greater success connecting on an emotional level if you use the techniques that follow:


1. Make a genuine human connection

  • I’ve seen far too many trainers who do nothing but drive the “content bus” during training. Granted, that bus needs to be driven. But before the bus departs, it might be worth your while to humbly introduce yourself to your learners once they’ve boarded the bus.
  • When you introduce yourself, let your learners know about your background and experiences. If appropriate and within your comfort zone, interject something personal in your introduction. Participants usually feel more emotionally connected to you when they realize they share something in common with you such as similar hobbies, parental/familial status, or the fact that you both grew up in the same area of the country.
  • When delivering content, it might be helpful to tie in a personal story or example. Those facts, statistics, and standard operating procedures become much more meaningful when you share how that information has benefited you at some point.
  • In my experience, allowing your learners to take a peek into your world helps you make more of a heartfelt human connection.

2. Show respect for your learners

  • Whether your learners are attending a mandatory or voluntary course, we need to remember that we are presenting to an adult audience. These adults have feelings and a desire to be respected. We should treat them accordingly.
  • Avoid putting your learners on the spot when you ask them questions. Direct questions (singling out or calling a learner by name when asking a question) may make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, especially if they don’t know the answer. Although your intentions might not be disrespectful, it may be perceived as such.
  • The only time I use a direct questioning technique is when a known subject-matter expert is in the audience (who would likely know the answer), or if I’ve built some prior rapport with a learner and I’m certain they would not get offended if I called upon them. Otherwise, I primarily ask overhead questions (those asked to the audience in general).
  • When answering questions, be mindful of your tone and other non-verbal behaviors. We’ve all heard the adage, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” I attended a course years ago where the instructor encouraged us (the participants) to ask questions during the class. Only about two people asked a question because each time the instructor answered, she had a tone that implied, “Duh, any idiot would know that!” I also vividly remember her answers being accompanied with a smirk.

    The instructor shut us down with her condescending tone and actions. Not only did the two participants who asked the questions feel disrespected, but the rest of us were scared that we’d endure the same disrespect if we asked a question too.

    In my opinion, her ego got in the way. This particular instructor was a highly sought-after expert in her field. She allowed her expertise and credentials to stand in the way of making an emotional connection with her audience—which brings me to my third and final point.

3. Meet your learners where they are

As a trainer, it’s likely that your knowledge and experience, as it pertains to the course content, will outweigh that of your learners. That’s a good thing. What’s not good is making your learners feel inferior based on their lack of knowledge and experience.

During a training session, your audience is typically at a place where they need your direction and guidance. That is no fault of theirs and they shouldn’t be judged or criticized for it. We need to meet them where they are.

I once read an online article titled, “Harrison’s Story.” In giving his perspective of meeting people where they are, the author, Harrison Remy said, “I have never met a person that I couldn’t find a common thread with. Even if it wasn’t a healthy thread, I found one. It is important to find within yourself and in others, something that you can relate to. When you do this, judgment becomes very difficult. When you meet a homeless person, it only takes the removal of a few elements of your own life events to realize – I could be them.”

When it comes to the participants in your audience, it’s likely you were them at one time. Long before you mastered your subject-matter, practiced your craft, and refined your skills, you were a beginner too. That’s your common thread. When you remind yourself of that, you’re less likely to put yourself above your participants, allowing you to meet them where they are.

When you look at it from that perspective, I’m certain you’ll better connect with your audience on an emotional level. It certainly keeps my ego in check. When I consider the fact that I was once in their shoes, it then becomes an honor to me that I’m now the person selected to provide them with skills and knowledge that will get them to a higher level of performance.


So continue to incorporate all your effective public speaking and instructional skills that you’ve learned and practiced over the years. But, at the same time, always strive to connect with your audience on an emotional level. It’s a subtle skill that that separates a good trainer from a great trainer.


What techniques do you use to connect with your audience on an emotional level?



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Jeff has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Speech Communications and Broadcasting from Western Kentucky University. Before pursuing his passion for training, Jeff worked as a television reporter, flight attendant, fitness instructor, and tour guide. Jeff started his career in training at the daily newspaper in Atlanta. Training seemed to be a natural fit for him since he’s always been a bit of a performer. When at home, you’ll catch Jeff watching a cooking show, recreating a dish he’s eaten abroad, or exploring one of the many great restaurants in the Chicago area. During the summer months, he hits the road to follow the talented drum corps of Drum Corp International—something he’s done since high school!

Topics: instructional techniques, learners

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