From nothing to something: How to create learning experiences on the fly


Creating learning experiences on the fly is one of the many talents of Master Facilitator and Performance expert Thiagi.

Here’s just one example of an experience he recently created, and highlighted in his monthly newsletter. What you’ll find is that facilitating meaningful discussions on leadership, communication, and teamwork doesn’t necessarily require a 50-page slide deck or months of instructional design time.

What it does require, is a willingness to a) use what’s in the room (not just the materials, i.e. chairs… but the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of your participants) to co-create a meaningful and impactful learning experience.

Here, Thiagi recounts a recent training session where he walked into the room to see the chairs arranged in a single line.

I took one look at the room set up and thanked my lucky stars for providing the perfect arrangement for an experiential exercise. I told the participants to organize themselves into four groups of six. I asked one person in each group to act as a non-participating observer. I assigned myself the observer’s role for the group that had only five members. I asked each group to spend 7 minutes to plan how to rearrange the chairs in the room to permit teamwork and small-group discussions. I called the observers and gave them specific suggestions on what to watch out for.

After the 7 minutes of planning, I asked members of each group to hold one-on-one conversations with the members of the other groups. After about 5 minutes, I asked the groups to revise their original plans to please the members of the other group. Each group presented its final plan. The plans included removing all the chairs to the hallway and conducting a stand-up session, arranging the chairs in six clusters of four, arranging 24 chairs in a large circle, and letting each participant own a chair and carry it around whenever a new configuration was required. We conducted a poll to choose the best approach (which turned out to be each participant lugging his or her chair around) and spent 5 minutes implementing the plan.

This activity provided valuable experiences related to communication and leadership. I conducted a debriefing discussion with these types of questions: Who assumed the leadership role? Who talked the most? Who came up with the best ideas? How did you listen to the others in your group? To the people from the other groups? How did you attempt to persuade the others? Who kept track of the time? Who took notes? What would have happened if I assigned the leader’s roles to specific participants?

These questions and the responses from the participants and the observers formed the foundation for leadership and communication principles and procedures that we explored for the rest of the day.

Instead of lecturing about leadership to begin the session, Thiagi designed a simple experience for his participants to learn by doing – and to guide the debrief towards specific learning outcomes.

Simple, yes. Effective, yes…  if we can create the conditions and ask the right questions to pique curiosity and spur reflection, then we have more tools already at our disposal than we realize.

Learning, and the importance of personal relevancy

“See them first” is a phrase I learned several years ago from an incredible, kind, mentor of mine.

I admit, when she first shared this phrase with me, (and others, in her book) I didn’t really understand how to put it into practice when facilitating or designing an experience for others.

To her (and now, to me) “See them First” is a critical piece of gaining psychological safety, trust, and clarity with a group or an individual up front, whether it’s in a coaching, training, or leadership capacity.

So what does this phrase mean? Do I just need stronger contact lenses? Perhaps. Ask your doctor. But also:

At the core of it, I need to ask myself these questions:

  1. Do I, as a Leader, a facilitator, or a coach understand my learner? Have I made this understanding clear to them?
  2. Have they given me an opportunity to share something that matters to them? Read: Have they shared a learning objective, or told me something that I’m missing knowing about them at the start of a session? When a professor who was absent for the first day of a 2-day workshop walked into the class she asked, “what do I need to know about you, as a group of learners?”. Perfect example.
  3. Do your learners have “skin in the game”? I see this time and time again. Give them an opportunity to make the learning personal. It needs to matter to them. Framing and context matters, but more so is an opportunity for the learners to identify and latch onto something personally relevant to help them make meaning of the material. Seeing them first means encouraging personal relevancy.
  4. Have I started with where the learners are instead of where I want them to be?
  5. Have I made it clear I’m listening? And do I incessantly tie back to what I heard, and what I’ve promised?

Turn your learners, clients, and mentees into collaborators immediately by making it clear that you have listened and allow space for personal relevancy. Open the door to allow and encourage them to join you in co-creating the experience.

Show them that you “see them first” and then let your learners have a peek inside your process by allowing them to see YOU too. Show them the roadmap for the learning and continue to make your thinking visible as you progress, (“here’s what we’re going to do today, here’s how we will get there, and let’s talk about why”).

After all, everyone deserves an opportunity to be seen and heard.

Less Teaching…More Learning, via

It’s no secret, I’m an experiential learning junkie.  Luckily, it falls in line with how adults learn best… through action and reflection. 

Via Training magazine, here’s their 4-pronged approach to Learning and Development – an approach that reminds us (lest we forget!).. it’s all about the participant.

  1. Limit the amount of frontal lecture. Facilitators have many great ideas that we want to share with our audience. We’ve been conditioned by the preponderance of lecture-based workshops to think we’re expected to fill the time by talking—and that the more information we bring, the better. But we know from our own first-hand experience as participants in other workshops that lecture is not the path to engagement. When it comes to lecture, less is more, as long as you make sure to present impactful material. Skip the appetizers. Go straight to the main course. Deliver your content in bite-sized portions. Let the audience chew on them and digest them before serving more.
  2. Include lots of subject-focused action. Note that action for action’s sake alone is not valuable. Ice-breaker exercises such as tossing a ball to fellow participants in order to learn their names has its place, but it does not constitute action related to the subject material. Instead, design exercises that help the nuggets presented in your lectures come alive. For example, if you’re teaching negotiation skills, it’s more important that you have exercises on negotiation than on ice breaking.
  3. Relate the subject matter to the audience’s particular needs. Demonstrate how the workshop will improve their professional lives the moment they leave the classroom.
  4. Teach what the audience wants to learn. Often, facilitators establish an agenda of what we think we should teach. Instead, we should create an environment that allows participants to guide us about what they want to learn and what would be most valuable to them. Ideally, you will have the breadth and depth of knowledge—and flexible disposition—to take the conversation wherever the participants want to take it, so long as it stays on topic. This takes the guesswork out of what to say, and helps ensure that your audience is engaged and walks away with skills they will apply back at their desks.

Last Word: Less Teaching…More Learning |

5 Things Great Presenters Know About People (Video)

Great presenters know how to inform, inspire, and motivate – they know how to reach an audience because they focus on their audience during all steps of the presentation process.

What makes a presentation resonate with you?

Here’s what we know:

  1. Research shows an audience enjoys, learns more and retains more of your presentation when it’s bite-sized. Keep your presentation to 20 minutes or less (TED talks, anyone?!) – or if it’s longer, be sure to change it up every 20 minutes.
  2. Take away the sensory channel  competition – an audience is learning and listening with their eyes and ears. A presentation with text-heavy slides distracts from your talk.  If the audience is reading they aren’t listening. A trick – prepare your presentation first without the help of slides – if you still need visuals, then opt for some power point back up. Slides should complement your talk, not replace it or mimic it.
  3. What you say is only part of your message – we unconsciously make 1 second or less decisions about others. Beware of your body language and tone. Non-verbal communication matters.
  4. You’ve motivated, inspired, and informed your audience to do … what again? Don’t forget a call to action. Get specific about what you want your audience to do next.
  5. Monkey see, monkey do – audiences imitate emotions and feel what you feel – so, lead with passion! Your body language will be a big give-away if you’re not feeling your topic.

For more tips, in fun-to-watch illustrated form, check out this video!

How to make learning relevant and personal in the emerging workplace

I have a confession that might shock you.  This toolkit that I have here, well, it’s not all online and virtual.

In fact, here’s a picture of my real toolkit….er, toolkits.

It’s filled with articles, book chapters, my curriculum, notes, ideas. Truthfully, it sits in my house taking up space, until I need it. But I feel comfortable knowing it’s there because I created it.

It was a way for me to take a more active, reflective and personal role in my learning journey.  True it’s a lot of information, but to compile it I had to sift through and find what resonated, applied – what mattered to me.

Shouldn’t that be what all learning is about?

In this age of information overload – learning at work needs to be more relevant, personal and applicable than ever – otherwise how can we retain it all?

I often come across professional development opportunities where participants leave with a pre-made binder filled with articles chosen for them, answers filled out, and way too many case studies.

Companies seeking compliance may sleep better knowing the “tools” have been handed off.

But we can do more than just check learning off a list.

We can make learning relevant, personal, and applicable.

Make it easy to digest, give learners the opportunity to control their learning – even ask them to compile their own toolkits.

Information that sticks with you is information you seek out and have a general interest in.

Build the toolkit, feel safe knowing it’s always there to come back to, and give learners the opportunity for autonomy and mastery in order to help them be more engaged.



Give & Take – Training the art of negotiation

A negotiation is rarely a winner-take-all event. Instead it is often a give-and-take. Therefore, our ability to perform and achieve negotiation prowess is determined by listening, trust, empathy and observation skills.

These teachable skills allow individuals to focus on the other person, and allow them to build rapport with their negotiation partner. It is a delicate process of finding and building connections instead of barriers.

Companies all over the world are employing training techniques (many derived from the Improvisation world) to teach the art of negotiation.

This article from Training Magazine  highlights many of these efforts, including the work being done at BATS Improv in San Francisco.

Improvisers learn how to:

  • Listen and react
  • watch for body language cues
  • pay attention to tone and inflection
  • use and be comfortable with silence
  • build trust by finding shared connections
  • become more aware of intent vs. interpretation
  • learn how “status” (dominance vs. submission) is a performance choice we are constantly making
  • create collaborative conversations
  • embrace failure
  • use role-plays and practice scenarios in a safe environment

Read the full article here: Give & Take |


How to design training with introverts in mind

Designing training programs and initiatives to help bring out the best in your employees and help them collaborate and communicate better is hardly a one-size-fits all approach. Just ask Susan Cain. 

Not only must we consider the different ways we all learn, but it’s equally, if not more important to design training that allows both introverts and extroverts to succeed.

Roughly 40% of us (including myself) are introverts, meaning our energy comes from solitude, as opposed to other people. At work and at home, introverts need quiet time and solitude to arrange our thoughts and process information.

Often times, brainstorming sessions or meetings favor extroverts – it is often a scenario where being the best or loudest talker is more important than having the best idea.

So how can we design training programs, Improv classes, and brainstorming sessions that truly allow room for all of us to succeed and where we all feel welcome?

Most importantly, how should we design classes that allow introverts to feel more comfortable expressing their ideas? In a room full of extroverts, it can be difficult to feel heard. Here are some suggestions:

1. Add in some alone time

  • Timeouts fuel introverts thinking, creativity and decision-making. In order for introverts to do their best work, this must be acknowledged. Extroverts can benefit from some solitude as well, to develop insights and learn to rely more on their own thoughts and ideas.
  • alone time also allows introverts to process information
2. Adjust full-group discussions 
  • Debriefs are such a crucial part of Applied Improv and many professional development classes. For introverts, adjust some full-group debrief to small groups or one-on-one’s where more authentic discussions can be had
  • Encourage participants to write down thoughts as opposed to sharing them out loud – self-reflection is still taking place
  • Encourage in-depth questioning of games and activities to allow more time to process each segment and its lessons

3. Celebrate our differences, remember our similarities

  • Acknowledging the differences between extroverts and introverts is important. The more we can get to know our colleagues and our different working styles, the better we can communicate and collaborate
  • Learn “how to make your partner look good”, develop empathy and connection
  • Always circle-back to your overall purpose and mission as a team. Truly make an effort to allow both introverts and extroverts to shine. Pushing people out of their comfort zone is important, but having a home-base to return to and re-charge will make the journey easier for many.

What’s the drill – February 23: Can you name the 7 types of intelligence?

Did you know that humans have seven different types of intelligence? According to the theory set-forth by Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University, we each have (at least) seven types of intelligence:

  1. linguistic intelligence (thinking in words and using language)
  2. logical-mathematical intelligence (quantifying and working with hypotheses)
  3. kinesthetic intelligence (acquiring physical skills)
  4. spatial intelligence (three-dimensional thinking)
  5. musical intelligence (working with pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone)
  6. interpersonal intelligence (interacting with others)
  7. intrapersonal intelligence (understanding one’s self)

What’s the drill for today reminds us we use more than linguistic and logical intelligence at work, yet training initiatives typically only focus on these first two types.

We need to be exposed to training that involves and engages all of our intelligences so that we are better equipped to navigate our every day lives.  Luckily, experiential training accomplishes this task!