The Importance of Alumni: How They Create A Safe Zone To Your Courses

The Importance of Alumni: How They Create A Safe Zone To Your Courses

On May 5, 1954, no human had ever run the four-minute mile

Then May 6 dawned.  And at an athletic meet watched by 3000 spectators, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Just 46 days later, that record was decimated by a whole second by Roger’s rival, Landy.  Today that barrier has been lowered by a chunky 17 seconds. What seemed impossible at the time, is now considered not just doable, but doable with great poise and confidence.

The alumni creates exactly the same factor for your course: They show how doable it is

When you start up a course, you do your best to make it as easy as possible to achieve. And it’s more than likely that you want to get this message of ease across to the course participants. But they don’t see it that way at all. Often they see you as the maestro, the person they hope to be, sometime in the future.

But at least at the start of the course, there’s a huge mismatch. Despite their best intentions and bravado, the participants can’t see themselves replicating what you do. But the alumni prove that they’ve broken the four-minute barrier. And they create an atmosphere and end point that any new participant can envision. And in doing so, they create a series of winners for you—all breaking the four-minute barrier.

But the usefulness of the alumni doesn’t stop there.

They’re critical in creating a safe zone, and they do so in many ways:

1) They tackle the questions that may seem ‘too hard to ask’

2) Smoothening out the bumpy logistical issues

2) They share their experiences in great detail.

1) Tackling the questions that may seem ‘too hard to ask’

When a person just begins a course, they feel a great deal of intimidation. You may do all you can to get them to relax, but they’re clearly out of their comfort zone. And the alumni helps them relax. Now, instead of having to deal with you, the head honcho; the big shot, the new participants may prefer to deal with the alumni instead.

While they may hesitate to ask you questions, they find it a lot less intimidating to ask the alumni the very same questions. This gets the new participants relaxed and this relaxation is very important. If the participants feel agitated, it creates a big barrier to their learning. Once that wall is down, they can actually let their hair down, have fun and speed up their learning.

If that’s all the alumni did, they’d be super-useful, but it doesn’t stop there. The logistical issues can bury a newcomer. And the alumni does a lot to smoothen out the bumps.

2) Smoothening out the bumpy logistical issues

Let’s take the Psychotactics cartooning course, for instance. Part of the course requires you to post your cartoon online and link it back to the forum (ah, your eyes are glazing over already, aren’t they?)

Well, when you’re a newcomer on the course, it’s more than just the logistical issues that bug you. You may have logistical issues AND you may be opposed to posting online OR not want to do this, or do that. Usually someone in the alumni has gone through the same logical nightmare and trepidation (big word for ‘bubbling fear’) as you. When they describe what they did, and how they resolved the issues, you know you can do it too.

And of course, all issues can’t be covered. There’s always something that’s missing

But that’s where the Ask Alumni section comes in. If you have a place to Ask Alumni, you know you can always fire away, and get a response. It’s always a lot harder to deal with the head honcho (that’s you, who’s holding the course) because you may feel you’re interrupting, or that your questions are too silly. But it’s not that hard to ask Alumni.

What’s also interesting, is that these issues come out only right at the start of a course. Once a week or two has passed, everyone’s mostly settled in. Which also brings up an interesting point: Participants need to be comfortable BEFORE the course, not get flustered during the course. So it’s important to get them to interact for a week or two BEFORE the course begins.

That way all the issues (logistical or otherwise, can be ironed out) long before the course rockets away. With the questions out of the way, it’s time for the third biggie: sharing their experiences.

3) They share their experiences in great detail

The experiences of the alumni are critical for one reason alone: Every one of their experiences are utterly unique. Yes, some experiences may overlap, but there’s still a massive factor of uniqueness about every single one of them. On the Article Writing Course, for instance, one person wrote about how she overcame years of bullying and how the course helped her. Another talked about how his speed cartoons amazed a child on the train.

All of these experiences pop up, in strange and wonderful ways. But the struggle comes through as well. When the alumni add their joys, struggles and how they battled with resistance, the incoming batch know they’re dealing with people just like themselves. It’s very, very hard for a newbie to identify with the maestro, no matter how similar the experience, but with alumni it’s a lot easier.

And that’s because the alumni are folks who’ve just been part of the previous batch. Just three, six or twelve months ago, they were where the incoming group sat. And so the experiences become real.

But the problem does arise…

What if you don’t have alumni? What if you’re doing a course for the first time? Or what if you’re doing a course after a longish period? We have the very same issues at Psychotactics. In 2012, we were nudged by a client to conduct the Headlines course. We hadn’t done that course since 2010, and even if we did round up the alumni, the gap between the two courses would have been to vast to remember details. So there was no alumni to advise the incoming group. And this is the case if you’re doing a course for the first time as well.

And in this case, you can’t do much this time around, but you must then put it in your system to train the new course members to be alumni. The way to do this is to get them through the course and then right at the end for them to post advice for the next batch. Yes, the next batch may be a year or two years away, but it doesn’t matter.

The fact that the advice is already in place enables you to then port the advice over, so that the next batch gets the warm, comforting effect as they settle in. And because the alumni have given advice, they’re also keen to come back and help, but only provided you make your expectations clear, even as the course is in progress.

Alumni are almost never considered when training a group

Yet they are extremely useful to get the raw edginess out of the way. They help with logistical issues. And they share their experiences. In short, they become part of your team. They’re helping you, creating a sense of volunteerism and camaraderie. Over time, you’ll find that alumni relish this chance to pitch in and help. It’s up to you to give them this opportunity.

And all of these steps make a course more doable

At Psychotactics, some of our courses like the cartooning course are fun, yet require discipline. Other courses like the Article Writing Course is billed as the Toughest Writing Course in the World. And yet, as alumni play their role, we see 80-90% get to the finish line, despite the odds. And the reason they know they can get there is because of the alumni.

The alumni is the four-minute mile. And your incoming group knows they too, can do just the same—or even better.

P.S. Do you have a question or comment? Write it here and I will respond.

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  1. says

    Hi Sean,
    I’m adding this article to my curated list of the best stuff I find on the Internet. And the timing is perfect since I’m about to launch my first online course next month.
    Right after I read this, I added a section at the end of the last module in the course encouraging people to become Start Investing with $100 alumni and what the benefits are to them. This will be especially helpful when I launch version 2.0 (the version numbers on products and courses is another idea that came from you). Thanks!

  2. judith says

    Hi, Sean….always love your articles. Your skill at communicating ‘marketing’ in such a clear, articulate, yet subtly logical manner is unsurpassed in the industry! Especially the “why’ of it all–few marketing gurus actually explain the inner workings of one’s potential clients/students/attendees as knowledgeably as you do!

    I remember you well from the InfoGuru Forum waaay back, always was struck by your use of language/linguistics (truly psychologically tactical!) to communicate exactly what you intended to say, without selling or pushing your offerings in any way. Really remarkable psychological skill. (and that comes from a psychotherapist/coach/mentor of over 45 yrs prof practice!)

    Love your concepts around alumni–when I facilitated my “Tools for Self-Transformation” and other classes, I always invited a couple of my grads from previous classes to come on scholarship, review and participate, as it truly helped to have someone who’d actually gotten results (sometimes ordinary, sometimes profound) from these creative tools. I’d never articulated it as you did, but your experience matches and validates mine beautifully!!

    What I noticed, though, is that you hadn’t mentioned the value the Alumni/Grad gets from this experience. It’s major–almost or more than the newbies’ benefit! As the Alums begin to share, explain, support the novice, they ground their learning, their own unique experience in a new way. It’s a precious opportunity to hear and know their emerging self from a deeper perspective.

    And that becomes very self-validating (“self-referential” in clinical terms 😉 ) Which means you strive less for others’ validation, more for your own authenticity. Unique add-on post-grad credits for your alums!.

    A natural win-win-win–for facilitator, student, and Alumni!

    Thanks, Sean….great reminder of what to do and why it works!

    judith reitz, m.a.
    Inner Visions Healing Arts
    Soul’s Destiny/Conscious Health Coach/Mentor
    Energy Healing: Remote and in Person

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