Why You Need To Design Learning Around The Exit Sign

Why You Need To Design Learning Around The Exit Sign

How many days does it take to recover from conducting a workshop?

Back in the year 2001, it used to take me about a week. Three days after the workshop, I’d be utterly exhausted. And it would be another four days before I could really crawl back to work at normal speed. And it was because I was doing something terribly wrong.

I designed my workshops around speaking

You know what I mean. The kind of workshop where the speaker loves his voice and slides so much that they keep going and going. And going. And going. As you can tell all this ‘going’ had a downside. I would get exhausted and the audience was not far behind. In fact I noticed one curious thing as well. The more information I gave them, the more they kept looking at the ‘exit’ signs.

It makes no sense: Why look at the exit signs?

If you ask any of the participants the reason why they’re there at the workshop, you get a quick answer. They’re there to learn, to absorb and to cram as much information as they can.

Yet the moment you say something like “…And now we’ll go for a short break” you feel this sigh of relief. And if you’re watching, you’ll see a glimmering smile on the participant’s faces as well. It’s clear that they liked being outside the class more than being inside.

So we designed our workshops around the exit sign

But how do you do that? If the goal of the participant is to learn, how do you just let them roam free? That would cause a lot of folk to be upset and ask for their money back, right?

Not at all. You see there’s a difference between letting an audience roam free, and letting them roam free with a purpose. When you roam free with a purpose, it’s because you have an assignment to complete. You’re still out of the range of that blah-blah speaker, and you’ve got an assignment to complete with a group of other participants.

We call this our 1:1:1 system

In the first ‘1’ part, I speak for about 20 minutes. Then I give the participants an assignment. They spend the next ‘1’ part doing the assignment. They then come back to the room, and we discuss issues relating to the assignment in the final ‘1’ part. So instead of being chained to their seats, they actually learn. And more importantly it gives the brain some time to relax.

The brain doesn’t work too well with constant stimulation.

All constant stimulation does, is force the brain to keep alert. This turns out to be counterproductive both for the trainer and the participant. But given time to exit the room at regular intervals lets the brain process the information, and then come back refreshed.

The fact that the concepts learned are discussed by the group also enables the brain to break up the learning at one level. And when the participants come back and discuss the concepts, the learning is broken up even further, allowing for even greater assimilation.

Incredibly, participants loved this system of 1:1:1

Participants would often mention that they learned more in the corridor than in the classroom itself. And as a trainer that should be like music to your ears, because it means your concepts are going home, instead of bouncing right over the participant’s heads.

So we took this concept a whole chunk further

We started taking a whole day off. Yup, if the exit sign works, why not go whole hog? So when we conducted The Brain Audit workshops in the U.S. and Canada, we had a three-day workshop with a treasure hunt on Day 2.

Why would you pay for a three-day workshop, pay for an extra night in the hotel, plus food costs when the real workshop is only two—and not three days in reality? It’s because you learn better. And the results were fantastic. The more we allowed the participants to play with the concepts, the more they learned.

And there was a big upside for me as well

Because I stopped yakking so much I didn’t have ten thousand slides to prepare. And I was less tired. I found, to my surprise, that not only could I do two-day workshops, but once was able to do a seven-day workshop from one end to another. What’s important to note is that at the end of seven days, the participants were fresh and still raring to go.

Hmmm, makes sense in retrospect, eh?

We go to a workshop to listen, absorb and learn. And if the teacher just yaks, then all we’re doing is listening. There’s very little absorption and almost negligible learning. And yet if the workshop is designed around the exit sign, we all have the opportunity to listen, absorb and learn.

So the next time you feel like yakking endlessly, take a look at that exit sign.
Because you can be sure your participants are looking at it anyway!

P.S. People love the exit sign more than you think. If your workshop is supposed to end at 5pm, tell the audience that if they finish their assignments on time, everyone can go home by 3:30pm. Then watch their faces as the smiles light up. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how your participants adore the exit sign.

But don’t believe what I have to say. Just look at your audience when you talk about the exit sign. That’s all the reassurance you’ll ever need to know that the exit sign works better than you ever imagined.

Now it’s your turn. Share your business workshop experience or horror story here

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  1. says

    Hi Sean
    The exit sign strategy made me laugh. I think you are right on track with this one. My experience is of really exhausted executives arriving at programmes unable to take in anything new until they take a breath and slow down a bit. Glazed eyes! And some participants are still addicted to their smart phone, despite it being banned from the room. Slow starts for seminars and time for people to debrief together about their past weeks can help. And inviting them to jot down a few things (Privately) that they need to park until later in order to be more present.

  2. says

    Interesting Sean – really like the idea.
    I do one off full day training up to 5 days a week for 4-6weeks at a go all around NZ & Aussie and must say that adding lots of laughter, games, role plays and discussion times has made a huge difference for both the attendees and myself (usually it is the same topic day after day for a month at a time before we start a new round with new topics).
    I also start every morning asking people exactly what they want from the day and focus on the points requested.
    Encouraging lots of participation and questions also allows the individuality of the people attending to really come through. (which also helps makes each day different)
    Loving what you do is the real secret – think it was Mark twain that said “Find a job you enjoy and you will never work a day in your life”.
    Keep up the great work

  3. says

    Here’s a horror story: Company delivers regular 3 day workshops over the weekend. The SME does some research on previous participant’s implementation and finds it hovering at about 10%, so insists that the workshop should be longer and have more content. So an activity is added the night before the official workshop and an evening “mandatory” activity is added on the 2nd night. When potential attendees learned of these changes, registration went down. But the SME insisted. As the adult learning consultant, I implored the SME to consider spaced learning, interactivity, etc. as necessary components. SME rebutted with anecdotes from days in military school as a youth. 2 workshops later, I am no longer the consultant. The company laid of half its workforce within a year due to fewer participants in their workshops.

  4. says

    Being one of 200 trainee teachers listening to a lecture one how important it was for children to be active participants in the lesson. Which involved zero audience participation.

    Along the lines of your 1:1:1, in the teacher training I do now, I’ve thinned it down to allow more of what I call “Making It Real” time – for teachers to start using the ideas and in particular planning something they can do in the “Golden Week” i.e. the seven days after the training. If people don’t do something during that time, the chances of the new ideas surviving drop rapidly.

    A speaker often fools himself that what people are paying for is to hear him speak. Sometimes the audience fool themselves that way too. But what they’re really paying for is to do things differently, and the sooner they start doing the better.

  5. says

    Hi Sean
    I kept nodding my head as I read your article – yes, that was me. I used to teach Custmer Service’ to local Councils and it was interesting to note that the guys wearing the fluoro vests were always closest to the door – they couldn’t wait to escape and have a smoke. I turned this around by using their examples of customer problems to work with as a group exercise …and offering Smarties to all participants to ‘help their concentration’.

    I love the way you see situations – it’s very real. Keep up the good work!

    • says

      Thanks Dawn. Yup, people always want to ‘escape’ :) And if you work with people who work with companies, that occurrence is even greater than if you work with self-employed folk.

  6. says

    This really resonated with me Sean! I often run workshops (and find them quite exhausting – particularly all day ones) – I love the idea of 1:1:1 and will definitely think about ways that I can incorporate this in my workshops.

  7. says

    A fun formula. The first day, tell the audience members there are many experts in the room, and they can offer to teach on a topic on which they’re a bit of an expert. Have them submit their one sentence topic. Put them in Google Moderator, and have the group vote up or down the topics.

    You end with a list of desired topics and speakers. Then let the speakers know that they’ll be speaking the next day, and for how long. We did this with a group of 25 AmeriCorps members, and the variety of topics and passion was incredible. They tailored their topics to what they thought their fellow AmeriCorps members would want to learn. Obviously, it was very little work for us organizers, but extremely valuable to the participants.

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