David White is one of our expertly skilled and experienced trainers, based in the UK. Before finding his vocation in L&D, he worked in many corporate roles, including marketing, project management and HR. He has run training for many high-profile companies and lectures in universities both in London and abroad.
David spent some time talking to us about how he became a trainer, his favourite parts of a course and why failing in business turned out to be his biggest success.
How did you get into the training business?
I always tell people that I’m not an L&D or HR person, because I spent half my career at the sharp end of business in sales and marketing management. I’ve worked in the food industry, for BT, JP Morgan and so on. So, people always ask me why I’m now in training? Well, it’s because as I struggled with the challenges of management, I realised how badly our formal education prepares us for it and how we all have to learn the hard way. But I began to feel it didn’t have to be that way, and realised I’d learnt so much and it would be good to share it with other people, so they don’t have to make all the mistakes themselves. It means that I’m coming from a business background, and I can understand what our participants are struggling with.
I got into L&D when I was working for British Telecom. Lots of clients wanted my help setting up their call centres, a key part of which was training staff in telephone technique – and I liked it a lot. I’ve also taught other organisations in the marketing sphere and I am a visiting academic at the business school at Royal Holloway University of London and at Kings College. I also run two programmes a year at the University of Luxembourg.
Do you have any particular areas of expertise for the training you run?
I suppose I’d say they’re all soft skills: sales, negotiating, team leadership, presentation skills, writing skills, assertiveness, influence, impact and project management are all my thing. My excuse for the breadth is that I’ve done all of them as part of my job, and therefore I know what a professional should look and sound like.
My favourites are probably negotiation skills and presentation skills.
Negotiation skills has some great exercises, and it’s competitive. People know whether they’ve done well in an exercise because they’ll win. There’s a real challenge going on. And in presentation skills, you’re videoing them so no one can claim they were perfect when they’ve seen themselves on video. They’re often their own harshest critic, so it’s easy for them to improve. Both of those are great fun and you can certainly see a huge improvement in performance.
When you’re going to deliver one of our courses, how do you start the day?
First of all, Speak First do all the legwork to set it up, which works pretty well. And then you need to make sure you know where you’re going – in the past I’ve arrived at the wrong building because no one told me they’d recently moved, or because the town name was almost identical to another nearby place!
I always endeavour to be there before any of the participants, so that when they arrive I can get to know them one at a time. You want people to know that you’re really interested in them and you’re able to ask them questions. Particularly with the quieter ones, it’s nice to develop a warm and friendly relationship before the others turn up. That’s the start of a typical day.
I’m a firm believer in an ice breaker to start a course. My favourite is called the helium pole where a long aluminium pole rests on everyone’s fingers, and they work together to lower it to the ground without anyone losing contact. It’s lovely because by the end everyone realises this is going to be a bit of fun and not too pompous. It’s a good fit for a number of course topics.
How would you describe your personal style as a trainer?
Very interactive with lots of stories. I want everyone to risk saying things and I really want there to be energy in the room. I often leave the slides alone and do an exercise, or write on the flipchart, because it creates a change of pace. Speak First’s materials are all genuinely excellent - the designers put together beautiful slide shows with great visual aids, core areas and trainer notes – but if you appear to go off-piste to answer a question, it means the participants feel you really are there for them. I do always get through all the material though!
One thing I always do is have the room in a ‘U’ shape, so you can walk right over to people, and I always use a remote control for the projector, so I’m not tucked away at the front. I do plenty of exercises and I tend to mix the groups up, so you’re not with the same people over and over again.
I think all trainers do the 3Ps – pounce, pause and pose. So, you might say someone’s name (pounce), give them a moment to compose themselves (pause) and pose a question to them. If people fall asleep it’s my fault, not theirs. That’s true of any performance, it’s your job to keep the client awake.
I do remember on one occasion – and I do regret this – one girl fell asleep very visibly almost straight away. I made a remark like “please try to stay with us,” and she apologised and said she was suffering from narcolepsy, which is of course embarrassing. You don’t want to humiliate people, but you do want to get them in.
As it gets towards the end of the day, do you have any particular ways you like to wrap up?
I think it’s always nice to finish with a good final exercise. So, in negotiating a good, big, meaty negotiation and then we come together to compare the results. It’s great to finish on a high, and then it’s just a case of wrapping up with a quick reminder of what we’ve covered.
I ask them to come up with one action point that they’re definitely going to do tomorrow back in the workplace, and I don’t let them say the same as anyone else. Sometimes I’ll note those on a flipchart, photograph it and send it to them to have a record of what they’ve all said.
And finally, are there any particular moments from courses you’ve run that really stick out to you?
When I run a storytelling course, as part of their introductions we get them to tell a two-minute personal story about an achievement or amazing experience. Some of those stories are amazing, and what’s lovely is that it’s a group of people who work together and they’ll have no idea. It elevates their view of that person, not because it’s shown them to be a wonderful person, but it’s shown a side of them that they never realised existed before. That’s a lovely thing to be part of.