How to make Training awesome – using brains!

Earlier this month I was fortunate to attend an evening session organized by the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD). The speaker was Michael Bungay Stanier, founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that ‘helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work’.

Under the title The Neuroscience of Awesome Training Experiences, we spent 90 minutes learning about some key principles to ensure that learning audiences retain what they learn and stay engaged throughout learning events.

The group of attendees was a mixed bunch, from recent university graduates to seasoned training professionals planning their post-retirement life. I shared my table with two guys who design training interventions for airline pilots, a broadcaster and facilitator and a woman who trains university lecturers on how to be better teachers.

So what is the secret of awesome training?

In keeping with the overall theme of this blog, the brain plays a crucial role in whether we get anything out of training events we attend or not.

And before you say ‘Of course it does – that’s the organ we learn with!’, I actually mean the very primitive part of our brain which kept us safe when we were barely more than monkeys and had no idea about webinars or classroom presentations.

How does our primitive brain impact our learning experience?

As Michael put it: ‘There a specific question our brain asks itself about 5 times per second: Is it safe here or is it dangerous?’ This happens unconsciously but creates a frequent trigger for our brain to evaluate the risks and rewards of a given activity and divert attention away from our learning experience to any (perceived) threat or more rewarding stimulus that should be attended urgently. A very useful function indeed when our environment was full of large animals that wanted to eat us! Learning however, requires activity in the prefrontal cortex, a relatively new part of our human brain which handles complex mental activities such as creative thought. To prevent this part from disengaging, we have to keep our primitive brains feeling safe and rewarded.

What makes our ‘monkey brain’ feel good?

According to Michael, there are four important factors which need to be addressed so that the primitive brain can perceive a situation as rewarding and keep reaching a ‘safe’ verdict while we focus our more evolved brain areas on learning and complex thought:

  1. Tribe – belonging to a group makes us feel good and safe. During every interaction, our brain always wants to know: ‘Are you with me or are you against me?’
  2. Expectations – knowing what is happening provides a feeling of safety (only up to a point though where it starts to get too boring and people zone out)
  3. Rank – perceiving one’s own social rank as higher than others’ increases positive feelings and engagement
  4. Autonomy – having a choice is a very strong driver of motivation and provides a perception of being in control (David Rock (2008) makes the same argument in his SCARF model of non-monetary drivers of human behaviour- see my post on The Social Brain)

You can argue that some aspects of these four factors would have a contradictory effect (providing guidance to manage expectations and allowing for autonomy for example). There is always a trade-off between areas which needs to be evaluated in light of the audience and training situation

Practical tips on how to address these factors as part of your next learning event


  • Introducing yourself personally to each participant before the session – shake their hands if you can as physical contact reinforces a sense of belonging
  • Get the participants to spend some time in different pairs sharing personal information and saying each other’s name – this should be an icebreaker exercise early on – before the presenter gets into any king of lengthy introduction to the session
  • If there is food, can it be eaten before the event, in groups?
  • Say people’s names when reacting to their input or asking questions – make sure everyone in the room wears name tags, even those whose name everyone already knows
  • Ask a few ‘polling’ questions by show of hands – this emphasizes similarities between group members and makes them feel more like a tribe
  • Setup the room in a way that you can get physically close to all participants – don’t spend all your time at the front of the room
  • Prime the group for mental bonding by asking questions that include everyone’s attitude towards the group (e.g. ‘How much do you care about this group getting something out of this session?’)
  • Make people laugh together
  • Make the participants compete together against the presenter
  • Manage cynics by keeping group work to small groups. This way, they cannot spread their negativity too far and they cannot ‘opt-out’ of the activities easily either.


  • Use verbal framing to provide clues to the structure of the event (‘the next thing we will look at is…’)
  • This can also help prime your audience (‘you are really going to enjoy this next bit…’)
  • Don’t be afraid to use direct language (‘I want you to…’)
  • Providing some guidance on how to start an exercise can also save time and remove socially awkward situations (‘the tallest person goes first’)


  • Encourage and accept all contributions from the audience by reacting positively, regardless of the content. Receive ‘wrong’ answers enthusiastically and, if needed, ‘add’ the correct answer as an additional perspective
  • During the personal introduction, ask audience members about their areas of expertise
  • When asking questions, start with something choice-based – this way there are no invalid answers
  • Never cold-call on one particular person – don’t put anyone on the spot
  • If applicable, tease someone more senior in the room
  • Receive questions from the audience by asking them about their thoughts first before answering
  • Crouch when talking to someone who is sitting


  • Allow people choices: let them select their partners for group or pair activities
  • Invite people to write down choices they have made to increase engagement (this could be answer to a question, their priorities for the course, results of self-assessed engagement levels etc.)

So who’s in charge?

Some of these practices effectively remove status and control from the presenter. Even though it may not feel right at first, this is a good thing! All the power you can relinquish goes straight to your audience and will make them much more engaged and more likely to retain the content of your learning event!

If you thought this was interesting, I highly recommend that you attend one of Michael’s events and check out the great resources he provides on his website.

He is a fantastic presenter. Watching him in action, implementing all of these strategies and more, makes for an amazing learning experience. I cannot remember when I last left a workshop this energized and remembering so many things we covered.

What are your secrets for amazing training experiences? Have you tried to use findings about human cognition and behaviour to better reach your audience? As always, I would appreciate your feedback and comments on this post.


Bungay Stanier, M. 2015. The Neuroscience of Awesome Training Experiences. Workshop hosted by the Canadian Society for Training and Development in Toronto on 1 April 2015.

Rock, D., 2008. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal 1.


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