Teach People How to Practice

If your work involves teaching people new skills, don’t focus on what they need to learn. Focus on what they need to practice.

Imagine you wanted to teach people how to play hockey. You might bring them to an ice rink, give them some equipment, tell them how the rules work, and let them try it out.

Now imagine that you wanted to make people good at playing hockey. You’d have to do something more than just teach them how to play, right?

You’d also have to teach them how to practice.

Going to workshops can feel a lot like learning how to play a game. You get new skills, someone shows you what to do, and maybe you try out what you learned. It can be exciting, inspiring, even revelatory — but if it just gives you skills, it won’t make you better.

What makes you better is practice.

It’s a lot of effort for your brain to learn something new and integrate that knowledge with everything you already know. That’s why it’s so difficult to do other things while learning new skills, and a big reason people take workshops in the first place: distraction-free learning.

The problem arises after the workshop: if you have to remember to practice, other things in your life will make it easy to forget. None of us live in a workshop. We all feel stress, we all get busy. That’s why real behaviour change occurs only after a new skill is practiced — ideally, to the point of becoming your “new normal”.

Let me give you an example.

I help people talk about their ideas. There are lots of ways to do this, but if I really want to change peoples’ behaviour — make people better at talking about their ideas — I need people to practice what I teach.

(In fact, they need to practice a lot. If you’re teaching any kind of communication, you’re essentially trying to change behaviours a person has developed over a lifetime.)

When I work with someone, we make small changes to the way that person already communicates with people. (That’s the new skills part.) We then use role playing to see how these changes feel using actual scenarios from that person’s life. (That’s the practice part.)

In other words, I teach people how to practice.

After the workshop, a simple postcard next to their computer reminds clients how it felt to learn a different way of communicating. Every time they send an email, they see the card; have the feeling; remember the learning; and practice the tool.

Think about it: if you send 20 emails a day, that’s 100 a week; 400 a month; and 4,800 a year.

How good would you be at something you practiced nearly 5,000 times? Certainly, a lot better than you are right now.

If your work involves teaching people new skills, don’t think about what they need to learn — think about what they need to practice.