What makes learning effective? Is it the trainer or the content? If the trainer is rubbish but the content is great, can an individual still learn what they need to know? Conversely if the trainer is great and the content is poor, can the trainer still make the learning impactful? It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario for the L&D world and a challenge that few likely consider. We all know that content is important for effective learning, after all you need to have the information available in order to learn it. But we’ve all attended courses where the trainer was less than inspiring, and trying to engage with the content is considerably more challenging when it’s being channelled through someone who either doesn’t know the content well or simply lacks the passion to present it.

Is Content King?

When you attend a learning event, read a topical book or undertake some e-learning you do so because you want to learn something specific. If you attend a programme called ‘effective leadership development’ and it never mentions the word leader, or offers any advice on developing leadership skills, you’ll probably wonder why you signed up in the first place. Content is therefore vital. It needs to align with what it is you’re aiming to address in your professional development, and it should ideally solve a problem you are facing, either illuminating you to other possibilities or clearly offering direction on how to improve your performance. Hopefully it will also relate to the title attached to it and not just draw you in with false promises. Content also needs to be tailored to the audience it is intended for; if it is too high or low level then it becomes irrelevant and interest will wane.

Assuming all of these conventions are adhered to, theoretically content alone should be able to support learning regardless of the techniques and skill of those delivering it. Individuals should surely be able to simply read or listen to the content, even if it’s presented in the most mundane way, and absorb what they need to know, completing their learning fully. Yet, in practice, we know this often isn’t the case.

The Role of the Trainer

At our core, we are socially dependent creatures. While some prefer social interactions to a greater degree than others, we are all reliant on other people and have an inherent connection to them. It is the primary reason trainers and L&D consultants are so vital to the delivery of content. This is also the reason many individuals struggle to engage fully with purely text-based e-learning – it lacks the personality and social connection we need to learn most effectively. This social connection is even present when we read book-based content; topical books that have an element of personality in the way they are written are far more engaging than simple fact-based textbooks.

That being said, we won’t just learn from anyone; psychologically we show preference for people who are similar to us, or those who exude expertise and confidence. This is why we will listen to the advice of our friends but not a disliked colleague, even if they are saying the same thing. It’s also why we often take on the views of experts and disregard all other information, especially if we don’t really understand the situation or argument. An effective trainer is therefore someone who has credibility in our eyes, is confident in what they are presenting, and on some level is similar to us. With these characteristics, and a genuine passion for what they do an L&D professional can turn even the blandest content into something engaging.

But while the importance of an effective, passionate and engaging trainer cannot be overstated, if what they are presenting is inaccurate, incomplete or irrelevant, then that passion will only go so far. This is where the role of trainer and content overlap; effective learning can only really happen when the two are in alignment. The content being delivered needs to meet our learning needs, and the presenter of that content needs to deliver it in a way that fully engages us.

The challenge is that what constitutes ‘engaging’ won’t be the same for everyone. Due to the fact we are drawn to people like ourselves, the personality and disposition of a trainer can have an immediate effect on how engaging we find them. Just as content needs to fit our needs, a trainer needs to be someone we can connect with in order to maximise learning.

So, in the battle of trainer vs. content – are they two sides of the same coin or is one more important than the other? While both elements are important, it’s arguably the trainer that has a very slight edge. Admittedly they cannot deliver high quality learning interventions if the content isn’t up to scratch, but without a high quality trainer, it doesn’t matter how good the content is; it will never have maximum impact.

The role of the trainer in L&D is therefore key in imparting knowledge, but it’s important to remember that a ‘trainer’ doesn’t necessarily need to be someone standing in front of a classroom delivering prescribed content, it could just as easily be a colleague explaining how to use a piece of software. As highlighted previously it is the social element that makes a trainer so influential in professional development, and social learning can occur anywhere, at any time. As long as your ‘trainer’ is someone you respect and view as an expert, and if they have passion for their subject matter, learning will come much more naturally, no matter how dull the content may have once appeared.

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