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How to Instantly Know Your Training Audience in Only 99 Seconds

What if I told you that there was a way to easily identify a participant's individual teaching style, and that it only takes 99 seconds? Would you believe me?

It can be done, and I have successfully used this technique for the last 7 years. Better yet, it has proven to be fun for the participants and is actually one of the most remembered aspects of my Facilitation Basics Workshop. And depending on the number of participants in your course, you can typically complete this activity in 15-30 minutes.

Why 99 seconds?

The technique that I use is one that I adapted from the 99-sec presentations contest made famous (and fun) by Thiagi ( at various national Training conferences. But for my purposes in training facilitation skills, I didn't necessarily want or need the participants to deliver a presentation. What I was trying to get at was their natural teaching style.

Since an aspect of facilitation is improvisation - in this case, the facilitator adapting and adjusting the direction of the content as needed by the participants - I wanted to put the participants in a situation where they had to think on their feet. In this case, they would walk to the front, select an index card, and immediately begin teaching their fellow participants about the selected topic.

My theory was this: when put in such a situation, each participant would rely on the teaching technique they were most comfortable with.

How does the "99-seconds" activity work?

But what would I have them talk about? What if I gave them a topic they should be familiar with? That would be one less distraction, right? And it should not cause a disruption in their displayed teaching style.

So I created a list of common everyday objects, such as highlighters, q-tips, coffee filters and light switches, along with a few not-so-common objects (i.e., wooden nickles, tap shoes, suspenders, pistachios) and wrote each of these objects on a separate index card or post-it note.

When 99 Seconds begins, the first participant comes up front, takes a card, reads it, sometimes with a groan (tap shoes or pistachios usually does the trick) then begins teaching the audience how to use that object. Behind them on the screen, the timer counts down from 99 seconds (in glorious 125 pt font). When the buzzer sounds, time is up....not a second before.

Each participant has to use the entire 99 seconds. Many participants will turn around to see how much time is left; 70 seconds is the current record. Sometimes, the audience will throw the presenter a lifeline, in the form of a question, when the presenter is stuck and doesn't know what to say. But even among internal colleagues, such support is not guaranteed!

What You Learn from this Activity

What do you see from your participants during the 99-seconds activity? Styles of teaching that can be called good, bad, and everything in between. From the 700+ participants that I've taken through this exercise, what I have seen without fail is this: during their 99 seconds, the participants talk at least 85% of the time.

For a workshop designed to train instructors how to facilitate (purposefully engage their participants), instead of present (show up and throw up), that 99-seconds is a gold mine of information that helps me effectively guide the participants through the workshop. How exactly I do that will be the subject of a future post.

Why should you use the 99-seconds activity?

  • Do you need to get a read on your participants' current teaching approach?

  • Are you training instructors to facilitate more and present less?

  • Are you training brand-new instructors?

  • Are you looking for a creative way to break the ice and shake out the nerves?

  • Are you creating an improvisational, yet real-world situation to see how instructors react, while doing it in a safe environment?

Have you done anything similar to this?

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