For the past few months, my colleague Elio and I have had the great pleasure of working together with the Centre of Studies for Peace and Development (CEPAD) in Timor-Leste, to develop their training manual teaching community members across the country about corruption, collusion and nepotism—what it is, and what they can do about it. This manual has just been launched, and forms part of CEPAD’s much larger anti-corruption program. We at Bridging Peoples, and the team at CEPAD, are all rightly proud of this manual: as the Executive Director of CEPAD, João Boavida said when launching the manual, “we encourage other civil society organizations and state institutions working in areas of prevention and combating corruption to use CEPAD’s Anti-Corruption Training Manual as a benchmark.”

If you’re interested in exploring approaches to combating corruption that use a participatory approach, I highly recommend that you check CEPAD out. They do great work.

Normally, when training manuals are produced, or research reports published, what we see is the finished product—so with this article I wanted to do something a bit different, going behind the scenes to talk about the process of creating a training manual (and don’t we all love process stories?!?)

The process of creating effective training—hopefully avoiding the scenario in which your participants are desperate to leave by the time morning tea finally arrives—can seem like a bit of a paradox. In most cases your finished product is a nice, preferably simple set of messages and instructions. It looks easy. It looks like it didn’t take very long to put together. But sitting behind that simple little package is a whole process of curating the information to your target audience—in the case of our work with CEPAD, community members. As an organisation, CEPAD are very sensitive to this reality, and very participatory in their approach—also working to put community members at the centre of their work. Which is why helping them to produce this training manual was such a fantastic collaboration for us.

But getting back to my point, I think that the main reasons that some may dismiss community-based training as simple is because they think of training as the giving of information—so if the information is relatively simple, then it follows that the creation of the training manual should have also been quite simple. But in my opinion, this is often the point where people go wrong. They’re focussing on the information they want to share—whether it’s new research, or a new system, or whatever it is that they want to share. They miss the point that there’s a whole lot of work that needs to happen before you get to what you consider the ‘real training’. From a training perspective, what you actually need to do first is to consider where your participants are coming from, so that you can then curate the information with them specifically in mind.

The best way I have to describe the process is that it’s an exercise in reverse engineering. It’s about clearly identifying what specific information or skills you want your training participants to learn, and then considering how they learn, and what they know and value, to take them on a journey from where they are to where you want them to go.

What do I mean by this?

A first thing to consider is that training doesn’t tend to be effective if you’re not super-specific about the new skills or information that you think people need in order to get from where they are now, to where you want to take them. If you’re too broad—for example, if you say “I think people need capacity development about [fill in the blank]”, this doesn’t tend to help you much in identifying where you should be focussing your attention.

Regardless of what the topic is, there are always some things that people do know about the topic, and some things that people don’t know about the topic. If you can get clear on what people do and don’t know, this will help you to identify common mistakes or assumptions that people have about that topic, which you can then correct through your training. It will help you to find the right balance in keeping people interested and learning, not losing their focus or making them feel stupid. And, most importantly, it will help people to see the relevance of what you’re teaching to their lives. Because you’re explaining it in language and concepts that they can relate to.

A second important point is that as a trainer it’s your job to orient your participants to the topic—to help them understand where this new information fits into their mental landscape. So you need to primarily use concepts that you think they will find familiar. Imagine someone’s mind as though it’s a filing cabinet. Each person has their own way of filing important information, and if they’re presented with new information they need to know where to put it. If you can present the information in such a way that it’s clear where they should be filing it, then they will learn better.

This may mean that the concepts you end up working with as a trainer appear too simple to you—but simple is good! Your job is not to appear smart. Your job is to teach. If you fail to work with concepts that are familiar to them (see what I did earlier with the metaphor of a filing cabinet?) you’re likely to lose them before you really begin.

This brings me to my final point—which, if you know me, you can probably already guess. And that’s the importance of context. The logical corollary to getting inside people’s heads is that we need to shift our perspective to consider their values, their worldviews, and their life experiences. This is even more important if we want our training to be empowering, and/or potentially nudge them into some sort of action. That sort of training requires you to not only reach their minds, but also to reach their hearts. To make it something that people care about.

All of these things require you to become an amateur psychologist (unless, of course, you really are a psychologist!) You need to do your very best to think from their perspective, sorting through what you think they do and don’t know, what they do and don’t value—and sorting through how you think they think.

There are of course many other skills and techniques to creating good training. But these are just a few of my thoughts, as I reflect on our experience working with CEPAD. It truly was a pleasure working with an organisation that values participatory methods and community voices as they do, and I strongly recommend that you check out some of their work.