As some of you know, I recently left Tableau to start a for-profit data education company called Data Literacy. I really benefitted from my time at Tableau traveling around the world and teaching people how to use Tableau Public to tell the stories of our time with data. I also taught continuing education courses during evenings at the University of Washington during my time at Tableau. This kept me in the classroom, connected with learners, and giving me the opportunity to continue to hone the craft of teaching. I’m still doing it today.

This new venture of mine is continuing to provide me with more opportunities to both speak and teach, as well as to learn. I’ve been devouring books and courses at a record pace for me, taking notes on what I like about each learning experience, and what has been working well for me in front of groups of trainees.

So I’m here in Washington D.C. wrapping up a visit in the U.S. capital city this week, and a few thoughts just crystalized for me about how I try to challenge myself to deliver a great learning experience when teaching data-working skills and data literacy.

I thought I’d share them with you. Here goes….

1. Don’t just show them how to use a tool, show them how to make something beautiful.

The reason anyone brings a trainer on site, or joins a virtual session, or signs up for some online program is that they want to learn something specific. We have to provide them with that. It’s our job.

But I’ve noticed that many times, while the trainer/author/teacher quite adeptly covers the features, the how-to’s, and the important steps and menus, they end up walking trainees through how to make something that’s just not good. Sometimes it’s downright hideous.

I think this is the wrong way to do it. Sure, we need to cover all the bases, or at least the most important ones given the time-constraints. But why have trainees make something that features confusing charts, clashing colors, and a kludgy layout? It’s like teaching someone how to masterfully wield power tools, but having them build a shack in the process – one that doesn’t even stand up to the slightest breeze. Why do that?

An example of something poorly built

Instead, I try to ask myself – how can I show them how to use this tool or technique to create something they’d be proud of making? This seems like a reasonable thing to challenge myself to deliver for them. I think it actually helps them learn the features better, because they’re putting them to good use.

2. Don’t just show them how to make something beautiful, give them an experience with data that fascinates them.

If the “something beautiful” they create in the training session isn’t actually all that interesting, then I feel like I’ve missed a golden opportunity to get them excited about working with data. This is why I almost always avoid the fake company data sets that so often are used to teach a tool. You don’t care about sales of a fake store, and neither do I.

Instead, I try to think about what data they’d likely find interesting. Better yet, I just ask them. If possible I have them use their own data in the training session. Or data about something connected to their environment or background.

This is how I often approach training in cities where people are gathering for conferences. Training at Online News Association in Colorado? Cover Denver DUIs. Heading down to NOLA for a tech conference? Have them work with Stop and Search data from the Big Easy.

It’s extra work, because it means each session is a little bit different. But students are far less likely to get bored if the trainer isn’t using canned data. And a side benefit of that is that the trainer won’t get bored, either.

An all-too familiar site at conferences and training sessions…

Ultimately, I’m hoping to create a situation for them where they forget they’re in a training session altogether, they stop paying attention to my step-by-step instructions, and they suddenly realize they’ve gotten lost in a data exploration session of their own making.

This is the ultimate win for me. Because it’s never about the tool, really. It’s about the insight.

3. Don’t just fascinate them with data, give them a framework or approach that they can use with other tools, too.

Tools come and tools go. If you write a book about software, it will soon be obsolete, unless you update it every few years. Think about the tools you used 5 years ago. 10 years ago. How many of them do you still use today? How many tools do you currently use that weren’t part of your workflow back then? What’s the likelihood you’ll be using the exact same tools in 5 or 10 years to come? Probably not very likely.

So I try to challenge myself to take extra time to think about and draw out the aspects of the session that apply at a higher level than specific tool usage. This means focusing on principles, processes, methods, ways of thinking or doing things that transcend specific implementations.

The WISDOM Data-Working Flow framework I teach along with tool training

Some higher level concepts or framework needs to be a part of the training in order for it to truly hit a high level, in my opinion.

4. Let your enthusiasm for the topic and for teaching drive you to make the experience fun and unforgettable for the learner.

I’ll explain this fourth challenge by telling a story. Last year I traveled to Bend, Oregon to attend a conference for directors of state part foundations. I had been helping the foundation in Washington, where I live, with some data analysis, and I had the opportunity to join them for the event.

At a break in the event, they announced that a 70-something retired college professor from Portland State University would be giving us a 90 minute lecture about the geologic history of the region.

I sighed, hopefully inaudibly, and pulled my phone out of my pocket and prepared to get caught up on some much needed emails. How boring was this going to be? Yikes….

Wow, was I wrong. Let’s just say I was at the edge of my seat for the entire 90 minutes. I’m not joking. I didn’t know it was possible to be so excited about rocks moving at 1 inch per year.

The presenter was marvelous. His name is Dr. Scott Burns, and you can watch a short video about his inspiring story here. Make no mistake, he’s a renowned geologist.

But his true craft? Oh, that would be teaching.

Teaching is a craft. If you’re going to take it up, hone it like any other craft.

I try to remind myself that many people feel the exact same way about “working with data” that I felt about geology prior to listening to that presentation.

The bottom line is that if I can’t find a way to convey the value in what I have to teach them in that moment, then I don’t think I should be doing it at all. This doesn’t necessarily mean running the session at a break-neck pace, or delivering the material with bubbly over-exuberance. But if I don’t care enough to find within me some measure of enthusiasm about the session, then why should they?

This last one is make-or-break, and it’s one of two factors, along with adequate coverage of the material, that’s 100% necessary to deliver a great training experience.