Enlighten others—and get paid for it: How to launch and run a training business—Graham Young (EAC conference 2014)

Graham Young has taught more than five hundred seminars on writing and public speaking, and at the EAC conference he shared some of his insights about the business of training others.

Should you start a training business? The pros and cons

“The number one reason to be a trainer? It beats working!” Young joked.

The benefits of running a training business are many: You’re helping people solve a problem, and you can change their lives. Once you leave the classroom, you’re not beholden to anyone. You don’t have to deal with bad bosses or eccentric coworkers, and you can tell well in advance what your schedule will look like. Training is also a great way to learn: “If you want to remember something, it’s best to say it aloud,” said Young. And if you’re already self-employed, adding training to your menu of services is easy.

Income from training, though, just as in any other self-employment situation, can be sporadic. It can get repetitive, and you might face quite a bit of competition.

How should you launch your training business?

If you decide that the pros outweigh the cons, Young suggests the following approach to launch your training business:

1. Pick a subject

Employment and Social Development Canada lists nine “essential” skills:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Document use
  4. Numeracy
  5. Computer use
  6. Thinking skills
  7. Oral communication
  8. Working with others
  9. Continuous learning

Many employers are willing to pay for their employees to receive essential skills training.

2. Do a business case

Do some research on the competition, and figure out how your business would fit into the training landscape. Try to articulate how your business would fulfill an unmet need.

3. Choose a business structure

Should your business be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation?

4. Select a business model

Should you work for yourself, for a training organization, or both?

If you work for yourself, you can charge as much as you’d like, you have to answer only to your clients, and you can update and change content to customize it for your clients. However, you’ll have to do all of your own marketing, respond to requests for proposals (RFPs) and handle contracts, and you might have to make all of your own arrangements for refreshments, printing, and AV equipment.

If you work for a training organization, you may have steadier work, someone else may take care of marketing and administrative tasks, and you might have the opportunity to add more courses to your portfolio. However, you may have to use someone else’s material that you can’t update, and the training organization may not share your professionalism.

You could get the best of both worlds by working for yourself and for an organization, but if you do, make sure you don’t compete directly with the organization, and be aware that any prospects you come across while teaching on behalf of an organization belongs to them.

5. Get qualified

If you’d like to start a training business, said Young, learn how adults learn. Young recommends The Art of Teaching Adults by Peter Renner.

Professional certifications can give you credibility, and real-world experience in the field you’re offering training for is a source of anecdotes that can help you turn a theoretical concept into something people can understand.

6. Cut your teeth

Gain confidence by speaking in front of a crowd. You might want to start out by teaching college courses or attending Toastmaster meetings.

7. Attend workshops

How do others teach, and how do you learn? Seeing how other training sessions are run can tell you what works and what doesn’t.

8. Find a mentor

If you can, find someone who has experience in training to guide you.

How should you run your training business?

Young encourages using the ADDIE model:

  1. Analyze
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Implement
  5. Evaluate


What problem is the training supposed to solve? (And is it really a lack of training that is causing the problem?) Who needs the training and why do they need training?

Understand that adult learners are autonomous, goal oriented, and knowledgeable. They want relevant information and solutions to their problems. “Adult learners come with certain expectations,” said Young. “Meet those expectations.” Otherwise you risk frustrating people.

Different people have different learning styles, so you should vary the way you present information to cater to different types of learners.


Create a lesson plan, which should include the expected learning outcomes. Select the topics and content, drawing from personal experience, books, reports, journals, websites, social media, and interviews. Choose what teaching methods—lectures, demos, videos, discussions, exercises, role-plays, presentations—you’d like to use. Consider icebreakers or energizers to keep the participants engaged. Don’t forget to plan a strong closing, where you wrap up and summarize the key points.


Assemble the course material, including notes, exercises, and solutions. Balance theory with real-life examples. “When training,” said Young, it’s best to “show people examples in the context they’re familiar with.” Create your slides and other visual aids.

Try to limit class sizes to sixteen people, advised Young. In larger groups, you lose intimacy, and people are more reluctant to speak up.


Be prepared! At least a day ahead of time, confirm the location of the session, security arrangements, and AV requirements. Arrive at 45 to 60 minutes before your session starts so that you can set up. Always have a back-up of your presentation and notes. “Respect Murphy’s Law,” said Young. You may have to contend with double-booked rooms, missing manuals, malfunctioning AV equipment, or other problems.

Once the class starts, greet the participants and have people introduce themselves.

Establish your credentials and explain your role. Create a supportive environment, and be enthusiastic. “Be prepared to meet some great people,” said Young. (That said, some audiences may be hostile—maybe an employer sent them to a training session against their will—and you’ll have to adjust your training approach accordingly.)

If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it—but follow up with one. See if any of the participants have the answer, and encourage participants to learn from one another.


Hand out evaluations at the end of your course, and adjust your course or delivery as needed. You may be able to use some of that feedback as testimonials, with permission.

Young closed with the top three things trainers must do to succeed:

3. Help solve the problem—whether it’s through imparting knowledge or honing a skill.

2. Instill confidence. “Behaviour is more likely to be predicted by what people believe they can do than by what they actually can do.”

1. Entertain. “If you haven’t got your audience’s attention, nothing else matters,” said Young.

Engaging students in an online environment—Katherine McManus

SFU’s Writing and Communications program is increasingly shifting away from in-person classes and toward online courses, which are less expensive to run and can better accommodate adult students with rigid work schedules. An added advantage (and challenge) is that students from all over the world can attend these courses. My in-person indexing course for the program this spring was cancelled, but I’ve been asked to teach the online offering later this year. I’ve taken plenty of online courses but have never taught one, so I was keen to learn some best practices from Katherine McManus, who directed the Writing and Communications program until her retirement this past December and has been heavily involved in developing the program for the IC Clear certificate in plain language.

Online courses, McManus said, aren’t like old-fashioned correspondence courses, where students get the material and work on it on their own time. As online instructors we have to keep students engaged and on the course’s timeline. We’re also not trying to replicate the classroom. “We’re not trying to replicate anything,” said McManus. “We have to create something entirely different.”

1. Be present

Most students—as well as instructors—are used to walking into a room and listening to a person; the online classroom is unfamiliar and can cause anxiety on both the learner’s and teacher’s sides. To alleviate some of that anxiety, be sure to welcome the students. Before the course begins, send a welcome note to students from your email address (but be clear that the online classroom won’t open until the course actually begins). That way the students have a place to turn if, for whatever reason, the course management system (CMS) doesn’t work. Other ways to establish your presence in the classroom are to

  • be the first to post in the “introduce yourself” area,
  • be clear about how often and when you’ll check in on the class,
  • when students discuss topics, provide guidance—let the students know you’re there, and
  • intervene quickly if someone begins to hijack a discussion.

2. Create community

It can be hard for students in an online course to get to know one another. In courses shorter than three weeks, creating a true sense of community is practically impossible, but for longer courses or courses with difficult topics, giving students a chance to feel connected to each other helps them get value out of the course. Encourage them to introduce themselves, and post a specific question for each of them to answer, such as their favourite movie or their reasons for taking the course. Set up a problem-solving forum, like a repository of YouTube videos related to the course material, for example, that students can post to. Develop one activity where small groups of students must work together, but keep the stakes low to minimize anxiety.

3. Share clear expectations

These students are adults who have paid to achieve specific learning goals. Be specific about what they will learn in the course and how. Each week’s content should start with an outline of that session’s learning outcomes, assignments, activities, and discussions. Not only will the students appreciate this concreteness, but it will also make assignments easier for the instructor to grade. The learning outcomes should match the evaluation criteria. Canvas, the CMS, accommodates a grading matrix where you can keep track of both.

4. Avoid sameness

Use a variety of assignments and activities to encourage learning:

  • Include opportunities for students to find and post interesting articles or videos.
  • Encourage discussion in various ways—for example, you could have pairs of students interviewing each other or students taking a topic “to the street” and then reporting back to the class.
  • Depending on the content of the course, assignments could be games.

McManus said that students spend a lot more time learning in online courses: they end up following links down a rabbit hole and reading much more than they would for an in-person course.

5. Use synchronous and asynchronous activities

McManus doesn’t completely agree with this “best practice” of online teaching; for busy students or students in far-flung locations, scheduling synchronous activities—where the class participates in the activity at the same time—can be a burden. Break the class into small groups of three or four for synchronous activities, taking time zones into account when creating the groups.

Make sure when developing the content that you allow people to complete the course without having to worry about time- and location-dependent activities.

6. Encourage informal feedback

Ask students partway through the course to tell you if they’re keeping up with the material or if they want to know anything specific. As an activity every other week, for example, you could ask students to describe

  • the most interesting they they’ve learned so far
  • what they thought was a waste of time.

This feedback could be via email or through a survey—you don’t want it to become an open discussion.

Often the questions you’ll get about the assignments are good feedback in themselves. If more than one student is confused about something, that’s a clue you might have to adjust the assignment. The advantage of the CMS is that all questions are captured in writing, and you can refer to them later. Post common questions as announcements so that students who are wondering but not asking still get the answer.

7. Invite reflection and response in your discussion topics

  • Don’t ask yes/no questions.
  • Don’t ask questions for which there’s only one right answer.

Make it clear to students, if you’re awarding marks for discussion participation, that simply agreeing with a previous answer isn’t enough—they have to add to the discussion for credit. In Canvas, there’s an option to bar students from seeing what others have said about a topic until they’ve posted their own comments, which has the advantage of preventing latecomers from feeling discouraged that what they wanted to say has already been said but has the disadvantage of possibly yielding a slew of very similar answers without expansion on the discussion. Close a conversation at a specific time (e.g., two weeks after it’s opened) to make sure you don’t get students scatter-gunning the forums at the eleventh hour of the course to get participation credit.

8. Use technology that is easy for the learner to master

Hours of extra learning can be involved for students unfamiliar with technology. Give students time in the first week to familiarize themselves with the CMS. Avoid having students use software outside of the CMS to create content like maps, charts, and videos.

9. Combine core concepts with personalized learning

Core concepts are outlined in the learning outcomes. For advanced courses leading to professional certification, encourage students to apply those concepts to increasingly complex projects—perhaps some they’ve brought in from other aspects of their lives or from their work.

10. Plan a good closing

Online courses often just end, and everyone just stops talking to one another. You’ll make a better impression if you plan something specific for the end of the course—maybe an online chat (bearing in mind that some students might not make it) or an informal final discussion topic where you post closing thoughts.

For courses that have complex subject matter but where you only have the time and resources to cover the basics, McManus suggests using a “going deeper” feature: teach students the fundamentals but give them an opportunity to learn more if they’re interested. “Going deeper” not only adds value to the course in the students’ minds but may also be a good way to end the course.

Back to school: A self-indulgent personal post

This week I got an official letter of acceptance to the PhD program in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, where I’ll be studying knowledge translation. In particular, I’ll be looking at ways to apply plain language principles to mental health research to make it more accessible to patients, practitioners, advocacy groups, and policy makers. I’m thrilled by the prospect of applying my editorial skills and clear communication knowledge to increase health and scientific literacy.

Although I’m heading back to school, in no way will I be leaving publishing; I adore my career, and my plan (although plans may change, of course) is to come right back once I’ve completed the degree. In the meantime, I’ll be dialing down the amount of publishing work I take on to a small handful of projects a year so that I can focus on my research.

I’ll also be drastically cutting back on my volunteer commitments with organizations such as the Editors’ Association of Canada. Over the past two years I’ve been a member of EAC’s Certification Steering Committee, which oversees the national program that certifies editors who have demonstrated excellence in proofreading, copy editing, stylistic editing, or structural editing. This committee is made up of some of the smartest, funniest, and most dedicated people I know, and working with them on projects to promote and strengthen the certification program has been a huge privilege. Leaving this collegial, optimistic, and productive group in August will be bittersweet.

At the branch level, I’ve worked with Frances Peck for the past two seasons (and with Micheline Brodeur last year) on the EAC-BC Programs Committee to set topics and invite speakers for our monthly meetings. We managed to put together an impressive lineup of speakers on fascinating subjects from forensic linguistics and cartography to subcontracting and the evolving role of libraries. Our ideas have spilled over into next season, and whoever takes over on the committee next year will be able to hit the ground running.

I can’t emphasize enough that my experiences on these committees—not to mention the professional relationships and friendships I’ve forged—have been tremendous for professional development, and I urge anyone considering volunteering for EAC to seize the opportunity. I will still be an active EAC member, and I am still happy to volunteer for small jobs here and there or for one-off events, but I’ll no longer have the time for ongoing committee work. If there’s still demand after this year’s PubPro unconference, a peer-driven professional development event for publication production professionals, I would be more than willing to run it again. And I still hope to attend EAC meetings and conferences and write up what I’ve gleaned from the sessions on my blog (although once I’m off the Programs Committee, I may allow myself to miss the odd meeting).

Speaking of my blog, my intention is still to post regularly on editorial, indexing, publishing, and plain language topics, but you might start seeing a bit more of a knowledge translation, health literacy, or mental health bent to my writing. Realistically, though, I won’t have time to do any more book reviews once school starts up. I’d love to keep crapping out my dumb little cartoons, but I might not be able to keep up with my monthly schedule.

Finally, I’d love to keep teaching in SFU’s Writing and Communications program. Changes are afoot in how those courses are being offered, though, so I’m not sure if I’ll still have a role to play. If it turns out that I will, I’ll be sure to post news about upcoming courses.

I’d like to thank all of my friends, colleagues, and mentors who have given me encouragement and advice as I’ve plotted this next step, which I have wanted to take for a long time. I feel incredibly lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing, supportive people.

Want to become a power Word user?

There are several spots left in On-screen Editing: Getting the Most out of Microsoft Word, the course that Grace Yaginuma and I are teaming up to teach in SFU’s Writing and Communications Program. We’ll cover all the basics, including Track Changes, but we’ll also delve into the fun stuff like wildcard searches and macros that will help make all of your future on-screen editing projects more efficient. The course begins in five weeks! Register here.

Onscreen editing

This fall Grace Yaginuma and I will be teaching a course about editing with Microsoft Word, in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Communications (formerly Writing and Publishing) Program. We’ll be covering topics like workflow, document cleanup, Track Changes, and styles, and we’ll offer some tips about how to get the most out of Word’s features and use them to make editing more efficient. See the course description here. I’ll post an update when registration opens.