What firms should demand from 'lunch-and-learns'

August 11, 2010

Ken Hercenberg does not suffer fools lightly. As technical resource manager for the 800 architects worldwide that form Baltimore-based RTKL, Hercenberg has been known to throw building product representatives out the door when their "education" programs turned into sales pitches.

"I just tell them very politely to close their laptops, the slide show is over, please leave—and thanks for the nice lunch," says Hercenberg, CSI, Assoc. AIA, who serves as Baltimore chapter president and Mid-Atlantic education chair of the Construction Specifications Institute.

Hercenberg arranges lunch-and-learns on a weekly or twice-monthly basis, depending on the time of year, with anywhere from 20–40 of the 65 or so architects in the Baltimore office attending.

Herewith some tips from this seasoned pro on how firms can get the most out of their brown-bag sessions:

Advise presenters to follow the AIA formula. "The AIA has a really nice template: identify your learning objectives, teach what you said your were going to teach, and then summarize what you taught," says Hercenberg. "It's quite easy, but very few people follow that."

His advice: "Don't be cute. Be straightforward. Tell your audience what you're going to tell them, tell it, and then tell them what you told them."

Make sure it's more than just another slide show. "Everybody does PowerPoint presentations, and our people get a little tired of them," says Hercenberg. "The better vendors know to have handouts, or even samples. Put photographs in your presentation. Keep it interactive."

Worst case: Presenters who read their slides. "That's really obnoxious," he says. "Our people can read the slides themselves."

To boost turnout, encourage vendors to do something special. Lunch-and-learns can get pretty routine, so Hercenberg advises presenters to spice up the menu. What works? "Chocolate and desserts," he says.

Make sure presenters solicit participation during their talks. "If you don't allow questions, you lose your audience," says Hercenberg. "Our people are professionals. We don't need somebody lecturing them."

Worst case: When someone asks a question and the presenter says, "I'll get to that later." That just shuts down the learning process, says Hercenberg.

Don't be afraid to put a shill in the audience. Hercenberg says he often acts as a plant in sessions. "I intentionally ask 'stupid' questions, because I know there are 15 people in the room that probably don't know the answer."

Encourage presenters to pose questions at the end of their talk. Presenting a few key questions at the conclusion is a useful learning tool, says Hercenberg. "It wakes people up, and gives the presenter a great way to summarize."

Let vendors talk about their products—once the program is over. "After the presentation, it's OK for them to promote their products," he says. "Our architects need to know about the products that are out there."

Report violations to the AIA. Hercenberg says that, even though he screens all presentations from product manufacturers beforehand, sometimes a presenter will go off course into a commercial.

This can be especially true when a local sales rep is called in at the last minute in place of the manufacturer's trained presenter. "They don't know the presentation, and they do a sales pitch," says Hercenberg. "That's when I shut them down, and I bust the company to the AIA. It doesn't serve our needs to have people supposedly providing a generic presentation when they don't, and my architects get ticked off at me because they need the credits."

Finally, we asked Hercenberg to name the single best presenter he's come across at RTKL's lunch-and-learns.

His reply: David deBear, architectural consultant for Custom Building Products, who has given numerous AIA "training-the-trainer" sessions. Largely as a result of deBear's efforts, the Seal Beach, Calif., manufacturer of tile and stone installation products earned a 2005 AIA/CES Award for Excellence among commercial stakeholders.

Of deBear, Hercenberg says, "He's consistently the best, the top of my list."