Signing up for a professional development course can bring rich rewards

In the final of The Apprentice earlier this month, the eventual winner Yasmina Siadatan had to explain to an audience of confectionery professionals why she had twinned strawberry with basil in her upmarket range of chocolates. In this case, her business nouse proved less important than her lack of public-speaking experience.

But there are less intimidating ways to add strings to your bow, boost employability, compete for new roles and sharpen up your CV in the downturn. Setting aside some cash for further training in IT, finance, brainstorming, or perhaps negotiation may be a wise investment.

"Signing yourself up for one or two days' training is a quick and relatively painless way of climbing the career ladder, whatever field you happen to be in," says Ian Price, managing director of Business Training Direct, which offers public speaking tips to people in industries as diverse as banking and oil rigs.

"At a time when many employers are cutting back their training budgets, shelling out your own money to learn how to project yourself better with strangers won't only earn you Brownie points with your current firm but will help enormously in your next job interview," says Price.

There are literally thousands of private sector training providers offering anything from half-day workshops on first aid – at £150 or more a throw – to long-term, one-to-one continuing professional development programmes (CPD), with a six-figure price tag.

But whether you are blue collar or blue-chip, PhD or university of life, it is well worth taking the time to use business contacts and professional journals to help compile a detailed shortlist before you part with your cash, says business coach Helen Miles, who stresses that competition in the sector is becoming fiercer.

She lists eight key questions you should be asking of training companies:

Does the training provider fully understand my training objectives, and is the training set at the right level for me?

Will the training lead to an accreditation or useable qualification?

Is the training at times and places that are convenient for me and my work/life commitments?

Will I be comfortable in a small group or should I pay the extra for one-to-one sessions?

Does the provider have experience of my particular job function and will the training be tailored to me personally or to my sector in general?

How up-to-date are they with the current and future demands of my job?

Can they give evidence of satisfied clients or offer recent testimonials?

Does the course represent value for money, even if it isn't necessarily the cheapest around?

Even if you don't feel able to pay training fees right now, do consider ferreting around for free advice. Many training-provider websites offer tips on better understanding people management skills or conquering a fear of statistics. While they won't be as comprehensive or thorough as a few hours of intense training, they could be an important leg-up if there's an interview looming.

It's worth adding, too, that whether you are an antiques exporter, an occupational therapist or an executive secretary, trade associations, trade unions and professional bodies are a prime source of information on life-long learning. Many will be able to offer details on tried-and-tested training providers in your field, and should be ahead of the game when it comes to knowing how your job is likely to shape up for the future and which skills will be paramount.

In addition, many professional bodies will themselves offer accredited training options, particularly if the training, mentoring or coaching is being undertaken as part of a CPD programme.

When it comes to deciding where to spend your money, it is important to trust your instincts, says Trixie Rawlinson, a partner at Impact Factory, which offers 30 "public" courses on anything from assertiveness at work to selling and pitching, in addition to corporate training.

"We're all told to choose schools for our children based partly on instinct and first impressions, and the same is true of hiring a training provider to give your career a boost," she says. "If the company website or brochure appears to suit your own personal style of learning and you like the testimonials that are offered, it is well worth giving it a second look.

"But if the blurb appears to rely on hard-and-fast rules for becoming better at your job, it's probably best avoided because the business world doesn't operate in [such a] prescriptive way."

Impact Factory charges £395 for a day's training, and Rawlinson stresses the skills learnt are "immensely transferable" to other areas. "A session on conflict management will teach you how to pause, rather than speak hastily, when you are in a position of conflict at work and need to stand your ground," she says.

"Once you realise [that] maintaining, rather then filling, that silence gives you an advantage over your manager or colleague, you will find it very easy to use that same technique next time there's a row about the washing-up or homework."

'The course has equipped me with self-belief'

IT architect Anna Jackman, 37, who works with financial organisations fought against her fear of public speaking for several years before finally attending a presenting course with Business Training Direct. She attributes her more senior IT role today to what she learnt during those two days of training.

"Although several of my appraisals had mentioned the need to build up my confidence and presentation skills, my nerves always prevented me from taking the initiative and getting to grips with the problems of speaking in front of an audience.

Once I realised my fears were preventing me moving from IT developer into a more senior IT role – one which I knew would involve important presentations and high-profile meetings – I realised I had to do something fast.

By that stage, I was already having to present regularly, but I was practically throwing up beforehand and hated the whole process.

I looked on the web and found several firms that offered public speaking training in my area. I chose the one with the most persuasive client testimonials. The fact that the managing director phoned me and talked me through the course before I signed up, and appeared to understand how terrified I was was another key reason for my choice. I realised at the beginning of the two days that everyone in the room was in the same boat. Although my first thought was to flee, I gritted my teeth and it soon got easier.

Although I was pushed into trying stuff I hadn't attempted before, the tutor made sure I was OK and gave me plenty of opportunity to assimilate every step that I learnt and practice in front of my fellow students.

I still have the fear inside me when I stand up to speak at a key meeting, and I need to work on my delivery, but the course has equipped me with the tools and the self-belief to do at least a creditable job."

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