So, I’m in a meeting wishing I could be anywhere else. The program team is debating what swag (AKA chackies, give-aways, worthless trinkets) we should give away to training program attendees. I ask myself: “does this actually improve the learning?”

Truly, if it doesn’t, there’s no reason to do it. In a time when we’re all looking to keep expenses under control, anything done in a training program should be calculated to improve the training’s behavior and business impact.

So, back to the question, does swag really do that? The answer is … not really — or at least not directly. Symbols and functional tools do, though. So objects that learners take with them after training, if there is enough symbolic meaning and practical use, might be worth the expense. In fact, instead of it being an expense, it becomes an investment.

If used correctly, symbols can trigger memories of things learned, and carry deep meaning. Religions throughout history have used symbols. The star of David for Judaism, the Christian cross for christianity, the wheel of dharma for Buddhism, the crescent moon for Islam — just to name a few. Different social and political movements have done the same thing, for better or worse.

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Even hand gestures have become symbols. During World War II, Winston Churchill made sure to hold up two fingers in the “V” sign for victory, especially if he thought Hitler would see it, for two reason — 1) He wanted a sign of defiance and confidence for the outcome of the war and 2) depending on if his hand was turned in our out, it was actually a gesture that is synonymous to germans (and Hitler) with what the middle finger in many western cultures represents today (in other words, he was telling Hitler to “eff” off).

So, symbols are important to humans. Combining a symbol with a functional tool then becomes the perfect object for training participants to walk away with. That object with the corresponding symbol will obviously vary, depending on the goal of the training. I’ve listed below a few examples of symbols with functional value and their context:

  • After innovation training, a journal with a common symbol depicted throughout the training. Innovation is the combination of creativity plus initiative. It takes time to form thoughts and truly requires introspection, thoughtfulness, and a record of success and (more importantly) failures. So a journal that participants can use, in which to record those thoughts, might be the perfect swag item.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  • A workbook that explains some difficult topics in which learners were encouraged to take notes. This reminds me of my Sunday school days when my teacher would encourage me to take notes in my Bible. When I went back to those scriptures, thoughts and clarifications would be recorded in the margins.
  • A poster, worthy of hanging on the back of an office door or in a cubicle, depicting a concept or process that leaners may need to frequently reference

Those are just a few ideas. Throwaways, like water bottles and pens probably won’t have much meaning and don’t justify the cost — they have no investment value. Meaningful symbols coupled with functional objects though can have impact well after a training event.