To Dennis Poplin, all the world’s a stage — at least when he’s leading a training session.
As Senior Vice President at Spitfire and the firm’s head of capacity building, Dennis combines his background in directing and acting with his many years of experience in advocacy communications to create communications and campaign trainings that make learning not only effective, but entertaining.
“Learning is fun, and our trainings give people a way to think about strategies that not only move them further along in their skills but also leave them feeling energized because they’ve had a really good time in the process.”
For Dennis, leading a training is very much like being onstage. When he’s facilitating a session, he sees himself as a character in a play, or an emcee.
“I wouldn’t say I’m like the emcee in ‘Cabaret’ because that’s a little dark, even if our current environment does feel a bit like Berlin in the 1930s,” Dennis says wryly, exhibiting the humor he brings to every session. “But as a trainer you have a very specific role to play, so that’s why it’s so performative.”
Leading a training session requires a lot of concentration and energy. The ability to think on your feet adds another opportunity to incorporate his theatrical training.
“Anything can happen, like people asking off-the-wall or really tough questions,” he explains. “Acting teaches you to listen and respond in the moment, and in the training room you have to quickly articulate a response that not only makes sense but is productive and helpful.”
Dennis and his colleagues deliver training programs that run the gamut from one-day workshops to ongoing initiatives, like the training program Spitfire has conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for more than 15 years. The first major training program Spitfire ever put together, the year-long program has evolved over time to meet the changing needs of RWJF.
Participants in the program — RWJF grantees and partners — attend two three-day sessions to learn about strategic communication, personal communication and how to apply these disciplines to the work they do and RWJF’s goals and priorities. As part of the training, participants create their own Smart Chart — a tool developed by Spitfire to help organizations build effective communication strategies — and turn it into a communication plan.
“The Smart Chart that participants create is based on the work they’re doing right now, Dennis explains. “It gives them the experience of thinking all the way through a communication plan they can actually implement when it’s completed.”
Dennis knows exactly what nonprofits, foundations and their grantees and partners need to execute their work successfully. He spent many years serving as the assistant director of field operations at Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) before joining Spitfire. He was instrumental in the development and execution of all of PPFA’s major organizing and public policy projects, campaigns and programs, including internal and external organizing communication. Before PPFA, Dennis was a community-based organizer working on LGBT, youth empowerment, HIV/AIDS, media, arts and cultural diversity issues.
Because of his experience, Dennis recognizes that the training needs of every organization are unique, so each Spitfire program is customized accordingly. And even for the clients that return to Spitfire for training year after year, there’s always something new to learn, because Spitfire is constantly expanding their own knowledge and skills.
For example, Spitfire was an early adopter of storytelling. Once considered “fluff” by serious organizations, it’s now recognized as an essential component of changing hearts and minds — and it’s central to Spitfire’s training curriculum. More recently, Spitfire’s Mindful Messaging strategy, which incorporates behavioral science and psychographics, has made its way into many of its training programs.
It’s also very important to Spitfire that every program is inclusive, bringing together diverse viewpoints and respecting the many different ways people learn.
“We make sure there are different voices and backgrounds represented by the people doing the coaching and in the training room,” Dennis says. “We also structure and design these experiences so people can get a lot out of them no matter what their learning style is.”
To make sure participants are picking up the skills they need during training, Spitfire evaluates how well they’re learning. Especially if it’s a multi-part training, Spitfire adapts future sessions as needed to maximize participants’ learning.
“In the second sessions of many of our programs we ask people, ‘What have you done since we last met? How have you implemented what you learned?’” Dennis says. “We love seeing the lights go on for people and hearing how they’re applying the work in their daily activities.”
In addition, feedback from participants demonstrates the kind of results Spitfire helps its clients achieve. It’s not unusual for Spitfire to receive ratings of 6.5 out of 7 — a testament to Dennis’ commitment to creating customized training delivered by highly qualified trainers and coaches in an enjoyable environment.
“People tell us they raised more money or how they were able to work with their Board in different ways to get them on message,” Dennis says. “Personally, knowing that people appreciated and enjoyed the training — and can apply what they learned to the work they’re doing — is what’s most important to me and makes me really proud.”