Why I Still Teach Learning Styles

Wow, do people get fired up about learning styles or what? In 2009, a now famous study de-bunked the “science” behind the idea that different learners would benefit by having access to materials customized to their specific learning styles.

Recently, Will Thalheimer upped the ante for his “Learning Styles Challenge” to $5,000 for anyone who can scientifically prove the value of learning style theory.

I respect science. If scientific studies have been conducted that say we don’t need to customize our training courses to offer only verbal information to auditory learners, only written information for visual learners and only movement-based information for kinesthetic learners, then let’s not create all those individualized materials.

But I’ve never, ever heard of anyone spending any extra time customizing three sets of materials for their learners, depending on their learning style.

I have, however, heard of presenters who lecture and talk at their audience for their entire presentation.

I have sat through training sessions in which trainers tell us the theory behind their topic, without allowing anyone to de-brief the ideas that were shared.

I have sat through many a sermon and homily on Sunday morning when, in the absence of any visual cues or movement, I simply zone out and begin thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch.

Incorporating design elements that include auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities into a presentation or training module is simply good teaching. It’s simply a way to engage learners, to get them involved, to make them feel a part of the presentation and to capture their imagination. Therefore, it’s something I continue to teach in my train-the-trainer sessions.


6 Reasons Your Presentation is no TED Talk

What is a TED Talk?

TED Talks are all the rage these days. They’re amazing 5- or 10- or 20-minute presentations delivered by thought leaders from around the globe in an effort to give “ideas worth sharing” a platform to ignite the world on fire.

Recently I published a list of Amazon’s top 40 books on presentation skills and 10% of the books were how-to guides on turning your next presentation into a TED Talk.

TED Talks have given renewed vigor to the argument that we can “just tell” an audience what they need to know. Why not lecture? After all, TED Talks are generally given before large audiences in auditoriums where interaction isn’t possible.

In fact, here are three TED Talks you could use to inspire the design of your next presentation.

What Can You Do to Be More Like a TED Talk?

Here are six reasons why your next presentation will not be TED-caliber and what you can do about it.

What is a TED Talk?

1. Amateur slide design

The minute you flash a slide like this, your aspirations of giving a TED-style presentation have gone down the drain. Even if your goal isn’t TED-caliber, poor slide design can ruin your message. Click here for some ideas on how to spruce up that design.

2. You think everything about your topic is important

When everything you have to say is “important” then nothing is a priority. TED speakers understand that they’re not going to create an audience of experts in 20 minutes. They are ruthless in their prioritization of what gets air time during their presentation. Click here for some ideas on how to be ruthless in prioritizing the content for your next presentation.

3. You think your content is boring

I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ve worked with a subject matter expert who has told me: “look, my area of expertise is boring, there’s no way to make it exciting, people just need to know this information and go forth and do what I say.” If you think your topic or area of expertise is boring, why in the world would anyone else pay attention, let alone be ignited to want to do something with your information?

4. You don’t want to be in front of the audience

That public speaking causes people great anxiety is no secret. Of course, if someone asks you to speak, then there’s something about you and your message that nobody else can offer to your audience. Embrace it! Relish it! Find a way to get others as passionate as you are about your topic. If you’re just going to go through the motions of a presentation, it’ll be an icky experience for you and your audience.

5. You make no effort to connect with your audience

Perhaps the single biggest problem I see when I review presentation plans is that people tend to launch straight in to their content, assuming their audience knows about it, cares about it and/or is interested in it. Click here to watch Jane McGonigal tease her audience’s interest by promising them longer lives if they simply follow the steps in her presentation. Click here for some additional ideas on how to connect with your audience.

6. You “just do it”

Nike’s message isn’t necessarily for presenters. TED speakers do not simply throw a presentation together on the airplane en route to their conference, then get up and put on a magical display of amazing slide design, smooth delivery and inspiring message. They spend countless hours designing what they want to say and how they want to say it. Then they rehearse. Then they tweek their presentation and rehearse it again until it comes out exactly how they want. Rehearsal helps hone your message, perfect your delivery and perhaps most importantly, lower your level of anxiety.

Whether you call it “lecture” or “didactic delivery” or a “presentation”, TED Talks have demonstrated that speakers can be incredibly engaging by “just talking.” However, if you find that one or more of the items in the above list are true for you, then you may not have a TED-caliber presentation on your hand. Effective lecture (or didactic delivery or presentation) requires a lot of work.

If you truly want to capture your audience’s imagination and inspire them to do something new or differently or better, it may actually be easier for you to bring some adult learning principles and interactivity into your next presentation.

“Is didactic really all that bad?”

Last week I was reviewing some lesson plans with a colleague. At one point he stopped and asked: “Why do we need all these activities? Is simply doing 15 minutes of didactic learning all that bad?”

I don’t remember exactly what happened next. Some type of argument or a scuffle or maybe a brilliant defense of all that is good and holy about adult learning principles. When cooler heads prevailed, we found ourselves reminiscing of our own training experiences around this particular topic. We’d seen these concepts in training sessions or in practice many times, yet neither of us was a master of this topic. In fact, neither of us really knew much at all about this topic (thank God we have a bunch of really smart SMEs to lean on!).

In the moment, training participants will probably take well-designed, interactive, engaging content over didactic lecture and PowerPoint slides any day. But long term? None of this matters – didactic or interactive – if there is no follow up. Either way, people will forget most of what they’ve “learned” before their heads hit their pillows that same night.

I still say: yes, didactic really is all that bad. Even phenomenal speakers (think TED talks) may put on a good show, but three weeks later what do you still remember? Of course, the same can be said of well-designed, interactive sessions: what do you still remember three weeks later?

In the end, if you want people to be able to do something new or differently or better, and you don’t design follow-up activities to build upon what they’ve learned in the classroom, you’d probably be better off not doing the training in the first place. Chances are, they won’t remember it anyways.

Case Study: Technology Fails

Last week, a colleague had an unfortunate run-in with technology at the start of his presentation. What’s one piece of advice you’d share with this subject matter expert?

The Scenario

“I had been asked to deliver a 30-minute lecture on the anatomy of the eye and I was concerned about two things:

1)      How on Earth would I fill up a 30-minute block of time on this subject?

2)      How on Earth am I supposed to present on this topic when there will be eye surgeons in the audience? They’ve forgotten more about the eye than I could ever teach.

I put together a slide deck and I rehearsed my session. Continue reading

7 Ways To Keep Your Audience Engaged (Even after Lunch)

You know that conference session that comes immediately after lunch (when it is always hardest to keep your audience engaged)? Guest blogger, Megan McJennett (full disclosure: she’s also my wife), attended one of those sessions this week and a funny thing happened.  Everyone was engaged. Here’s what she observed:

As I prepared myself for the always-dreaded post-lunch keynote address at the recent School’s Out Washington Bridge Conference, I thought to myself: how is he going to keep me engaged? Is he going to keep me awake? Is he going to keep me from checking my email?

John Medina (of Brain Rules fame) did not disappoint – he is a gifted speaker and the content is riveting.   But about 5 minutes into it, I realized something. As “Mrs. @FlipChartGuy” I have been ruined. My husband’s one-track mind and crusade about how every presentation should be engaging has crept into my own psyche. No longer am I paying attention to content, I am paying attention to style. What is it about John Medina’s talk that was so engaging? What kept me from sneaking a peek at my iPhone?

How Did John Medina Keep His Audience Engaged?

Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist speaking to a crowd of after-school educators. How did he reach us so effectively?

  1. Avoided Jargon: He spoke about neural pathways and neurotransmitters in a way that was very accessible by using nonscience-y vocabulary to introduce the concept.
  2. Set Expectations: He primed his audience at the beginning by letting us know that we were going to walk away with 2 practical ideas we could implement as soon as we got back to our programs.
  3. PowerPoint as Co-facilitator: He used slides as props, not crutches.
  4. Used his voice and body: He raised and lowered his voice, moved purposefully across the stage.
  5. Anecodotes: He told anecdotes to illustrate his points; the stories made the group laugh and get teary. He left space for both.
  6. Repetition: He reiterated his point succinctly before introducing the next point.
  7. Suprise: He kept us guessing (have you ever heard of a developmental molecular biologist refer to truuconfessions.com as a source?)

Sitting through this post-lunch keynote, I have to admit that he made this social worker want to go back to college just to take a few molecular biology classes.

What strategies have you seen that help keep participants engaged after lunch? What do you do to keep YOUR audience engaged?

You Can Only Change The World If People Pay Attention To You

Introducing yourself can be such a routine, mundane task.  But it doesn’t have to be.  In fact, it can be a way to capture your audience’s attention for the rest of your presentation.

To which of the following introductions would you be more likely to pay attention?

Example 1:

Example 2 (go ahead and check it out – even though the cover slide is the same, I promise there is different content underneath that cover slide):

In the second example, you’ll notice two strategies designed to hold the audience’s attention:

  1. Don’t just tell.  Tell a story.  It’s too easy to simply speak mindlessly about your topic, especially if you know it well. It’s more engaging if you can create a storyline for your audience to follow. In this example I teased my topic by dressing it up in three secrets. When I actually gave this talk, I was hoping to cash in on most people’s innate desire to be let in on another person’s secrets.
  2. Make the audience feel special. In this example, I was willing to share something with my audience that not even my wife knew about. I could actually see the audience’s eyes get bigger when they unexpectedly found that they were going to hear something so unique that not even my wife had heard before.

In his very entertaining book How To Be A Presentation God, Scott Schwertly repeatedly says that a presentation can change the world. I believe this to be true… as long as you’re able to get your audience to pay attention to your world changing thoughts.

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

Are You A Selfish Presenter?

In an effort to improve my slide design skills, this week I began reading The Non-Designer’s Presentation Book. And there are lots of good tips for slide design.

This paragraph made me sit up a bit straighter:

I, too, love to jump right in to the software, but I have to admit that by doing so I get bogged down in what the presentation looks like much too soon and end up redesigning the whole thing several times as I add more content. So I’ve learned to control myself and get organized first.

A design expert suggesting that before you open PowerPoint or Keynote, you gather your thoughts – I loved it… and then I read the suggested ways to organize your thoughts. Oy.

Putting together an outline before throwing together your slides is a good idea, but if that’s where you’re starting, I’d call you a very selfish presenter. You’ll certainly have a more coherent and organized presentation, but have you asked what your audience needs to get from your presentation? Here are two questions to ask yourself before outlining your presentation (and before opening PowerPoint or Keynote):

Question #1: What should your audience be able to do better or differently once your session is done?

What happens if you don’t ask this question?

If your audience isn’t able to do something better or differently as a result of your session, then why are you (or they) there in the first place? You may be the foremost expert in your field, but if you simply spout your expertise at the audience, how do you know whether they can do anything better or differently, or whether they were daydreaming of other things as you lectured?

Question #2: How will your audience best learn your content?

What happens if you don’t ask this question?

If your audience isn’t able to absorb your content, then why are you (or they) there? Some people process verbal presentations more easily. Some people need visual aids (like well-crafted slides). Some people could benefit from handouts on which to take detailed notes. Many people find job aids extremely useful once the presentation has ended and they return to their offices.

Yes, thinking about these things takes a little more work. But failure to ask these two questions when you’re mulling over your next presentation can truly lead to a self-centered presentation from which your audience may not gain anything.

Looking for a way to organize your thoughts around your next presentation?  You might like these related blog posts:

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

Mind the Gap: Learning Lessons from Riding The Tube

Returning from India last week, I had a 7 1/2 hour layover at London’s Heathrow Airport. I had little desire to sit in the lounge all day, so I made a dash through Customs to see some of the city.

As I bought a ticket for the Underground train service, I asked how I could get to the Tower of London. The attendant at the ticket office pulled out a map of the train system, told me to take the train to the Earl’s Court station, then transfer and get off at Tower Hill.

Tube Map

The directions seemed straight forward, but somehow I still managed to screw it up. As I reflected on this experience, I realized there were some important lessons in here for presenters and trainers. Here are my top 5 take-aways:

Motivation only goes so far. I was certainly a motivated learner. I wanted to see a castle-like landmark that was almost 4 times as old as the United States, and I didn’t want to get lost (or I might have missed my flight home).  Yet as badly as I wanted to follow the instructions that had been given to me, I still got lost.  I needed to ask several other Underground staff and consult several maps in order to get back on track. It reminded me that one-off training events where there is no follow up often fails, regardless of how motivated the learner is.

Learning styles matter.  There’s been a number of articles about the false science behind learning styles (here’s one example).  All I know is that I do need visual aids in order to process and retain important information.  When the attendant showed me the map, it was easier for me to understand his directions (I wasn’t used to his accent, which is a lesson for anyone presenting to multi-cultural audiences) and I pulled out my iPhone to make a note of the transfer station and the ultimate destination.  Had I relied solely on verbal instructions, I might still be in London today.

So does consistency. The map the attendant showed me had all of the stations for all of the train lines. However, when I boarded the train I found that the map posted on the train only illustrated the stations for that particular train line. Using only the map on the initial train, I had no idea where to find my final destination. This pared down map turned me into a confused and anxious tourist.

There’s often more than one right answer. In my adventure on The Tube, I ended up stopping at several additional train stations before I arrived at the Tower of London.  It wasn’t the most direct route, but I did get there and I even had an opportunity to see more of London (if only from the inside of several additional stops along the Underground lines).

There’s no replacement for learning-by-doing. Immediately after getting directions from the attendant, I could have easily recited those directions back to anyone needing to find the Tower of London.  I could have answered multiple choice questions about which stations that I needed to transfer and exit. But I obviously wasn’t proficient in how to navigate the transit system in order to actually arrive at the destination until I went through the process.

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

Instructional Design Lessons from a 6-Year-Old

My 6-year-old daughter wants an American Girl doll in the worst way.  Recently, she cracked open her piggy bank to see if she had enough money to afford one.  As a mix of change and dollar bills lay on the ground, she started counting her pennies.

She counted out 40 pennies and asked if that was enough.  I explained that the doll cost over one hundred dollars.  Instead of trying to count her $1, $5, and $20 bills, or even nickels, dimes and quarters, she went back to counting her pennies.

In truth, after six years of squirrelling away spare change and birthday money, she had more than enough money in her piggy bank to buy an American Girl doll.  But she insisted on counting all her pennies, pausing to find out if she had enough for a doll every two or three minutes.

When I asked her why she didn’t try counting her paper money or her other coins, she explained that it was easier to count by ones, and she knew that each penny was one cent.  More than enough money was within her grasp to buy an American Girl doll, but she insisted on staying within her comfort zone of counting pennies.

As I reflected on this, I was struck at how remarkably similar this process was to developing training components.  The coveted object of desire – the American Girl doll, so to speak – for me or SMEs or anyone else doing presentations should be cultivating new skills and knowledge and better ways to do things among their audience. The best way to do this is through good instructional design and engaging presentations, but developing such components can take significant amounts of time and sometimes requires us to go outside our comfort zone to try something new.  It’s a lot easier to regurgitate old lessons or relapse into old habits of lecture and bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentations because they’re quicker to put together and there’s just so many other things that need to be done on any given day.

And when we eschew risk taking and trying new things and putting the effort into good design and engaging presentations, we’re basically just counting pennies.  In the name of ease and comfort, we sacrifice the opportunity that is right in front of us to create an amazing and transformational learning experience.  And at this pace, we’ll never get our hands on whatever the trainers’ equivalent is of an American Girl doll.

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

Is Lecture the Root of all Evil? My Position is Evolving.

Recently I saw my picture in a newsletter.  The caption under the photo read: “Picture shows participants listening as Brian Washburn delivers a lecture.”  Delivers a lecture?!  I don’t lecture.  I facilitate.

For years I’ve crusaded against the all-lecture format.  I’ve never found any research that suggests even auditory learners retain information through lecture better than through a more interactive format.  How can a lecturer tell whether or not the audience gets it, let alone whether or not they’ll be able to do something better or more easily?

But there’s something about some of my favorite TED talks that is compelling.  And TED talks are 100% lecture.  Last week in response to a post I had written, instructional designer Kirby Crider posted a link to this video.


It’s 100% lecture, yet I hung on every word.  I still remember some of the major points.  And the speaker’s 8 minute riff on the future of gamification and how it just might be integrated into everyday life both amused and haunted me.

What Lecture Can Be Good For*

Maybe, just maybe, it’s ok for people to come together, invest their time (and often their money) to attend a presentation without being able to do something differently.  Perhaps some presentations aren’t as much about learning in the moment, but rather being introduced to a topic, being excited about a topic, being inspired to go out and discover more about that topic on your own.

In the “Design Outside the Box” presentation posted above, the speaker does an amazing job offering some context and painting a picture of what might be possible.  He uses a few well-placed and well-designed slides with limited text in order to illustrate his points.  He doesn’t overdo it, he doesn’t rely on stale templates with lots of bullet points.  He’s obviously invested significant time preparing what he wants to say.

The Asterisk

Sometimes presenters – subject matter experts, keynote speakers, employees who have been asked to address their colleagues or some other group on a topic – mistake the time and effort invested in preparing a presentation (which ends up being lecture-based with lots of slides and lots of text) with good design.  Just because a presentation took 8 or 12 or 20 hours to prepare doesn’t mean it is a good or useful presentation.  And herein lies what I feel gives lecture such a bad name.

When the forum or format allows only for a lecture-based presentation, I appreciate the “SUCCESs” model espoused by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick.  A compelling, inspirational, memorable lecture really needs a combination of the following elements (many of which were demonstrated in the “Design Outside the Box” presentation/lecture):

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

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