Learning to Understand, Engage and Remember

I am what you call a curious type. Curious as in learn, not curious as in strange. I like learning. I think most of us are the same, but we tend to avoid formal, (capital L) Learning as soon as we get out of school or University. For most card-carrying adults, Learning is a painful burden avoided at all costs. Presentations are dull, classrooms lifeless and e-learning a check-the-box exercise. Yes I did attend the safety seminar. I feel much safer now, thank you. (Note the use of sarcastic italics.)

That’s a real problem for the giver as well as the receiver. This learning, the presentation you’ve sweated over, the pearl of wisdom that you’ve found or the critical message you need to impart, need not be a snoozefest, a monologue with a smattering of polite applause or a barely remembered Wednesday. It’s up to you. You — the designer, presenter, educator, leader (whatever you call yourself) have to leap over three hurdles.



The first hurdle is the most obvious. You need them to understand. Say you’re a native Spanish speaker, unsure of your command of English, yet you have to present in English. That’s not necessarily comfortable for you. Language is the basic element that raises or lowers the hurdle. But it’s not just Spanish to English, or English to Chinese. More often it’s Engineering speak to Regular people speak. It’s rocket science to basic math. It’s stripping away the complex language and terms of art that are the particular hallmark of your profession or company or industry, and being able to put over what you mean in a way that anyone can understand. Just because everyone should know that acronym, why do you want to make them work at it? Better that they get to grips quickly and easily with the content you’re trying to deliver. Get rid of the acronyms, big words and terms of art we love because they make us look clever or part of the “in” crowd. The ego is a terrible thing that drives people to utilize over use, to wax eloquently instead of speaking plainly, to pretend and posture rather than position and pare down. We have a few simple rules to counteract this: Use language an 8-year old would understand. Avoid Acronyms (A.A.). Speak plainly and powerfully with simple, emotional language. Congress clearly gets this. Congress has been criticized recently for dumbing down their speaking level by almost a full grade. They now talk like 10th graders. One could argue this is a group of well-staffed, well-advised people who take a lot of care to position and craft messages. I don’t think the dumbing down is an accident. It’s the product of politicians working extremely hard to get their message across.


The Slope of Increasing Interest

Hurdle #2. ENGAGING.

After understanding comes the second stumbling block, engaging. It’s the pratfall of most presenters. The bête noire of trainers everywhere and scourge of public speakers. It’s simply easier to stand up and deliver than it is to engage. But speaking without engaging is like chewing without swallowing. It kinda defeats the purpose. If you want to get your message across, if you want to frame something for your audience, if you want to move them to action, You need them to engage. In a world of crackberries and iPhone addiction, that’s a tall order. But there are a few ways to break through. First, make it about them. Everyone has an ego, and narcissism today is so rampant psychiatrists are considering downgrading it from a mental illness to a trait. Maybe I hang out in odd circles, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an unrealistic sense of self-importance — except me obviously. Whether your audience is filled with finely tuned egos, or corporate narcissists, it’s good news for you. It makes the engaging problem very simple. As you develop your presentation or e-Learning, or message, don’t just develop what you want to say, consider what they want to hear. (see Rule #1. Know what you want to achieve.) If you are the type of presenter who doesn’t naturally engage, say a Counselor or a Teacher, you’ll have to use a few simple tricks to get the engagement going. Asking Socratic questions, and engaging the audience in a dialog. If you are facilitating a workshop, have them discuss and report out on a topic in small groups. If you have a large audience or seminar, try using technologies beyond PowerPoint that are designed to drive engagement like SlideKlowd.



In the immortal words of Yoda (not) “Understanding leads to Engaging, Engaging leads to Remembering.” Your audience must understand before they can engage, and engage before they can remember. But if this learning, this presentation is worth anything it must have some kind of lasting effect. You need them to remember. Memory is a funny thing, but there are proven ways to make the kind of sticky associations you need. You already have a head-start. You aren’t asking your audience to burn any mental cycles trying to understand. You have them interested and engaged. Now, in the immortal words of the Heath brothers, you need to make it stick. Some brain-science based tactics: Get your audience moving. Whether it’s passing around a prototype, voting true or false, or up at a flipchart interacting, at least you’re getting some blood flowing and diluting the influence of what Dr. John Medina calls, “the greatest anti-brain environment” – the classroom. Second, appeal to emotion. Use striking, vivid imagery. You want action, emotion leads to action. It sticks. Third, be concrete. People don’t remember that your churn has increased or decreased by 0.023%. People do remember that you’re adding new users at the rate of 2 per minute. Lastly, pay attention to the words you use. Weird combinations, exaggerations for effect and made up words stick in people’s memory. Calling out a potential disaster scenario with an upcoming product launch a “Nuclear Winter” is blatantly inaccurate, over the top and uncalled for. But people will remember it.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Michelle Mazur | August 13, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    In high school, I took a genetics class. Our teacher was a master of all 3 of the principles you are discussing. First, he explained genetics in a way that a 10th grader could understand. He could have made it indecipherable, but his plain use of language made us all feel like genetics pros. Second, he engaged us with his “wall of freaks”. He had pictures of a wide range of genetic anomalies. He would explain to us if those “freaks” were dominant or recessive. Finally, these two traits coupled together made us remember the material. i still remember some of those genetics lesson over 20 years later!

  2. Pingback: Engaging Audiences Key to Changing Behavior

  3. Peter | August 14, 2012 at 8:44 am

    Awesome guidance Gavin, and super timely for my current assignment of converting 12 complex client slide decks (technical. 80 slides per deck!) into a training course. Will be keeping Yoda in mind

  4. designed2perform | August 15, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Performance by Design and commented:
    Great article!

  5. Pingback: Learning to Understand, Engage and Remember « Performance by Design

  6. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #92

  7. povl henningsen | August 17, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    Great article – your have the full support of Denmark!:) Thousands of students and lecturers will be starting on their education in September. Your article should be required reading.
    It would make a great difference – a welcome boost to power, passion and personality.

  8. Pingback: The best training I ever had, and why. « Grist Present

  9. gristpresent | August 21, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Very, very good.
    Prompted me to write something else. http://wp.me/2b2Au

    • Gavin | September 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm

      BTW Loved your post…

  10. Pingback: 3 Secrets to A Powerful Presentation: Understand, Engage, Remember | Flaunting Information

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