More Effective Meetings: Yielding to All Learning Styles

November 1, 2007


By Sarah Jamieson

It’s often said that the human mind processes knowledge via three basic learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. For the meeting planner, understanding these three styles – and how different types of people employ them – can be the key to more effective information retention among attendees.

The Basics

Visual learning takes place through imagery captured by the eye. “To accommodate visual learners, it’s important to include photos, charts and graphs. Handouts are also important tools,” says professional speaker and trainer Marlys Arnold of ImageSpecialist, a corporate image consulting firm based in Kansas City. “This group doesn’t absorb information very well if they’re just hearing it.”

Auditory learning takes place via the spoken word. “Auditory learners do well in a lecture format,” Arnold says. “They appreciate time for discussion, which allows for more verbal processing.”

Kinesthetic learning occurs when people connect with an educational presentation through physical activity, touch and other forms of interaction. “Kinesthetic learners will learn best with role playing, hands-on demonstrations or field trips,” Arnold says. “Social interaction and small group sessions are popular with people in this learning style. This group tends to be the larger percentage of the population.”

All three types of learning can be employed effectively to deliver a memorable meeting message, says Michael Grady, a professor of educational studies at Saint Louis University. While some presenters prefer the use of a single learning mode, the most effective ones integrate elements of all three, he says.

Most people can remember one or more high school or college instructors who played it safe by sticking with a single presentation style. They were the teachers who conducted every class with the same type of lecture, overhead projector use, slide presentation or reading aloud from notes or textbooks. But today educators know that using just one of these styles doesn’t fully engage the student’s – or meeting attendee’s – intellectual capacity. It also doesn’t stimulate the listener’s retention of the information presented.

“PowerPoint is a fantastic tool, except when it’s used poorly,” Grady says. “Some people think if you just use it, you’ll be great. But when it’s overused, it can be just as worthless as a boring speaker.”

Mix it Up

To combat PowerPoint overload, Grady says, variety is the key.

“People get bored easily if they’re just sitting and listening,” he says. “Consider, after about 15 or 20 minutes of a PowerPoint presentation, incorporating something interactive into the discussion. Keep people active and engaged. Use a mix of visual aids, audio-visual presentation, and getting people to talk with each other and problem-solve together.” Visual aids can include flip charts, diagrams and posters; audio-visual aids can include films and slide shows; and kinesthetic aids can include breakout sessions where attendees interact with one another, hear each other’s opinions and observe each other’s behavior and reactions to the information presented.

Effective presentations often include materials that attendees can touch as well as see or hear, Grady says. He gives the example of a meeting where computer technology is discussed; there, it’s important to have computer terminals where attendees can put their hands on a keyboard and test-drive the software, hardware or technique being addressed. If the meeting is about a certain type of product, it’s important to have examples on hand that attendees can handle, touch and feel, pass around and discuss, even keep for themselves.

It’s vital to incorporate all three learning styles into every presentation, Grady says, because every meeting audience will contain all types of learners.

Select a superlative speaker

If you’re tasked with choosing an effective meeting presenter or seminar instructor who can incorporate all the styles of learning, look for one who can establish a personal rapport with your attendees and encourage their interpretation of the material, Grady says. Ask for examples of the learning tools speakers will employ, and make sure they intend to engage attendees on a personal level.

“I prefer not to use presenters who just put everything out on an overhead transparency, printout or PowerPoint slide show,” he says. “Ask if they will present an outline that requires attendees to write in their own notes and form their own opinions, instead of just giving out all the information in a handout. If attendees see that all the information is already there in front of them, chances are they’ll just sit back and not participate. But an outline lets them fill in their own thoughts, even draw diagrams or pictures to help them remember.”

Planners should ask and expect their speakers to design creative, interactive experiences, Arnold says. “The more the audience gets involved in the session, whether it’s through a hands-on demonstration or simply an active discussion, the more likely the information will be retained and applied to their everyday lives.”

Close the Generation Gap

These days, it’s key to keep the age of your meeting audience in mind, Arnold says. “Because everyone learns differently, it’s important to incorporate all kinds of multisensory learning tools into a meeting or seminar. This is especially true for Generations X and Y, who grew up learning with Sesame Street and watching MTV videos. Now, they’re listening to podcasts and watching YouTube. Attendees want more advanced sessions with more interactive, hands-on activities.”

Arnold suggests incorporating innovative activities such as information scavenger hunts into meetings and corporate events. “It can be a unique way to explore a venue,” she says. “Teams can have a specific amount of time to go around and discover answers to questions about the building or area. Then they can gather for dinner at an experiential venue to discuss what everyone found.”

Another suggestion Arnold gives is turning a panel discussion into a talk show format. She used this technique at a recent meeting planners’ conference. “Our ‘set’ included several comfortable chairs, and the ‘guests’ (or panelists) were brought on stage one by one,” she says. “Then, as the ‘host,’ I moved out into the audience with a microphone for questions.”

Top of Mind

“One example that always helps me illustrate these ideas is the old Hoover vacuum cleaner study,” Grady says. “Years ago, Hoover examined the activities of its door-to-door salesmen and discovered that if potential customers just heard about the product, they’d only remember about 10 percent of the information a week later. A day later, they probably wouldn’t remember what they heard in a commercial or saw on a billboard.”

But if the salesmen went into people’s living rooms and emptied a cup of dirt on the rug, then put the vacuum in customers’ hands to show them how well it worked, they’d still remember that weeks and even months later, Grady says. “The company learned that the more you get people involved in your presentation, the more likely they are to remember you and the information you present.

“If you can do that – figuratively throw a cup of dirt on your listeners’ carpets and get them involved in problem solving – they’re much more likely to retain the information than if they just hear you talk.”  MM&E

(Sarah Jamieson is the Editorial Assistant from St. Louis, Mo.)

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