June 23, 2010 by Jeff Hurt
Photo by krish.tipirneni http://www.flickr.com/photos/krish4u/465901687/sizes/m/
When was the last time you ordered something in a restaurant and the wait staff brought you the wrong dish?
Go ahead and think about that for a minute. You’re probably thinking, “Uh-h, when was the last time that happened? Where was I?”
French Onion Soup, Cheese Fondue And Mushroom Crepes
It happened to me recently on my trip to Montreal, Canada for PCMA’s Education Conference. One night a group of friends decided to go out and experience some local culinary food. Another #eventprofs friend (thanks Ann Thornley Brown) and a Canadian local recommended a nearby French Crepe Restaurant. We took her advice.
The ambiance was great. The location was a short cab ride away from the hotel. The food was amazing. The time with the group was fantastical.
We started with a French onion soup and a cheese fondue. Then we each ordered crepes. The server kept trying to give me a ham, bacon and cheese crepe and I had ordered a mushroom and sausage crepe. She tried three times to place that dish in front of me. Each time I reminded her that it was not what I ordered. Ultimately, I wish I had ordered the chocolate Nutella crepe that my friends had! It was amazing!
So what was your experience ordering something and receiving the wrong dish? As you recalled that experience, did you find yourself reliving a specific story?
Your brain remembered a story–a memory of a prior experience–in which you were given the wrong food. Your brain didn’t just open a mental file cabinet and pull out a fact about getting the incorrect dish. It recalled the people, places and details related to that experience. And that story helped you recall other facts about the experience like the name of the restaurant, maybe what you were wearing, or what you discussed with friends.
The key here is story. Our brains tend to remember facts as elements of a story. Facts are dry and usually boring. Our minds don’t grasp facts as easily unless we force them into long-term memory by rehearsing them over and over again, like we did the multiplication tables when we were younger.
Stories have everything facts want to be: action, characters, color, descriptions, feelings, plots, sights, smells, sounds, textures. We identify with the story and connect it to our own stories. Stories put facts into meaningful and memorable context.
Your brain wants to recall information not as bits, chunks and pieces of information but as stories. Thus, finding ways to embed important annual meeting content and facts into stories is critical to success. Here’s a quick tip: encourage your presenters to use stories to help attendees to remember.
Stories, Context, Chess And The Novice/Expert Shift
Cognitive scientists Adriaan de Groot and Alfred Binet are known for conducting some of the most famous chess experiments that demonstrate the novice/expert shift. The novice expert shift is the process that novices take to becoming experts in a specific field or study. de Groot and Binet are just a couple of the neuroscientists that have studied this effect using chess. (Thanks Douglas C. Merrill for sharing these stories!) Here’s what they did.
Photo by Nestor Galina http://www.flickr.com/photos/nestorgalina/3707322819/sizes/m/
Researchers set up a chess game, played a series of moves and then covered the board. They brought in chess novices one at a time, showed them the board for a few minutes, covered the board again and asked them to recreate the positions of the chess pieces on a different chess board. The novices couldn’t do it.
Then the researchers brought in chess experts, showed them the same board for a few minutes, covered it and then asked them to recreate the positions of the chess pieces. The experts did it without much challenge.
Why could the experts do it and not the novices?
The experts could recognize the context of the game and how the pieces arrived at their positions. When they looked at the chess board and pieces, they didn’t see a random collection of knights, pawns and rooks. They saw a story with a series of moves and countermoves that put the pieces at their current locations. They had experienced the story before and could recall it.
In another part of the study, the researchers performed a similar process. They arranged the chess pieces on the board randomly, without playing a game. The pieces were placed on spots that could not have part of a real chess game. This time, neither the novices nor experts could recreate the positions of the pieces.
Why couldn’t the novices or experts recreate the board the second time?
Neither the novices nor experts had a context for the game or a chess story to recall. They couldn’t recall similar patterns from their past experiences.
Bringing It Home To Meetings And Events
If the content you are providing at your annual meetings is foreign to your attendees, they will have difficulty recalling it. It will seem meaningless, foreign and abstract to them. They will have challenges seeing patterns and connecting it to their work. It will have little impact on their lives.
Your annual meetings content and education needs to use context and stories in order for your attendees to move the information from short term memory to long term memory. If you want to impact the industry and profession which you are serving, secure speakers and facilitators that are good at sharing stories, patterns and helping attendees make contextual connections to their professional lives. Context, recall and storytelling are three keys critical to your annual meeting success.
What implications does the novice/expert shift have on the content you deliver at your annual meetings? How can you help attendees connect context and create their own stories at your meetings and events?
Filed Under: Conference Education, Experience Design
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Interesting questions, Jeff.
I’m wondering of we even have experts, now, with all the information at our fingertips.
Do we simply have differing levels of expertise now, and we have to try the catch-all approach, or do we go in at a minimum level with the mindset that folks at meetings/events already have a decent grasp of what they’re attending?
What’s one person’s context is another’s story, after all. Does that make them know less? Probably not – but there is a difference in how they approach something.
Now you have my mind ticking 🙂
Thanks for the comments and thoughts.
Do we have differing levels of expertise now? Absolutely and it is imperative that meeting organizers address these different levels. Educator Jay Cross has identified three levels of experience for adult education and the needs of each of those levels. An easy and quick solution is for event professionals to identify education sessions for various levels – novice, mature and veterans. Also, I like the term subject matter experienced versus subject matter experts.
Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion Billy. I’ve placed that book on my reading list for this summer!
Context is important, relates to choosing the right story. Steve Denning’s book, The Springboard Story, focuses on using an impactful story to promote engagement, learning and retention. http://www.stevedenning.com/Business-Narrative/springboard-story.aspx
Complicated subject…But a couple of quick ideas – Consider touching Emotions to quickly create more permanent memories – especially in a story/metaphor.
95% of brain activity takes place at the unconscious
level so we are never sure what we will remember, exceptfor those rote factoids consciously drilled in.
Also, on expertise, check out 10,000 Hour Theory and
Unconscious Competence theory. Good Luck, John D
Thanks for your additions to this complex subject! I agree that touching an emotional connection is a great way to go!
[…] the information accessible for those of you trying to plan successful meetings. Check it out here, Jeff Hurt. I’ve just started reading Steve Denning’s well-known book, The Springboard Story. A […]
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