Just Because You Speak Does Not Mean Your Audience Learns: Eight Presenter Principles To Master

Julia Watson - PopTech 2013 - Camden, ME

Most speakers are really good at talking!

But talking to your audience does not mean that your audience is learning.

Our Brains Have Limits

As speakers, we have assumed that talking to an audience results in their learning. We think that their minds are like sponges absorbing what we are saying.

But just hearing information does not equal learning it. You know that from talking to your kids and spouse. Just because you spoke it doesn’t mean they heard it or did it. Plus, if just listening leads to learning, we would play recordings while we slept and say we learned it.

Our brains have a limit to the amount of information it can hold in short term memory. We can hold about three to seven pieces of information for 30 seconds. We have to repeat it or give attention to it to move it to working memory. (Dr. Terry Doyle, 2011; Dr. John Medina, 2008; Dr. James E. Zull, 2002)

So the more a speaker talks, the less the listener actually retains. If you want your audience to learn your info, you have to speak less and get the audience to think and talk more about your content.

Your Speech Or Their Learning?

So, as a presenter, which is more important: your speech or your audience’s learning?

If you said your speech, then you don’t need an audience! You can talk to yourself in an empty room.

If you said the audience’s learning, then you really care about their ROI. You know you need to design your presentation so that the audience has time to think about what you’re saying, digest it, reflect on it and consider applying it. That can’t happen while they are listening to you.

It’s time for all speakers to shift the focus from their talk to the audience’s learning!

Eight Adult Learning Principles

Here are eight adult learning principles grounded in neuroscience and andragogy, the study of how adults learn, that can help guide your presentation.

1. Principle of Active Learning

Active participation through discussion, feedback and activities creates more learning than passive listening or reading. As a presenter, focus on critical content needed to succeed and allow the participants to discuss that content with each other.

2. Principle of Problem-Centric

Adults come to your presentation expecting to get their problems solved. They are not there just to get more information. If your presentation does not help them solve their pressing issues, it will be forgotten. Adults are problem-centric, not content-centric.

3. Principle of Previous Experience

New information has to be linked to previous knowledge and experience or it will not be remembered. Allow participants time to discuss with each other how the new information connects with what they already know.

4. Principle of Relevance

If the information being presented is not relevant to the listener’s life and work, it will not get their attention. As a speaker, your content must have meaning and immediate relevance. Explain why your presentation is important and how it relates to their work.

5. Principle of Emotional Connection

Presentations that connect with a learner’s emotions are more likely to be remembered, recalled and learned. Fear is not a good motivating factor for learning as it causes the brain to react in a fight or flight syndrome. Share stories that emotionally connect.

6. Principle of Self Learning

Adult learners have some strong beliefs about how they learn. These beliefs, whether accurate or not, can interfere or enhance their learning. As a speaker, always explain why the audience should participate in specific activity and how the process and content benefits their learning.

7. Principle of Alignment

Adults expect that a presenter’s content, learning outcomes and activities are aligned together. If the learning outcomes do not match the content, the learner feels disconnected and learning is hampered.

8. Principle of Fun

Learning should be fun! As a presenter, if you are not having fun presenting your information and facilitating learning, then you should stop. By all means, make learning fun, enjoyable and filled with laughter!

Revised from a December 2011 post.

Neuroscientists and Education Researcher Sources: Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark, Dr. Terry Doyle, Erica J. Keeps, Dr. D. A. Kolb, Dr. John Medina, Dr. David Rock, Dr. Harold Stolovitch and Dr. James E. Zull.

Which of these principles resonate with your personal experiences? What additional principles would you add to the list?

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  1. […] Most speakers are good at talking. They are not good at facilitating their listeners' learning. Here are eight brain-friendly presenter tips to increase listeners' learning.  […]

  2. […] article was first published in his Midcourse Corrections blog and appears here with his express […]

  3. Oh Jeff – you rock

    What an amazing article. Wonder where eye candy fits. If clearly presented visual information has actually a better impact on learning or it’s just better to look at

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      The research is loud and clear that we are all visual learners and adding visuals to your presentations increases retention. Good addition and thanks for adding it!

  4. […] Jeff Hurt reminds us of the key principles of adult learning. […]

  5. George says:

    My uncle was a teacher and he gave me a book about the topic many years ago. In short, one of the things that book described is the fact people learn from experience and more when they mix their senses (although I don’t agree with everything on that article).

    Speakers should use that to their advantage, and help their attendees picture what they are talking about in a “multisensory” way, helping them imagine how something looked, smelled, tasted and (not ‘or’) felt. That helps a lot.

    My 0.02.

  6. I’m partial to #8. That’s how The Water Coolers are approaching our new Keynote session; From the Page to the Stage. By integrating content and comedy, we hope our audiences will retain the information we present to them. Our Kick-Off is at ASAE’s Great Ideas Conference on March 11th. http://www.greatideasconference.org/general_sessions.cfm

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