From the Nursery to the National Sales Meeting: when did we move from nurture to torture?

When my daughter was 4 months old I wrote a blog post about how everything you needed to know about an audience and their needs could be observed through the lens of interacting with a 4 month old baby.

My daughter is now in preschool and I’m once again fascinated by the striking difference in how we prime children to learn and how we inflict learning upon the adults in our organizations. (And, hey, it shouldn’t be that way!)

I was looking at her daily classroom schedule and noting how often they changed up the format. Noting the activities they do. Noting how VERY best-practice-brain-friendly their methods were. Now, the child’s brain is more plastic than the adult brain, MORE primed to learn. But somehow along the way, between nursery school and national adult audiences…we moved from nurturing learning to torturing the learners.

And, spoiler? Adults need just as much from their presentations as kids do. It’s just more obvious when kids tune you out—so we think that everything is fine if we’re boring the snot out of adults because they tend not to wiggle around and act out so much.

We’ve learned control—not a different way to learn.

So. Here’s what I observed from the preschool classroom and ways to apply these principles of learning to your event:

Everywhere in my kid’s classroom there are bright, striking visuals reminding the students of what they’re learning. Colors. Numbers. The alphabet. What word rhymes with which animal. They are always there…being passively absorbed and as a reminder if the kids need a reference.

At an event, peripherals can accomplish the same thing. Lining the room with key message points, graphics, and ideas provides an environment that nurtures information absorption. Attendees can ADD to these graphics by writing down their own learning. We once had an event where attendees lined the walkway going into the room with their personal takeaways and quotes.

Frequent changes.
At first I was shocked that preschoolers changed lessons every 15-30 minutes. It didn’t seem like enough time to really dig into a topic. BUT, even in a hands-on classroom environment you’re operating within the limitations of the working memory. You simply can’t go heavy into a topic for an hour and expect individuals to take away all the detail you’d cram into that time.

At an event it’s the same story. The limit of an ADULT attention span for a single presentation style is 5-7 minutes (barring novelty and a shift in style). Having a 90 minute presentation, if not meticulously crafted with the adult learner in mind, is a brain-killer.

Stories. Morals. Lessons.
Children learn through stories, morals, fables, lessons. We tell kids stories because it engages their emotion and imagination. Emotion and memory are so strongly linked that to fail to engage emotion is to fail to invest in your information.

Adults are no different. We learn through the story. We remember a story around a piece of information much more easily than we remember a discrete fact. Anything CAN be a story with the right framing; your marketing plan for the year was developed through a story of research and insight. Telling a story also changes up the presentation style—so weaving a story into your data can reset and expand that 5-7 minute attention window.

Interaction and hands-on learning. 
Somewhere in high school we start lecturing kids. Less so, now that we know better, but there’s still a fair amount of presentation=retention thinking. This is not the case in preschool; kids must try something themselves. They must interact, sing, ask questions, participate in the topic in multiple—sometimes tactile—ways.

Your audience craves interaction. Presentation does NOT, indeed, equal retention. To synthesize information your audience needs to work with it in some way. This can be discussing it, writing down key points (prompted, not just giving them notepads and hoping for the best), asking questions, playing games (yes, games), etc.

While the curriculum is set, kids are always given specific time to explore their own interests where they are then guided and built upon in a more intentional way.

Giving your attendees space and time to explore what they want to seek out is a great way to make the event personal and highly relevant. Ask attendees what THEIR goals are for the event. What problems they would like to solve. Who they would like to meet. Build in networking time and experimentation time.

Elementary learning isn’t elementary. It’s studied, guided, practiced. It is an intentional process built to engage the brain at fundamental levels. And those fundamentals don’t just go away with time. We may fail to engage the adult brain in the same way, but that’s not because the adult brain doesn’t need engaging.

Oh, and recess? Not optional.
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