Many people present to teach or train and sometimes the topic is complex. It may be technical, have many parts, or just be difficult. What can you do to help your audience understand and remember what you say?
I think there are four steps you can use to get the best results.
The more complex the subject, the more you need to simplify. This sounds impossible, but what it means is that you must break down the information into smaller pieces. Even rocket science is made up of small principles that are simple. Yes, when you put them together, they’re complicated, but if you start with the complication, you’ll lose everyone.
You might have to remind people of topics they’ve already learned. But if you clearly build the blocks that make up the entire topic, you can make learning easier and more successful.
Repetition helps people remember, but you need to repeat in the right way. Each repetition needs to have the focus of the learners. This is why writing the content on the slide and reading it makes learning harder, even though it’s repetition. The two messages compete and make focus harder.
Instead, speak out the information and show it with some sort of relevant graphic. Or black out the slide (you can do this by pressing the B key while in Slide Show view). And of course, repetition is one of the values of homework exercises.
Our brain has an easier time learning if we can connect a new subject to something we already know. So connect what you’re saying to a familiar or simpler topic. Provide examples of the principles you’re teaching or use metaphors. Let’s say that you’re talking about various ways that insurance companies calculate health insurance premiums. You talk about community-rated insurance (one of the types) and say that it’s used for small companies that are just starting to offer health insurance to their employees. Then you give an example, saying, “Let’s say you’ve owned a small company with 10 employees for a few years and now you think you can offer your employees health insurance. You go to an insurance company and they tell you that because they don’t know anything about the health of your employees, they”ll use community-rated insurance.”
There’s another side to connecting. We often don’t think of teaching as an emotional activity but learning definitely is. Studies show that people remember incidents better when they are connected with a powerful emotion. You don’t have to artificially add a sappy tinge to what you teach, but when you connect with your learners, they will pay more attention and value what you say more highly. Both attention and perceived value will help learning. Explaining why your topic is important will add emotional power. Showing that you care about your students will do the same.
Provide an opportunity for your learners to apply what you teach. Homework exercises are one way. Assigning a group project that simulates a real-world situation is another great technique. When an audience does some activity, even a small one, to use what they’ve learned, they’re more likely to carry the information over into their work or life.
How do you teach complex subjects?
Have you successfully used these 4 techniques to teach complex information? What has worked for you? Leave a comment!
As a former high school math teacher, and recent grad school student, I’ve found that providing “breaks” also really helps the audience stay alert and focused. If the topic you’re presenting can be broken down into several smaller sub-topics, a great idea is to give short assignments/tasks in the breaks between subjects. This provides repetition, application, and a mental “break” from listening to a long lecture you might have otherwised tuned out of.
I couldn’t agree more about the use of examples to illustrate principles. Not only the use of examples, but tweaking the examples. FOR EXAMPLE, present an example with 3 or 4 variables and then ask a question needing a right answer. Then, change one of the variables and ask, “What’s the answer now?” Change another variable: “How about now?” Tweaking examples or review questions covers the “repetition” principle as well as the “connect” (and really the “apply” also) principle.
Nice technique. That really makes the students have to think!
Joel, I agree with the importance of breaks. Sometimes the brain needs to stop in order to take in more information.
A bunch of bunk this is. If you have to do all this, then you are speaking to idiots and are wasting your time. Just write all your content in technical language in long paragraphs in PowerPoint slides and read them aloud to your audience. That’s how it’s done at my work, and we’re not out of business yet, so it must be working. Kidding of course. I do want to stress the importance of simplicity. The longer you’ve worked in a field, the harder it is becomes to eliminate jargon from your language. Pretend you’re explaining it to your… Read more »
On January 6th I blogged about an example of using a metaphor –