It’s all pedagogy to me – How to build learning styles into your presentations

I remember driving to work on the day of giving my first university lecture. I was close to paralysis with nerves and desperately hoping for a flat tyre, overheated engine or any other non-injury way of avoiding getting onto that lecture theatre platform. Since then delivering lectures, training sessions and presentations has become slightly less nerve-shattering. But they all still demand pin-sharp preparation and research into not only the subject matter but also how best to connect with your audience. You want your presentation to be memorable, informative and, of course, jaw-droppingly awesome. But rather than packing it with as many flash-bang images, gizmos and graphics as you can, instead think about how best to tell your story from your audience’s point of view. 

That’s where some of the amazingly dull pedagogical theory sessions I sat through on different learning styles actually came in useful. The theory dictates that individual audience members will have preferred methods for learning and gaining knowledge. The most commonly used theory is the visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinaesthetic model – catchily known as VARK – which says that most people possess a dominant learning style.

Visual learners gather knowledge through seeing. They think in pictures and images and their most common phrase may be “I see what you mean” or “the way I see it is”.  Auditory learners prefer to talk through a process before reading about it. They learn through listening and will often say “I hear what you are saying”. Reading and writing learners take in information through the written word. Having a list is probably a key way that they organise their lives. The final group are kinaesthetic learners who use action, making things and interaction to learn.

The theory in educational circles is that you should conduct an initial assessment to help you gauge the learning styles of your audience. It’s fairly obvious that a formal test or quiz is not going to go down too well at the start of your 10 minute presentation, but there’s no reason why you can’t start with a quick question and answer session. For example, how many of you have heard of us already? What’s your experience of my product? These answers will help you to shape the style of your talk, give you an indication of the level of experience in the group and give you chance to introduce yourself. I’ve always found it helpful to include a few selected personal details here – preferably something slightly humorous to get your audience on side. Telling them that my major claim to fame is being the back end of the horse in our village pantomime or that I once asked the Stereophonics to stop their sound check so that we could hold a shorthand exam always goes down well. Even if you prefer to launch straight into your presentation, your content should try to cover the different aspects of learning.

Remember that visual learners will respond to your facial expressions and body language and learn best from pictures, tables and charts. Make sure your slides include images to back up your words and that you keep your body language positive. Auditory learners will listen very carefully to what you are saying, so make your explanations clear and well structured. Don’t be afraid to repeat the most important points in different ways at various points in your presentation or recap as you go through. You could also invite your audience members to record your presentation so that they can revisit it later. A handout at the end of your presentation will appeal to your reading and writing learners as well as clear and simple bullet points on your presentations slides to back up your words and images. Kinaesthetic learners – those who prefer active involvement – are the toughest group to engage with, particularly if you have a large audience. Consider if you have time or the opportunity to include some kind of demonstration or activity that they can get involved in. It could be something simple, for example in a marketing presentation, asking them to jot down social media ideas and arranging them into a weekly planner. It has the added advantage of breaking up the presentation and allowing your audience to refocus on your content.

If all that is just too mind-boggling then look at it another way and think long and hard about the most appropriate way of presenting each piece of your material. Is a consumer feedback campaign best expressed through a diagram, by talking it through, by bullet points on a slide or by getting your audience to map out their own ideas? Are the analytics of your website going to be clearest through a diagram, verbal explanation or a practical demonstration? It’s a lot to think about when your priority is focused on sifting out the most relevant information and selling your ideas in the most emphatic way. You might be the one delivering the presentation, but remember that it’s not all about you. Your aim is to make a memorable impact on your audience which will hopefully convert to sales and for this you must make sure you reach out to every individual. And, you never know, you might find you quite enjoy it.

Janet Jones – Martin and Jones Marketing

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