Interview with Carmen Simon – Part 2

In the first part of the interview with Carmen Simon of Rexi Media, we discussed her recent research on ways of making business presentations more memorable.

In this second part, we turn to the implications of her findings for the creation of eLearning content.

DE – Perhaps we could now move on to look at some of the major differences between presentations and eLearning in terms of how and what people remember, and how we can control that?

CS – With eLearning, you can probably expect that an audience goes in with the intent to learn and remember, even if it’s just to pass a test.

For presentations, we don’t have that luxury. People don’t come to a business presentation thinking, “You know I’m going to sit down here and I’m going to remember as much as I can.”

Here’s an example. In the US, we have the ability to erase from our records a minor traffic violation such as a speeding ticket so that the insurance does not go up. We can do this if we have not had any other violations in the past 18 months, and after we pass a traffic school test.

Over the past five years or so, traffic school content has been converted to online training so that people can complete it online. Those are some of the worst eLearning courses you have ever seen. But because you are so motivated to pass the test, to achieve your goal which is to make sure that your insurance doesn’t increase, you will put up with that stuff; you will pay attention and you’ll remember enough to pass the test.

In a business presentation, we hardly ever have that luxury from our audiences. These days you’re lucky if people even take out a piece of paper and take notes when you’re speaking. Most people sit skeptically with their arms crossed in poorly lit rooms already in a state of partial attention. You know that many are on their phones and it’s a little bit hard to achieve long-term memory here.

DE – in your presentation research, you talk about the “10% slide”—ways of reinforcing the key messages that you want to get across by, and repeating it throughout a presentation.

How would that work in a self-directed eLearning course, where people can choose their own route, and maybe skip bits they see as repetitive?

CS – When you create these courses you’re still in charge of what it is they see on that path. In any PowerPoint template, I always advise people to use the opposite state in terms of the layout to enhance this 10% slide.

Memory is, among many things, a problem of discrimination, and the reason people forget a lot is because so many slides look exactly alike. After two days, it is hard to remember which one was which. There’s nothing wrong with that because memory still needs some sidekicks, you can’t make everything stand out. You have to have some weaker stimuli in order to make other things stand out more strongly.

So pick your strongest designs and reserve those for the slides that really count.

DE – Some kinds of eLearning have always been very effective, and never had this problem. I’m thinking, for example, of what we might call high-stakes technical training, which often originated years ago with CBT?

CS – The effectiveness of any communication, whether it’s eLearning or a presentation is often just a function of the amount of time you spent creating it, or preparing for it. And it’s to do with your expertise, so it shouldn’t take as much time to create it as if you’re a beginner designer.

Take pilots, for instance. They might have some plane equipment that has changed, or they’re traveling to an international airport where some rules are different. Their online training ranges from simple information to skills training to very sophisticated simulations that may only take ten minute to complete but may have taken six months to develop. And in these circumstances, pilots come to the eLearning modules with the intent to remember.

And it’s very likely that they will, through repetition and exposure—many complete the same modules multiple times through the distributed practice effect. So we can count on the fact that they remember more than 10%. Business presenters and sales presentations…they don’t have that luxury.

DE – What about mandatory training, in areas like compliance, or health and safety that everyone has to complete, but only few people are really interested in?

CS – To answer “how do we make mandatory training more exciting,” we must look at some definitions of terms. There are three variables related to what pushes people into action: rewards, emotion, and motivation.

Let’s consider rewards as stimuli that ensure our biological fitness. Emotion is the feeling we have as we get closer or further away from rewards. And motivation is the amount of work that we’re willing to do in order to obtain those rewards.

So if those definitions are clear, it’s easier to understand, how we can make training more exciting, especially when it’s a dry subject.

Let’s look at motivation, one of the elements that is lacking when mandatory training is concerned. We have to realize that sometimes we’re naturally motivated to do something.

For instance, most children are naturally motivated to draw. But what scientists are noticing in studies is that if you give kids money for drawing (so there is a reward), they draw less creative pictures or they’re not even willing to put that much work into a drawing. If you ask a kid to have a vaccine (which does not come with natural motivation), then you have to give them some extrinsic reward to increase the amount of motivation.

And it’s no different with training – there is some training that we’re naturally drawn to complete. For example, training that enables us to master a skill we value, or give us some sense of autonomy or purpose, or even training that we know leads to keeping your job, such as compliance training. We don’t have to add a lot of flashy things or animations in these kinds of training.

If you just keep them short and clean and simple, people will be naturally drawn to complete them. The fake wax does not help with mandatory training.

DE – Finally, I know that in your writing and your talks, you often draw examples from advertising. I wonder if there are any lessons for eLearning there too?

CS – There are many lessons we can learn from how advertising messages are made. This is because many companies have large advertising budgets and they can also afford to do research and investigate what works and what does not work.

For example, a 10% message in a campaign does not change, but it can vary across contexts, therefore ensuring consistency and novelty at the same time. In the US, we have an insurance company called Geico that use a line, ‘fifteen minutes will save you fifteen percent or more on your car insurance’. That message has been the same for many years. But what makes it fun is to watch how they portray this message across so many contexts, and in a humorous way.

Ultimately, we often act on familiarity and consistency because if the message changes constantly then you won’t know what to trust.