You Don’t Know What You Think You Know.

Remember the first time you rode a bike without help? When the steadying hand came off the seat or your training wheels were unscrewed and set aside for a future toddler? Remember what you were wearing? For me, it was a tweed suit, with shorts and a cap. And the hand coming off the seat belonged to a sibling who eased me down a driveway and into the street unattended. The bike was a black Schwinn RollFast.
Or so I remember. The tweed suit memory may originate from a picture from sometime during that period, and “my brother pushed me into traffic” is an oft-told story that garners the desired comic effect. I know the bike is the right memory, as I have corroborating evidence. The rest is suspect.
I’m afraid I just played a dirty trick on you. If you did call to mind your first bike ride just now, you are now re-creating the memory as you ‘re-store’ it. Your memories are not movies in a vault that you watch from time to time, while not disturbing the film itself. Instead, you interact with long-term memory, and what is then ‘stored’ is the memory as you recalled it, not necessarily the ‘truth of what happened.’ Error is magnified and becomes embedded. I may have just mucked with a precious memory of your childhood. Sorry about that.
Our personal long-term memories are recreated when we recall them, often imperfectly.
This all comes to mind as a friend attends a week-long training course in Six Sigma (don’t get me started), and after I was honored to observe a security training course a few weeks ago. (It is always an honor to sit among the heroes working in the intelligence or warfighting community – these occasions help me remember why I am obsessed with public sector problems.)
What are the implications for training, then, if long-term memories are subjected to this imperfect storage method – and are often triggered by seemingly unrelated stimuli? (If I smell clove, I am back at a Thanksgiving table, immersed in those memories.) How do we truly provide “training” that will be remembered, hopefully with some degree of accuracy, long after the PowerPoint dims? How do we brief colleagues and supervisors without putting them into a poorly lit coma?
For my part, I use methods informed by people like Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, and John Medina. For the small group who sat through my Ignite DC talk in February, the charming fellow in the picture above makes them think of “high school diploma.” I used the auto-associative function of the neocortex to embed the notion that what we hand high school graduates is less than attractive as they proceed to tackle college and life.
I could have used a simple PowerPoint slide with terrifying statistics to get the same point across, but it turns out storing an image with a simple accompanying message is a better way to cement the idea. Each of my slides consists of an image with very few words, since forcing someone to read your slide as you talk ensures they absorb little. Reading the slides to your audience reduces this absorption rate to near zero.
In education, the field of ‘learning sciences’ is tackling the problem of education/training with an eye to how the brain actually works. Perhaps it’s time to bring the ‘learning sciences’ to bear for corporate/agency training. Perhaps your slides need to be crafted recognizing that your audience is not bored by you, but by a delivery method that ensures inattention.
Realizing we don’t have a wetware version of SharePoint in our skulls is the first step towards crafting training, briefings and conversations that will resonate, excite, and cause our colleagues to store the information more completely. What they do with that information, as they call it to mind over time, is utterly out of your hands. And theirs.
Duarte, N. (2008). slide:ology – The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.
Hawkins, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On Intelligence. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Medina, J. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery: New Riders Press.

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John Bordeaux

Bless you sir! I had no idea what it was – called it a bat and just assumed it was possessed. Thank you for clarifying this for me! Updating my presentation notes now…

Andrew Krzmarzick

John – If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to check out the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. Explores marketing pitches and ideas that we can’t get out of our minds a la: