When writing speeches, I had never thought about the different types of learners in the audience. A speech was words and maybe a few visuals, and that was that.
What a fool I was.
Since then, I’ve seen the light, thanks to my favorite book, “Give Your Speech, Change the World,” by Nick Morgan. Morgan writes about smart ways to reach people who absorb information in three different ways—through sight, hearing and touch. In fancier words, they are primarily visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners.
My son, Joe, for example, spent his early years in a Montessori school, where children are given opportunities to learn in all three ways. Joe especially enjoyed learning by “touch”—the kinesthetic way—and the school often used “manipulables” to teach everything from math concepts with an abacus and bead chains to astronomy by having the children create papier-mâché planets.
Your speeches should be fashioned to appeal to all three kinds of learners, too.
First, visual learners. Morgan writes that while we might think PowerPoint slides help visual learners absorb information, in fact they are almost always filled with words instead of pictures.
Instead, Morgan suggests slides be simple illustrations—pie charts, graphs and pictures. Keep the words to a title, a couple of bulleted concepts and a “kicker,” a statement of implication at the bottom. If the bullets exceed a single line, Morgan says, “they’re not bullets, they’re poorly worded sentences, and a tipoff that you’re indulging in a speaker outline again.”
He also advises making your slide headlines a complete sentence. “Rather than saying ‘Implications of Cost-Cutting on the Department,’ a full sentence will force you to say something like ‘Cost-cutting will mean the elimination of needed services.'” The second statement is more meaningful than the first. It tells you the thought, whereas the first headline just tells you that a thought is coming.
Morgan says these guidelines will help if you must use words on your slides. Better is just a few picture slides, and best is no slides at all, he suggests. “Remember,” Morgan adds, “a presentation is an act of persuasion. You’re most persuasive when it’s just you. If you ever ask someone to marry you, will you use slides?”
To reach auditory learners, Morgan believes storytelling works well. Personal stories, parables and anecdotes will “appeal to this kind of learner and get stored most directly into the memory,” he states. He adds that speakers can also reach these learners through discussion groups, question and answer sessions and debates—devices that connect listeners more to “story” than the usual discursive style of business speeches.
Finally, reach kinesthetic learners through activity, Morgan advises. “The key here is to get them doing something.” His suggestions? Role-playing, games, working with models, or creating charts or physical representations of what you want them to learn.
Research shows that some 30–40 percent of the audience will be visual learners, 20–30 percent will be auditory learners and about 30–50 percent will be kinesthetic learners. Morgan concludes, “It is this last group that is most often neglected in business presentations.” No lie.
Why? Because speechwriters as a rule have not focused on the kinesthetic learning style of their audiences, and because it’s hard work to seamlessly and creatively work an activity into a speech.
I’m up for the challenge. I plan to discuss different learning styles with my speakers and try my best to honor each in what I write, the pictures I create and the opportunities for activity I work into my executive speeches.
It’s a tall order. Wish me luck.
Cynthia J. Starks is partner of Starks Communications