Making training stick

October 27, 2009

“Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath – a book widely recommended on various blogs on presentation and management. Its about how to get ideas to “stick”, and the principles outlined can be applied in various contexts, but the one I’m interested in is teaching and training.The core idea in the book is that to make ideas stick the message need to have a number of attributes, summed up by the acronym SUCCES. They should be

* Simple

* Unexpected

* Concrete

* Credible

* Emotional

* use Stories

The last of these is particularly important as stories usually involve concrete examples, can get to the core of the idea and can be framed to include unexpected and emotional aspects. The Heath’s practice what they preach with stories (lots of examples) forming the basis for the book.The occupational hygiene profession is not very good at making things “sticky” – the very name we use for our discipline is perhaps a good example of this!

Although we often can work out what our core ideas and principles are, we are not always very good at using the other aspects discussed by the Heath’s to put them across to an uninterested audience we are trying to influence, whether management, workers or regulators. For example, I was discussing the COSHH principles of good control practice with a colleague a few days ago, and we both agreed that while the principles are good and sensible, they are anything but “sticky” and its perhaps not surprising that very few people, including many general safety practitioners, have not really heard of them. From a training and teaching perspective, making ideas “sticky” is important if the learners are to remember what you’ve tried to get across, and the SUCCES principles can be applied to make the instruction more memorable.

Making things “simple” doesn’t mean “dumbing down” but making sure ideas, however complex, are put across in a way that can be understood by learners new to the principle. Things that seem obvious to an expert need to be carefully explained. This can be made easier if the ideas are illustrated by concrete examples. Every good trainer will have “war stories” that can be used to illustrate application and implementation of the principles. Case studies too are types of stories and can be based on concrete examples and are a good way of getting the learners to think through the principles. The stories and case studies clearly need to be credible if they are to be seen as relevant by the learners.

The idea of using emotion might seem a bit airy fairy but is really about making the ideas relevant to the learners by showing them that what they are learning is relevant to them, either as individuals or as part of a group. Unexpectedness is probably the most difficult principle to apply – I think that it can only be used sparingly – you can’t make everything unexpected. However its a good way of waking up the audience and grabbing attention and can be particularly useful during awareness type training, particularly where the audience might be uninterested, and can help to get the emotional “buy in” you are trying to achieve.

One thing isn’t covered in the book, which is particularly important in making training and teaching “sticky”. The book focuses on getting a message across and making it stick by presenting people with information i.e. by presenting the information verbally or in writing. Learning isn’t just about listening and reading- quite the contrary. People learn best by doing – sometimes finding things out for themselves or reinforcing the points put across in presentations and written material. Perhaps some of the ideas in the book could be applied to practical exercises. As I’ve already mentioned above, they can be applied to designing effective case studies.

So all in all, a useful book. The ideas it contains have certainly stuck with me!


At the conference on REACH I attended a few weeks ago, as usual, all the speakers used slides crammed with information – far too much to cover in the short time slots they were allocated.  In every case they either moved  through the slides too quickly (so the audience didn’t have time to finish reading the individual slides) or ended up skipping and missing a number of slides.

Why do they do this?

I think that one of the reasons is that speakers at conferences usually have a limited time slot, but have a lot of information they want to communicate. By cramming information onto slides you reduce the total number and fool yourself into thinking that the amount of material you are trying to get across is manageable in the time available. It’s a little like burying your head in the sand. The problem of too much material disappears – until you try to present it!

Slides should support the presentation – they’re not a substitute for it. However, where they are used they need to be well designed if they are to perform their function effectively. I think that most presenters don’t put too much thought into that aspect of their presentation. They tend to default to using the standard Powerpoint template that focuses on using words, structured as bullets and sub-bullets.

Research has shown that its better to minimise the number of words on a slide and to use pictures or other visuals where possible. I don’t intend to go into it here, but there is a good explanation of the theory in a recent post on Olivia’s Mitchell’s blog “Speaking about Presentation” which includes a summary of some recent work by Chris Atherton, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Central Lancashire.

Some good advice on slide design is available also available  in a number of books such as Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nancy Duarte.

Slideology Webinar

October 9, 2009

Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte

Yesterday I participated in a webinar held by Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design, the author of “Slideology“. I’m a big fan of her book and her approach to presentation design so was keen to listen to what she had to say. I had some computer problems so missed the first twenty or so minutes of the 60 minute session, but it was still worthwhile logging in.

The points made by Nancy really covered the same ground as her book, but it was good to hear them presented “in person”, so to speak. I also found it interesting to look at the slides she’d designed for her presentation. The key points that I took away from the session were:

  • when preparing for a presentation, stand back from the computer. Presentation design programs like Powerpoint can lead the user and limit their imagination. The brain isn’t digital and its good to use old fashioned tools like paper, note cards and sticky notes to brainstorm and arrange ideas
  • Don’t try to cram too much on one slide. “Slides are free”. Split ideas over many slides rather than cramming them all on to one.
  • A good slide designer needs to be a communicator, a graphic analyst and a draughtsman!
  • Deliver a profound experience to the audience – a “STAR” moment (Something They’ll Always Remember)

Safari Books will be posting a recording of the webinar on the net in the next day or two. I don’t know whether it will be generally available but as I participant I’ll be downloading it and watching the presentation again.

Slides and Screens

October 4, 2009


I took this photograph at the conference on REACH that I attended last week. There are a number of things worth noting

The design of the slide is typical of those shown by just about every speaker during the conference. It consists entirely of words and there are far too many of them.

  • It’s impossible to read such wordy slides and pay attention to the speaker at the same time
  • there is too much information to take in at a glance
  • the speakers often moves on to the next slide before you’ve had time to finish reading the slide.

The other main problem is the positioning of the screen directly in front of he large windows.  This meant that

  • there was distracting glare to each side of the screen
  • when the sun was shining directly through the windows it wasn’t possible to read the slides as the sunlight came through the screen, overwhelming the light from the projector
  • activities taking place outdoors (e.g. gardeners clearing up leaves) or even movement of birds, were distracting

Conference organisers really need to think carefully about the visuals and the room layout. This was particularly poor for a conference of occupational hygienists who should know about these things.