Recently I went to dinner with a former student who graduated 12 years ago. This student is now a successful attorney who writes numerous legal briefs and other documents that are read by judges and others in the legal profession. During the evening he described how he still uses writing and design principles I developed for my business communication classes: “I use OABC and HATS all the time in my writing, and they give me such a great advantage in writing for judges.” He also said, “I learned more in your writing class than in all the writing classes in law school.”
Obviously, I was happy to receive the compliment for my course, but his comments caused me to think about learning retention—what is it that enables students to remember and use writing principles learned in business communication courses?
Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) have written a landmark book on this topic: Make it Stick—The Science of Successful Learning. Roediger and McDaniel are cognitive scientists whose careers have focused on learning and memory, and Make it Stick captures the results of years of their own learning. In this intriguing work, the authors conclude that people generally go about learning in the wrong way.
For example, the idea that people learn better when they receive instruction in a manner consistent with their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory or visual) is not supported by research. Further, the idea is false that if we can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. In fact, learning that requires more mental work lasts longer.
In addition to identifying what doesn’t work in learning, the authors also identify what does work. Three of their proven strategies likely helped my former student retain and use his classroom learning years after graduation.
Mnemonics. First, use mnemonic devices. Mnemonics link a memorable name to a larger mass of information.
In this case, OABC stands for opening, agenda, body, and closing. This acronym provides a proven pattern that can be used for many business writing situations. HATS refers to headings, art/graphics, typography, and spacing. After a basic message is crafted, students can add headings, appropriate graphics, typographic enhancements, and white space to make the message more visually appealing to the reader. The OABC and HATS acronyms provide easy ways for students to create clear, organized, and visually powerful messages.
Integration. Second, integrate all the knowledge learned. All new learning has to connect with previously known information.
OABC and HATS are taught early in the semester, and then they are integrated into subsequent assignments throughout the rest of semester. Thus, by the end of the semester, students have had experience applying OABC and HATS in a variety of contexts.
Repetition. Third, all new learning requires a rewiring of the brain. Therefore, provide repeated application of new learning to create and reinforce the new wiring. Don’t assume that students have learned new material just because you have covered it once. Rather, continue to re-emphasize important material throughout the course.
OABC and HATS are taught fairly early in the course, and students are required to apply the principles contained in these acronyms in all subsequent assignments. This repetition reinforces the learning, which improves the likelihood that students will continue to apply the learning later in their careers.
The result is that my student now has these principles so deeply ingrained in his mind that they spontaneously come into his mind whenever he faces a writing project. Further, he not only knows how to use these principles but has a strong conviction of their value in his work.
Today’s professional organizations spend millions of dollars each year on training, yet much of this training has little impact on participants’ subsequent business practices. In most cases, it is because real learning never takes place. Consider your own situation. Is there an opportunity for you to implement mnemonics, integration, repetition, and other Make It Stick learning tactics in your organization?
If you are a trainer or teacher, I strongly recommend the reading of Make it Stick. Further, I suggest that you visit with a few of your former students (or current students at the end of a semester) and ask them to recall what they remember most from your instruction. If you’re not satisfied with their answers, take time to clearly identify what you want students to learn, and then reinforce that learning with principles of mnemonics, integration, and repetition.
I welcome your comments.
Do you feel that your slide presentations look disorganized and unprofessional? Maybe your basic slide layout needs a facelift! Layout refers to the way you arrange your text and graphic elements on the slide.
Obviously, you want your slides to look clean and well organized, not chaotic and cluttered. PowerPoint, Keynote, and other slideshow software provide various templates, but they often result in boring slides with too many bullet lists. Instead of using these templates, create your own layout. Here are four suggestions to help.
1. Use a Grid
Divide your slide into a four-part grid, as shown in Figure 1:
Organize the body area into a grid, consisting of one or more vertical columns, with appropriate space above, below, and between columns. Figure 1 shows an example of a four-column grid for the body. With this layout, you can have one very wide column, two equal wider columns, four equal narrow columns, or an unequal three-and-one column arrangement. In Figure 1, the first body text spans all four columns; the remaining bullet list and graphic span two columns each. Regardless of the layout, always appropriately align the text and graphic items. Items can be top, bottom, left, right, or center aligned, as appropriate. For example, the side-by-side boxes in Figure 1 are aligned both top and bottom. They are also right and left aligned with the heading “Excessive Audit Violations.”
The important point is to develop a grid that works for you and to use it to achieve visual consistency among all of your slides. A grid gives your slide presentation a well-organized, professional appearance. (To make sure the gridlines don’t show on your final slides, use the gridlines feature of your software, rather than drawing your own.)
2. Use a Running Agenda
Display a running agenda (outline) of your presentation content (in Figure 1, see the agenda in the dark blue bar on the left side of the slide). A running agenda produces two benefits. First, it shows your overall information architecture, which your audience can use for mentally organizing what you present to them. Second, a running agenda helps the audience remember the big picture, even when you take a deep dive into the details of your presentation. Without a running agenda, listeners can easily get mentally lost, not knowing how the details tie in with the overall information.
The running agenda can be on the left side of your slides, as shown in Figure 1, or across the bottom. Always include a pointer or other visual indicator to show where you are in the presentation. For instance, while talking about “Analysis” information in your presentation, change the color of “Analysis” in the agenda, and/or place a small arrow beside it (see Figure 1). When you move from the “Analysis” section to the “Conclusion” section, change the color of “Analysis” back to the normal color and highlight “Conclusion.” Also move the arrow to the appropriate point beside “Conclusion.”
A running agenda is especially useful for informative presentations, such as training or briefing presentations. Be sure to repeat the agenda on every slide, or at least on the first slide of each major segment of your presentation, to remind the audience of the big picture.
3. Have a Distinct Front Door
Make sure each slide has an obvious front door—a clear point of entry. The front door should be a visually dominant object or text item that you want your audience to notice first. Because people’s eyes naturally go to the top of a slide, generally place your front-door item in that area.
For many slides, your front-door item will be the slide’s title, displayed in a large font to make it stand out. For example, you could make a slide title highly visible by using a 44-point, bolded Arial font, while using a smaller, less visually emphasized font for the rest of the text on the slide. The large title would attract the audience’s attention and serve as the entry point (front door) of the slide. For other slides, the front door could be a large photograph or another eye-catching visual.
4. Have a Clear Pathway
After entering the front door of a slide, your audience should be able to see an obvious pathway through the body of the slide, generally following a natural reading trail from top to bottom and left to right (except for languages written from right to left). For example, with a two-column layout, this path might run from top to bottom in the left column and then top to bottom in the right column.
Regardless of a slide’s specific pattern, the path should be visually obvious. As needed, include numbers, arrows, or other visual markers to make pathway clear. For instance, if six text boxes are arranged in a two-by-three pattern, use arrows or numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) to designate whether to read the boxes in top-to-bottom-left-to-right or left-to-right-top-to-bottom sequence (see Figure 2).
As you work with slide layout, feel free to alter the layout as appropriate. For instance, use three columns in your body area grid (see Figure 2), rather than using four as shown in Figure 1. To help decide how to lay out your slide content, ask yourself, “Given the information I want to display, what is the best way to organize it on a slide?” You might also ask your colleagues for their input. Two heads are often better than one.
As you create your next slide presentation, apply the four steps presented above. Initially, your layout might take a bit of time to set up. But as you persist, your slides will become more organized, both logically and visually, thus enhancing both the logos and ethos of your presentation. Give it a try and let us know how it works for you.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we believe that communication is the lifeblood of management. We hope these posts will help you more effectively communicate and manage in your organization.