I learnt a few things about memory during Learning Technologies last week. I also picked up some new tips for designing content to make it ‘sticky’ as well as having other strategies reconfirmed by both Stella Collins and Dr Julia Shaw.

Julia is a ‘memory hacker’ who specialises in the creation of false memories. She (for example) convinces people they have committed crimes that never even took place. That’s quite an unnerving thought… and perhaps not one that seems immediately relevant to what we do in L&D. On the other hand, knowing that memory is so vulnerable and that the neuron networks that form memories can pretty easily be broken, reshaped or augmented is useful to us because, for example, it could help us understand why someone persistently gets something wrong.

But what about what we can do to help people remember our content? As Julia said herself, it isn’t (at this level) rocket science; there are a lot of fairly simple things we can keep in mind when designing or delivering content to make it more likely to stick.

  • Be selective. We have a responsibility to filter all the information that could be included and identify what should be included. That’s not to say we should make those decisions in isolation; speaking to end users as well as the commissioning stakeholders and subject matter experts is a great way to whittle things down to the essentials.
  • Make use of external memory. When I was a teenager I knew a couple of dozen phone numbers by heart because I often needed them when making calls from public phone boxes to friends. These days, I think I only know three numbers; the rest are stored in my phone. Sometimes, knowing where information is located is as useful as (or more useful than) knowing the information itself. We need to be mindful of the distinction and design content accordingly.
  • Add colour. This doesn’t necessarily (but might, of course!) mean literally. But the brain likes the weird and wonderful. Find ways to turn basic information into more meaningful material, like using humour, shock, discomfort, surprise or delight.
  • Design multi-sensory experiences. I read one of my favourite books (The Host by Stephenie Meyer, don’t judge) for the first time at a point where I was commuting for almost three hours a day, and for some reason I had a playlist of only six songs that I listened to on repeat in the background as I read on the train. I can’t hear those songs now without being transported back to the world of The Host. And when I saw the film, it felt wrong to me to hear a different soundtrack set against the story. Think about ways to associate certain sounds, smells or sensations with your content; if that’s not possible, even consciously injecting multi-sensory language into it can make a difference.
  • Help people build memory palaces. The idea is that you give a type of memory a particular sense of place, or space. If you studied French at secondary school, you’ll have learnt about the group of verbs that use ‘etre’ as their auxiliary rather than ‘avoir’ in the perfect tense. You’ll probably have learnt those  14 verbs by rote via a mnemonic like Mrs Vandertramp? I did too, at school. But the mnemonic never really made it stick for me and I used a different technique that I’d learnt a couple of years previously in a different French club. We learnt the 14 verbs as a little rhyme that told a story of going to a house, falling over, dying, being reborn and entering the house…and so on. It’s a bit odd and a bit silly, but the verbs went in an order that let us build a story we could actually picture. That house is my memory palace for that information; since then I’ve studied French through university and lived in France, but I still remember those 14 verbs that way. So when designing content, think about opportunities to help people create memory palaces for themselves for certain types of information.

Some of these things, such as multi-sensory content being easier to remember, were covered by Stella (author of Neuroscience for Learning and Development) in her session on learning and the mind, too. Stella actually has a guide to self-directed learning which includes some more specific tips on how to make content multi-sensory, and I’ve included details of how to get that e-book at the end of this post. Stella’s session was more about how an individual can improve the chances of remembering things they learn than about how we can design content that will be remembered, but either way the additional tips she provided are useful:

  • Guesswork. Guessing something actually increases your chances of remembering it, whether you guessed correctly or not. (In a former instructional design role, we talked about ‘test then tell’ instead of ‘tell then test’, based on the same principle.) The key is to make sure you get the right answer soon after guessing.
  • Sleep. This one most of us know – sleep is critical for making memories and therefore for embedding learning longer-term. One thing I didn’t know is that, for motor skills especially, practising them in the evening before you sleep means you’re more likely to repeat the practice as you dream. Your body doesn’t respond but your mind is going through the same processes, so you’re essentially getting more practice while you sleep.
  • Reflection. Building in time to really think about what you’ve experienced and learnt is critical in embedding it in memory. This one is definitely relevant to content designers as well as individuals, as space and time for reflection is often overlooked in online experiences and sacrificed to other activities in live events.
  • Re-firing the neurons. To combat the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, you need to deliberately re-fire the initially fragile network that forms a new memory and you need to do this at intervals over an extended period of time. Again, Stella’s e-book on self-directed learning includes some tips about how exactly you can do this as an individual, some of which might also be useful for designers looking for ideas to build into their content.

As a final thought, both Stella and Julia made the important observation that memory isn’t about the past or nostalgia at all. The only reason we have it is to help us navigate the future, to predict what might happen, to improve future performance.

(Stellar Learning’s Guide to Self-Directed Learning can be downloaded for free until the end of March using the discount code LTECH00.)


A few years ago, my then-boss Nick Shackleton-Jones arranged for the team to spend two personal development days at RADA. It was mortifying. I can vividly remember how uncomfortable I felt lying on the floor doing breathing exercises amongst colleagues, how awkward I felt as we were asked to move around the room using a series of different walks, how ridiculous I felt when we had to ‘throw’ words ‘into the room’, and how self-conscious I felt walking into the middle of the room and standing in silence for a full minute with my colleagues staring at me and then appraising my entrance and first impressions.

But I also look back on those two days as one of the best development experiences I’ve had. Certainly one of the best formal development experiences. As well as all those excruciating activities, we role-played various business situations in front of the group in a kind of forum theatre approach. I’m not sure how much the breathing, word-throwing and walking activities helped me but the feedback and suggestions from the first impressions exercise and role plays had a huge impact on me. To the extent that when Nick asked a year later whether I thought we should go back, I was really supportive of the idea (although I may have threatened to resign if certain exercises were repeated!). And when we did go back, and were facilitated by the same actor, he commented on the change he saw in me from the year prior.

I think of this experience regularly, most recently during Nigel Paine‘s ‘leadership on the edge’ session at Learning Technologies. He talked of the role of discomfort in learning, or development more broadly, drawing on the more extreme examples of the Antarctica expedition he co-facilitated last year and his upcoming Peak District leadership programme. And the theme recurred in a later session, as Paul Binks described the hugely successful Premier Life programme he introduced at Kwik Fit. It may take place in a nice venue, probably with decent coffee and chocolate biscuits, but – for the mechanics and garage owners being asked to self-examine, share their feelings and, ultimately, reflect on the experience through some kind of performance – the discomfort is no less real than it may be for the people Nigel will soon be asking to abseil off a viaduct.

In all three examples – my RADA experience, Nigel’s physically demanding expeditions, and Paul’s personal development programme – the results have been extremely (perhaps surprisingly) positive. People leave these experiences understanding themselves better; in some cases they leave as changed people. The impact often extends beyond professional performance and into their personal lives.

What is it about discomfort that can be so transformative? And what are the necessary conditions for this to be the case? Here are some of my thoughts, albeit still only partly-formed:

  • Support is vital. Discomfort is one thing; danger is something different. That support takes different forms. During an Antarctic expedition, obviously people need to know beyond question that they have experts around to keep them safe. In more commonplace corporate events, people have to trust other attendees and the facilitators to keep things confidential, to listen without judgement, to be critical friends.
  • Anonymity can play a key role. Being asked to let down your defences, to share things that you might not normally share with colleagues, to push your boundaries and test out different behaviours: these things can be easier in the company of strangers. Of course, I went to RADA with the colleagues I worked with every day and the lack of anonymity didn’t stop it having that huge impact on me – but that group of people was a pretty special team and (tying into the point above) I trusted and felt supported by them.
  • There are different ways to draw value from these experiences. There are lessons that can be drawn explicitly from discomforting situations, such as teamwork techniques following a physical group challenges. There are the kinds of observations that I received from my colleagues at RADA, and the adjustments and techniques suggested to me as a result. But maybe just being pushed outside your comfort zone is itself developmentally valuable. Even without explicit lessons being drawn out of it, an experience that encourages and allows you to become vulnerable, to face a fear and get through to the other side, perhaps shifts your mindset to one that is more (or differently) open, more receptive to new ideas, more able to take a different perspective.

I’m interested in different ways we can incorporate discomfort into what we do. In particular in the context of online content, rather than the live, group situations described above. Can we confront people with unexpected images or stories to encourage that shift of perspective? Can we, even in this online context, find ways to encourage people to reflect deeply and honestly on themselves and their own behaviour and mindset? How else can we use discomfort to enable or enhance people’s development?

L&D Global Sentiment Survey.

Each year Donald Taylor asks L&D professionals worldwide what they think will be hot the following year. The Global Sentiment Survey has been running since 2014 and, with the numbers of participants and votes growing year on year, I worked with Don on producing a report showing the results and looking at the trends. That 2016 report is free to download from Don’s website.

The survey is actually just a one-question poll that takes one minute to complete. The 2017 survey is now open, again on Don’s website, so hop on over and have your say. You can also sign up to receive a copy of the 2017 report when it’s ready early next year.

Clever campaigns.

I recently came across a story about a new Instagram sensation, whose account turned out to be nothing more than a clever campaign by a Parisian advertising agency to draw attention to how easy it is to miss the signs of, or even encourage, addiction. The account supposedly belonged to a French model, whose photos of her glamorous life attracted 50,000 followers within weeks of joining Instagram. But each photo was staged to include signs of possible alcohol addiction – a bottle poking out of a bag, a wine glass beside her, or a reference in the caption – and after a couple of months a video was posted on the model’s account coming clean and explaining the thinking and intent behind the campaign.

It’s an interesting story and it made me wonder if there might be opportunities to do something similar in the workplace. Could a campaign like this draw attention to subjects such as mental health issues, prejudice or discrimination, perhaps some health and safety topics? The Instagram example uses a social network, but the message is conveyed primarily through photos, so perhaps some kind of poster campaign could work. But more and more businesses have internal social networks now, so it would be great to see some creative uses of those for behaviour change campaigns. Perhaps there are examples already out there – I’d love to hear about them if anyone can point me towards them.

The stories we tell and the gaps in between.

Three years and a couple of weeks ago, I wrote something about the stories we tell about ourselves, inspired by two wonderful events that I attended. Recently I was reminded of that post and those events so I thought it was worth revisiting.

The essence of the original post (which you can read here) is this. Every company has a version of itself that it presents to the world: its ‘front garden story’. This story is told through advertising, press releases, brand; it’s the way the company wants to be seen and the values and principles it claims to have. Then there’s the real story that’s experienced inside the organisation: the values that are actually demonstrated, the way people behave, and the inevitable mistakes and lessons learnt. This is the ‘back garden story’ – the unedited, authentic, this-is-how-it-is story. The two stories don’t need to be the same. But there should be an awareness of the gap between the two and what that says about the authenticity of the company.

Last week, the idea of front garden and back garden stories resurfaced in my mind as I was looking at the results and outputs of Don Taylor’s 2016 Global Sentiment SurveyConsulting with the business ranked very highly as a ‘hot topic’ for 2016 amongst L&D professionals. But Showing value and Developing the L&D function have slipped down the rankings since last year. Consulting with the business was also ranked first or second significantly less often than the other topics in the top five. As Don pointed out in the webinar linked to in his blog post, this is problematic. How can we achieve our goal of consulting more deeply with the business if we aren’t developing the skills to make it happen?

I wonder if these results signify a gap between L&D’s front garden and back garden stories. We talk a good talk about business consulting, we claim it to be one of our top priorities and critical for our ongoing success. But, behind the scenes, we perhaps aren’t as committed to making it happen as our front garden stories suggest. And the risk there, of course, is that other people in other parts of the business will notice the gap and question our sincerity and authenticity. This in turn makes it even more difficult for us to build the deep relationships we want to build, to consult and partner with our colleagues across the business.

What do you think: is this too cynical a view, or do we need to take a good, honest look at the stories we tell about ourselves?