What makes information stick?

In his recent book, To Sell is Human, Dan Pink argues that everyone now spends part of their work day trying to persuade other people to do stuff. He says we are all in sales now. He might also have said that we are all teachers. Teachers all believe they are in sales, but not all sales people believe they have to teach.  And managers are as likely to regret having to train as they to see themselves as teachers. Yet none of us makes it through a day without giving instructions of one kind or another.

Yesterday, I watched a group of great young people give quite dull presentations. They were trying to do what they have been taught to do: to present information they found somewhere else about contexts about which they know almost nothing. When people think of education, this is the kind of experience that comes to mind. I read the text book. I repeated what I thought I found there. I got marks and moved to the next textbook.

No wonder people do not want to see themselves as teachers. No wonder training is often taken to mean something like "a day away from work that accomplishes nothing and is not even much fun."

After the presentations, I told my students stories. I told them about the time I was shot at in my hotel room, and about missing classes so I could watch World Cup soccer games (my students do not have to miss class: they can watch soccer on their computers while in class). I told them about watching my mom get dressed up for parties and how elegant Chanel No. 5 seemed to me when I was very young and my mom was very glamourous. I told them stories because I knew that they will remember the stories.

I happen to teach business communication, and every time I tell them something they remember, I also give them a model of what kind of information sticks and motivates. The stories are not relevant to the textbook: they are relevant to the people in the room. The relevance makes them sticky and earns me the right to teach them something in the textbook. It connects the way they already communicate with they way they might learn to communicate.

The choice is not between an irrelevant story and a relevant page of facts. We do not get to choose how human brains pay attention, encode information or retrieve information. That's a given. We only get to choose how well we respect natural learning processes so that the information we offer has a chance of sticking.

Stories stick. Sensory information sticks. Emotion sticks.  If you don't have any of that in your communication, people have forgotten what you are saying before you are finished saying it.

Sticky information is like tape: it sticks to whatever comes in contact with it. If you want your facts to stick, you need to put them next to something sticky.


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