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Hannah Moffatt

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What do a trainer and a neuroscientist have in common?


More than you might think, says Hannah Moffatt, creative director and trainer at language consultancy, The Writer.
As a trainer you instinctively know what makes learners tick. You might not have a PhD in neuroscience, but you’re always experimenting – looking for the best ways to make ideas stick beyond the classroom. Now neuroscientists are beginning to explain why those tricks of the training room work. And it doesn’t just come down to the exercises you use, it’s about the language you choose, too.
So here’s a reminder of a few things you knew already, with some neuroscience nudges to make your training sessions even stronger. 

You know training is scary

I’m not talking scenes from Psycho, here. ‘Threats’ at work come in all shapes and sizes. Stepping into a classroom full of strangers is scary. Not feeling heard is scary. Not knowing when the next loo break is, is scary. If your learners feel threatened, they won’t learn. No matter how hard they try, the reptilian ‘fight or flight’ part of their brain will be in overdrive. Which means their neocortex (the advanced part of the brain they need for learning) won’t be. So they won’t be able to concentrate. If you’re not sure what all the threats in your classroom might be, have a look at David Rock’s SCARF model.
Once you know which threats might crop up in your training, how can you make your courses less scary?
As well as starting off with a really clear introduction – remembering to tell people what the session is for, what you’ll expect of them and when the breaks are – always use an icebreaker. It’s not just a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s a way of giving everyone a chance to do something (rather than worry about what they might have to do). I like to ask each person to share a story about their name. It helps me remember them all and it bonds the group (Rock calls that, ‘relatedness’) so they work together more easily for the rest of the session.
But my favourite trick for helping a group get along is to give them something to agree on early in the session. To do it, a bit of fast and slow thinking often works wonders. 

You know simple language helps groups ‘get’ it

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about two types of thinking. Fast thinking (or system one thinking) is instinctive. It’s the stuff you hear once and ‘get’. In mathematical terms, Kahneman says it’s the equivalent of 2+2 =? You almost can’t help yourself from reaching an answer.
Slow thinking on the other hand needs a bit more...thought. In mathematical terms, it’s closer to working out 17 x 69 in your head. You could do it, but not without effort. And its just as easy to ignore it as it is to figure it out. How does knowing this help in the classroom? If I’m training a group to write more clearly, I’ll begin by showing them a piece of ‘slow thinking’ writing and ask what they think. Complex instructions (for simple things), T&Cs or even poorly-written road signs are all perfect for this.
One look at the group’s quizzical faces as they try to decipher the message I’ve shown them helps prove the point Kahneman’s making – when it comes to language we all instinctively understand and grapple with the same things, which means your learners can’t help but agree.
To make your language as ‘fast thinking’ as possible, cut jargon, buzzwords and corporate speak from your slides wherever you can. Instead, use the words you’d say in conversation. Everyday language tends to be ‘fast thinking’ as it comes to us naturally. Corporate speak doesn’t, which is why it rarely sticks beyond the session.

You know stories stick

People have been telling stories for centuries as a way of passing ideas on. Now there’s more proof than ever that they work. In 2010 scientists from Princeton University discovered that hearing a good story does something interesting to your brain: it brings it to life. You start to experience the highs and lows along with the storyteller. If it’s got action, your motor cortex (the action part of your brain) gets ready to go. The storyteller’s brain will be raring to go, too – it’s a phenomenon called neural coupling and it puts you and your learners on the same wavelength. It also helps listeners feel as though they’ve personally experienced the action in the story. So it’s a useful way of creating work-based simulations.
When was the last time a list of bullet points on a slide made you do that? The old joke is true, they call them bullets for a reason… they kill people (in spirit, if nothing else). And if you really want your learners to remember your stories, add a good dose of emotion. The more moving the message, the more likely your brain is to release dopamine, which is another key ingredient for making your ideas stick.
So, replace densely packed slide decks with stories. Not just any stories – examples that show real people overcoming real challenges and bring a tear of laughter or sadness to the eye. It’s a surefire way to get your learners leaving the classroom happily (ever after).
Hannah Moffatt is a creative director and trainer at language consultancy, The Writer. Over the last three years her love of language and learning has seen her train brand managers in Brazil, accountants in Bangkok and lawyers in London. When she’s not on the road (or training virtually from her desk) Hannah’s mostly designing new workshops, talking about training at events or reading books about neuroscience


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