The Movie Director’s Guide to Effective Teaching

How many “training sessions” have you sat through where you’re eyes started to roll into the back of your head and you couldn’t stay focused no matter how hard you tried?

I’ve sat through too many sessions like this, and frankly, can’t stand it any longer. I don’t even fault the presenter. Many times people gain valuable experience in a topic or technique and are asked to put together a presentation and “train” a group of people. The problem is, the presenters are rarely trained in teaching techniques or learning theory.

It was after doing a little research that I then came across the learning principles of William Glasser, M.D – a psychiatrist who wrote many papers on improving the U.S. school system and was an advocate of non-medical treatments to mental disorders. He said:

“We Learn . . .
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss
80% of what we experience
95% of what we teach others.”

As someone who occasionally develops training material in a corporate environment, these principles dramatically changed how I develop and present my material. I also think about my kids in school and wonder if any of their teachers use these principles?

I do know that when I help my daughter study for a test, I have her teach me the material. She loves being the teacher and my only job is to listen and ask her questions. We find that she scores much higher on tests when she uses the studies-by-teaching method as opposed to rote memorization of the material.

An understanding of these principles is key to improving the learning experience. I’ve spent many hours delivering presentations when my only qualification was that I knew the material well. The problem was that I knew nothing about teaching.

When I thought about the Glasser Principles of Learning, I can see that my audience was only retaining 10% – 20% of what I was teaching. As a stockholder in my company, that did not sound like a good return on investment to me. I wonder how much money is spent by corporations on training where the participants only retain 10% – 20% of what they see and hear?

One thing to note was my class surveys always came back positive. “nice presentation”, “instructor knew his material” they would say. But, who really cares about the instructor? It’s not about me or any instructor – it’s about how much the audience learns and physically changes through your lecture (the brain creates new pathways and physically changes as you learn new material). The point of any class is to put new information into the heads of your audience. I often wondered – which 10% – 20% of the material is the class retaining? Then I found out.

Learning Happens at the Beginning and at the End

Research has shown that learning most frequently happens at the start and at the end of a message. Your message could be a presentation, advertisement or a lecture, it doesn’t matter – people remember the beginning and ending more than the middle. It’s called the primacy-recency principle and was first studied in the 1920’s. Movie directors understand this to well – that’s why in most movies something big usually happens within the first couple minutes and the best song is left until the end. They want you to remember the start of the movie and feel good at the end. We can apply this concept and provide a better learning experience for your audience.

Use Beginnings to Grab Your Audience

It’s at the beginning where you can grab the attention of your audience and set the tone for the rest of your message. We remember more from the beginning and end of a presentation than we do of the stuff in the middle. Usually people are ‘ready to learn’ at the beginning of a session and pay close attention and typically take notes.

But then something happens after a while – their eyes glaze over and they start to drift away. They check their Blackberry, complete their to-do list for the day or just plain doodle. All the while the presenter is trying her hardest to deliver her message and teach you her topic. Has this ever happened to you?

What’s missing, is the attention grabbing message. Too many times we don’t do an adequate job of telling the audience why they should care about the material. And it can’t be some lame corporate directive reason either. You have to explain why your message matters to your audience in a way that’s meaningful them. You as the presenter may be passionate about a topic, and to be successful, you have to communicate that passion to the audience. Only then, when the audience has a compelling reason to listen, will true learning and retention occur.

Endings are for the Big Hollywood Finish

At the end of your talk you want your audience to leave feeling good, like they truly learned something. You want them to leave with a sense of accomplishment. That’s why it’s actually better to cover fewer topics with more depth, than a range of topics at a cursory level.

Remember, it’s not how much you know, but how much your audience learns during your lecture. People need to feel they’ve changed during your talk. They need to feel they were engaged, challenged and reached a higher level of thinking (just like in a video game). Yes, game designers do know something about keeping our attention and providing just-enough-challenging-activities to get us into a Flow State. I think we can borrow some of these concepts and apply them to teaching and learning.

Improving Audience Retention

diagram 2

You solve the I’m-bored-in-the-middle-of-your-lecture syndrome simply by having more starting and ending points. I’m not suggesting you take breaks every 15 minutes, but you should provide for some type of exercise, discussion point or a change of pace about every 15 minutes. An exercise or discussion point that breaks up the flow of your talk will allow the audience to have more points where learning will occur.

In one class I took they had an exercise titled “Vote with your feet”. The instructor would ask some controversial question and everyone would go to one side of the room or the other based on their answer. The class would then discuss the topic while standing.

This technique was pure genius and a classic implementation of ‘adding more starts and ends’ to your talk. The class was forced to get out of their seats and move – which is great for getting the blood flowing and making sure everyone is awake. Since the question was typically asked at the end of a section – we were more inclined to remember the questions and more importantly, the discussion points. Once we sat down we proceeded with another start. Another point that facilitates learning.

You can see that by providing more beginnings and endings, you are actually operating at the higher end of the William Glasser scale – especially if you provide exercises or opportunities for discussion.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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