Business Employee Motivation August 28, 2014

In One Ear: Why Your Staff Aren't Really Listening to You


“I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.”

Often misattributed to the now-famous Joey Essex, these wise words were in fact first spoken about two and a half thousand years ago by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius. That’s roughly two and a half thousand years before the invention of television, visual aids and digital media. So, was he right or, like Joey, was he just a bit Confucius?

At school, I remember teachers using the phrase ‘in one ear and out the other’ to describe a pupil’s lack of learning power. But if Confucius was right, it was probably more to do with a lack of aide memoirs rather than a deficiency in ‘the little grey cells.’

To test the theory that human beings absorb information more easily when we see it or have to do something, two researchers from the University of Iowa conducted an experiment. James Bigelow and Amy Poremba were convinced that simply listening to information, without any other kind of stimulus, was the least efficient way to take something in. 

Of course, nobody listened to their theory so they had to do something to prove it.

Ha ha ha.

I spoil you sometimes.

In their study, they asked people to listen to a variety of sounds, view a series of images, and touch a range of different objects. For example, a person may be asked to watch sport on TV, then listen to some dogs barking outside, and finally touch a coffee cup without actually looking at it.

Call that an experiment? I have three sons who used to do that every Saturday morning.

Anyway, each participant was then asked to recall what they had seen, heard and done, an hour later, a day later, and a week later. Apart from one guy who couldn’t remember taking part at all, the results proved that people were more likely to recall the things they had seen or done far more readily than those they had simply heard. In fact, as time went by, they remembered less and less of what they had heard but could still recall with the same level of accuracy a lot of the things they had seen or done.

“We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated.” explains Bigelow. “But our findings suggest that not only does the brain use separate pathways to process information, it may also process auditory information differently than visual and tactile ones.” He went on to suggest that to improve memory, alternative strategies need to be employed such as increased mental repetition. Like children learning their times table by saying it out loud over and over again.

It seems that all that hard work creating visual material such as video or PowerPoint really does pay off, especially as a business leader. Unfortunately, providing it is just enough - when it comes to helping people remember information.

So the next time you need to make an important presentation to your staff or other key stakeholders, by all means talk in depth about the subject, but don’t forget to back it up with a few simple, visual aids and support it with summarised text.

(I’m talking about less than seven words on a slide here).

And if you’re a really tactile person, you might even invite people to come up and touch you.

However, a word of warning from the wise one. Confucius, he also says. “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”

So best to proceed with caution on that last suggestion.

Do you have any experiences of death by PowerPoint? What was the most boring presentation you've experienced and why? What can we learn from it? Comment below.

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