Written on the staircase in the Design Museum in London:
“Information is only useful when it can be understood.”–Muriel Cooper
I love this quote and it sums up what I am trying to change about library presentations. Sure, we probably provide oodles of information to our audiences when we present, but are they really understanding what we say?
Research tells us that mental effort is required for processing of information into long-term storage. Mental effort is elicited through “working” with the material: class/presentation activities, reading and reflection, synthesis of the information presented with existing information, etc. This process takes time and structure, hence the reason that elementary school teachers, for example, in addition to lecturing on multiplication and long division, have the students practice worksheets, use math manipulatives (Unifix cubes, for those in the know), play games, sing songs and more, all in an effort to have students not only receive the information, but understand it.
Yet somehow between school and the real world, we’ve forgotten that people need time and practice with new information in order to be able to truly understand and make use of it. Yes, adult learners do differ from younger children and adolescents, but the fundamentals of human learning don’t differ in the need for time to process information and to “roll it around” in your head to make sense of something.
Presentations of the conference variety often are full of information, yet the audience has little time or opportunity to actually work with the new information and integrate it into their own knowledge. You can help your audience by reducing the amount of content covered and focusing on only the most important points. You can also help by providing explicit guidance and “scaffolding” for your audience.
For example, if you have four points to cover, give the audience a list of your four points at the beginning of your presentation, expand on your points during your presentation, then reiterate them again at the close of your talk. Repeating yourself feels stupid, I know, but repetition is key to encoding some information into long-term memory. You can also use a technique known as “signaling,” where you explicitly tell the audience that, in essence, “this is an important point.”
There are many other techniques you can use to foster not just a grand and totally useless “data-dump” presentation, but one in which your audience leaves with some “understanding” about your topic. I’ll post about those in the future.
And please, if you’re reading the blog, I’d love to get your comments and feedback!