A Roadmap for Training Engineers

If you present in a way that matches how adults learn, then you can present for long-term retention, and for real action.

By Amy K. Smith, PhD, Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill. March 1, 2010

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Providing opportunities for engineers to learn and apply new technologies is a tricky endeavor. After all, you don’t always feel we have the time, money, or attention to devote to the next innovation, especially since innovation is so constant it’s almost daunting.

This is where the tricky part comes in: How do you design in-house training opportunities so that they are effective? More importantly, how do you train so that your listeners actually retain and use?

Good questions. You can present new technologies, products, and systems, but if those who are listening do not remember what you impart, then their thinking or behavior doesn’t change. And after all, you give talks to inform, educate, and incite action. Knowing how adults actually learn should guide your communications; it will improve audience participation, thereby increasing the retention of new information. If you present in a way that matches how adults learn, then you can present for long-term retention, and for real action.

Information processing

For technical information, there are some general principles that researchers in the field of adult learning and cognitive science have proven time and again. This article addresses how to apply adult learning psychology to oral presentations for public speaking engagements, sales interviews and presentations, and internal training sessions.

First, how do adults process information? To put it plainly: in bits of information.

While this seems obvious, research has uncovered some interesting premises. As listeners, you are able to process information better if you can relate what is being said to your own situation. We call this “schema.”

Think about the last meeting, presentation, or conversation you were in. At what point did you begin to relate what the person said to your own work or to a question that’s been on your mind? Schema is the background information you bring to the table as listeners. Schema is a combination of your work experience, education, and perspective on a given topic. As presenters, if you target your conversation to activate the background schema of your audience by relating your stories and knowledge to lived experience, they will retain more of what they hear.

You can easily accomplish this by relating your stories and case studies to current work or projects. If you’re a member of the audience, the minute you hear mention of that question from the back of your mind, you get hooked and begin to really listen. That’s because the speaker hit on your schema.

And what really happens when adults are processing within their own schema? Physically, as you listen and take in new information, the neurotransmitters in your brains chemically fire, aiming at a receptor; transmitters land on receptors and a thought is born. As you have thoughts, your brain creates chemical pathways as transmitters seek receptors. When you have an original thought—something that is new—your brain makes a new pathway. As you hear the same information repeatedly, this pathway becomes etched in your minds. The more the pathway is etched, the more likely you are to have long-term retention.

Think of it like a river. As you have new thoughts, you create little trickles in your minds of water running downhill. As you learn information and hear and process it over and over, those trickles become small streams. And when you create activity around these repeated ideas, the streams merge to create rivers. The goal for long-term retention is to create deep rivers in the mind as channels to which information can attach.

Effective lunch-and-learns

While effective lunch-and-learns have several key elements designed to help participants to retain new material, one aspect is more important than all others: interactivity. There are three parts to the interactivity formula: establishing a safe and comfortable environment, establishing the training session as an interactive one, and then keeping the interactivity going using research-based training tactics.

Part 1: Ensuring a conducive environment

Fostering interactivity begins with ensuring that the learning environment is conducive to the message of your presentation. What are the environmental needs of adults in training situations?

Interestingly, research tells us that safety and comfort are the cornerstones. Safety in this case means safe for the participants’ ego and professional reputation; you have to allow adults to protect their egos when they are learning new ideas. Comfort means the usual suspects: temperature, relative humidity, acoustics, and lighting. You may not be able to control all of the comfort factors, but it certainly is part of your responsibility as the presenter to establish a safe environment early on for an interactive session to be successful.

For a session to be interactive, adult participants need a balance of the known and unknown, active and passive participation, and the serious and whimsical to keep them involved at the optimal level. However, for these elements to occur fluidly, participants have to feel the safety we briefly touched on above. To accomplish this level of comfort, there are six methods to work with as presenters; all are required to maximize the learning potential of your participants.

1 Establish the goals and/or objectives and clarify the expectations of your talk. This allows the audience to give up their need to be in control because they have clear leadership from you.

2 Establish a learning environment that is professional and colloquial by drawing on the participants’ experiences, protecting minority opinions, keeping disagreement civil, and making connections among varieties of ideas.

3 Understand that every adult in the room has something to lose—their ego. Keep in mind that your speaking tone, facial expressions, and body language are as important as your words in conveying respect for your audience.

4 Use questioning techniques to provoke thinking, stimulate recall, challenge beliefs, confront opinions, and promote conclusions.

5 Create balance. Balance new materials with old, discussion with straight presenter talk, the sharing of relevant trainees’ experiences with the experts’—all within the time frame allotted.

6 Use positive, descriptive feedback with participants. Nod and give eye contact when they make a salient point. Smile when their question is the perfect segue into your next point. Feedback can be subtle and highly powerful.

All of these elements have to be in play during the first few minutes of your talk to establish a safe environment. This sets the stage for establishing interactivity.

Part 2: Establishing interactivity

How do you create the interactivity that is required to establish this positive, ripe, learning environment that meets the needs of the adult learner? First, open talks by greeting our participants as they walk in the door. This may sound odd, but think about it for a minute. Usually you stand up front as people filter in and get settled. Why, so you can be more ready? The PowerPoint is loaded, the lights are slightly dim, and our notes are in front of us. So why aren’t you greeting new participants at the door? Ask names. Say hello. This opens your audience to the possibility of creating a relationship with you in an hour. Research shows that when adults feel valued, they learn more quickly.

Second, within the first few minutes of your talk, make eye contact with everyone in the room (with audiences of more than 50 people, this can get a little tough). This means you’ll have to walk around a bit, move from the front down the center or side aisles. Your participants will be following your movement with their heads. This early movement sets the expectation that learning occurs in a community, more than just a passive audience. Third, try to direct one comment or question to as many audience members as you can; this allows the audience to avoid that “waiting for something to happen to me” fear.

Starting a lunch-and-learn this way establishes a sense of community—we’re all safe to learn together. Research suggests that for optimal participation, hence long-term retention, every audience member should talk with, look at, or touch at least six other audience members. Sounds impossible, right? Not if you have people in your audience talk to each other. So, for a 90-minute session, build in movement and conversational activity during the first 20 minutes. For example, talk for 10 minutes, then pause and have participants turn to their neighbor and summarize for 2 minutes—the 10-2 rule. Do this twice in the first 20 minutes. This sets the tone that this presentation will be interactive.

Part 3: Continuing interactivity

After interactivity is underway, how do we build in audience participation that is purposeful and meaningful throughout the lunch-and-learn?

Cognitive research shows us that the more times we manipulate new information, the more we retain. The percentages below indicate how much a person retains by learning new information in a specific way.

Read information only… 10%

Hear information only… 20%

See information only… 30%

Hear it and see it… 50%

Read it, hear it, and talk about it… 70%

Read or hear it, talk about it, and do it… 90%

Based on this principle, it’s imperative that audience members process information while you speak. To create those deep rivers of understanding, you have to provide meaningful repetition and process time in your presentations. One way to foster repetition is to have the audience hear the content, then visually read the content on a PowerPoint slide, and finally write down the information in their own language to discuss with their neighbor. If you do this, then the content is processed not once but three times, resulting in 50% better retention. This does not mean that what audience members see, hear, and write is identical. You should limit the number of slides and words per slide; the material you convey should come primarily from your speaking.

This gets us to an important point: What’s an appropriate handout? Passing out complete copies of your PowerPoint slides actually hinders retention because audience members will try to read your handout, listen to you speak, and watch your actual slide simultaneously. Research tells us that this is too much interactivity at once, so participants have a difficult time focusing. An outline of key points with room for notes is much more efficient for your audience. If you still feel a need to pass out full slide presentations, do so, just do it at the end of your talk.

Incorporating feedback

Another way to foster interactivity is through the strategic use of questions. Certainly this includes the final Q&A after you finish our formal talk. But questioning can be incorporated throughout a talk in a variety of formats. Recall the discussion on how listeners need a pause about every 7 to 10 minutes for optimal retention. Rhetorical questions are a great way to create these pauses. Questions allow your participants to think about the information you presented in light of their own work. Don’t solicit answers, just pose the question and wait 10 seconds for your audience to ponder the new information.

Questions also work well as “whip arounds.” A whip around is a tactic where you pose a question as the presenter, and every participant in the room thinks of a one- or two-word answer to your question. For example, ask aloud, “What’s the single most pressing issue you have to deal with today when designing a mechanical system?” Your participants will think “energy efficiency,” “first cost,” “delivery date,” “schedule,” and the like. Pause a moment to give participants time to think, then open up the floor in an organized, linear fashion for people to give their one-word answers. Start with one person who utters his answer aloud, then move to the next, the next, and the next—all the way around the room. Provide eye contact to each participant as you go to keep the pace and guide the answers. Although you might think it would take a while, a good whip around takes less than 60 seconds.

One last way to incorporate questioning into your lunch-and-learns is by using questioning cards.

Provide your audience with two or three blank 3×5 cards or sticky notes. As you talk, you can stop, pause, and solicit questions. Why not do this orally? When adults have a moment to process their thoughts, most will come up with a question. Then you are more likely to receive questions from all members of the audience. Open the floor and ask for questions from those you haven’t heard from. This will encourage quieter participants will speak up.

Have participants put their names and contact information on their questions, and collect them after the session for follow-up after the lunch-and-learn. You can also walk around and pick up questions while speaking. Later, during an interactivity break, you can look through the cards and answer some of the questions. The questions will provide substantive feedback as to what the audience was expecting versus what you actually covered.

Grouping your participants

A third way is to incorporate conversational interactivity that processes the content you are training is by briefly grouping your participants. These activities group your audience members into dyads (two people) or triads (three people) to have a short conversation about a question or issue posed.

One activity, a think-pair-share, is where you pose a short scenario, issue, or question. You pause and allow your audience to think individually for one or two minutes, and jot notes on paper. Then ask your audience members to partner with someone from another firm or organization. Partners then “share” their answers or work out the scenario together.

As the discussant, you can to open the floor and solicit one or two pairs’ reactions if time allows. Not every pair has to give a summary. Think-pair-shares are an easy six-minute addition to your presentation that provide processing interactivity for your audience. They enhance long-term retention and maintain that environment you established at the beginning.


In technical lunch-and-learns you present content in narrative forms, such as case studies or war stories from the field. Stories work very well for short- and long-term retention of material because they speak to the participants’ background information, to their sense of the familiar. In essence, stories have active background schema and, when told well, provide listeners with cues and schema to attach the new information to their existing understanding of the topic being presented. Research shows that adults remember in story form.

For these reasons, presentations delivered partially in story form do a great job of providing that balance between the active and passive, and the serious and whimsical, discussed earlier.

Beyond the storytelling of the presenter, the audience has its own stories. Pairs of participants can share stories in think-pair-shares. We as the presenter can ask one central question about a story we posed, or ask for a solution to an issue in a case study, and then have pairs share their conclusions with the group as a whole. While this may seem to require a serious time commitment, in reality it takes about 10 minutes.

In creating interactivity in your presentations, begin with the environment and the needs of your adult learners and open your talk with the expectation of movement and interactivity. Then you can use a variety of training tactics to keep the interactivity purposeful and valuable. Interactivity is the missing link between a good presentation and a great training session.

Further reading

Hansman, C. (2001). Context-based adult learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 89, pp. 41-51.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to Practice. VOCED, vol. 74, pp. 5-12.

Robertson, L. J. (2000). Twelve tips for using a computerized interactive audience response system, Medical Teacher, 22 (3), pp. 23-239.

Rogers, A. (2002). Teaching Adults. Open University Press: Berkshire, UK.

Worley, R.B. and M.A. Dyrud (2004). Presentations and the PowerPoint Problem-Part II. Business Communication Quarterly, vol. 67 .

Author Information
Smith is a nationally recognized expert in adult education, curriculum development, and cognitive research. She completed her doctorate at the University of Denver and is currently an Associate Professor at Concordia University Chicago.

The 10-2 rule

If the goal is deep rivers of retention, how much information can adults process at one time?

Research indicates that after 20 minutes of passive listening, or 20 minutes of intense lecture, adults’ ability to assimilate new information into their schema, to deepen the rivers being created in their minds, falls off rapidly. Back to that question or situation at work that’s been bugging you. Recall the last time you sat in a meeting, a darkened lecture room, or a webcast where you were there, but your mind was wandering to the e-mails you really needed to answer, the phone call you had to make, or the present you had to buy for your child’s birthday.

Basically, you hit that cognitive limit; you phased out. As adults, you process 7 to 10 minutes of information very effectively. But if you fail to pause your attention after 10 minutes, even for a very brief respite, your ability to retain the next set of information diminishes. Hence, a healthy pattern for your presentations is 10 minutes of information, a brief pause, and then 10 more minutes of information.

Researchers call this the 10-2 rule. Present 10 minutes of new information by talking with visual aids, then pause and ask the participants to process the information by turning to their neighbor and answering a posed question on the content, or summarizing the information in a few words. The 10-2 pattern maximizes the potential retention of your audience. These pauses can be almost anything: rhetorical questions asked by the speaker, visuals or graphics as a reference without lengthy explanations, or just a moment where you get to collect your thoughts or make a few notes. This is important information about long-term retention, but what about short-term memory? Doesn’t it have a role here? It does. But not if you really want to change viewpoints or incite action.

Researchers define short-term memory in many ways, but for your purposes, you can think about it as the amount of information your mind can hold for the next moment and then repeat, like looking up a phone number or e-mail address to use it right away. Short-term memory is when you retain about five minutes of information. After that, you have to transfer the new information into long-term memory for sustainability. So you looked up the phone number, got up for a cup of coffee, came back to dial, and had to look the number up again. To actually retain the number for the long-term, you would have had to create a river, repeating it over and over again in your mind while you were walking toward the coffee.

Linking short-term to long-term learning, taking ideas, and mapping them onto schema to create rivers are the keys to effective adult education. Now, back to our presentations. This is where the brief pause in our presentation comes in. If we link the content of our presentation to real work situations within our audience, then we are attaching the new information onto their existing schema. As audience members process this new content in light of their own work, new information moves from short- to long-term memory and the rivers grow deeper; resulting in deep understanding and retention. Action can now happen.

How to create PowerPoint presentations

The 10-2 rule is one aspect of an effective presentation that will enhance audience retention. Presentation and seminars often use PowerPoint as the key visual aid that helps deliver the talk. Let’s talk about how to structure the PowerPoint presentation so the information presented creates deep rivers in the brain, where listeners map new information onto the previous experiences.

Themes matter. In drafting your presentation, think first in themes. Research indicates that adults remember larger, more purposeful schematic concepts rather than collections of smaller, disparate facts. Therefore, if you think about your talk in terms of the big ideas you are trying to convey and link those ideas to a person’s schema, they will retain it better.

It’s a good rule of thumb to create a thematic slide with a graphic of the theme. This slide becomes our opening slide. Then, close your talk by having that same opening thematic slide as the last slide to hone your point. Think of the last time you saw a presentation that had one major message that was carried throughout all of the slides. For example, if you are presenting a case study of a chilled water system retrofit, you can use a simplified diagram of the resulting system as the opening thematic slide. You can talk about the system by keying off different subsystems from the thematic slide, and then close your presentation by running through the opening slide one more time.

Less is more. Fewer slides lead to longer retention. The aim is to have about 20 slides for a 1-hour presentation, which includes time for questions and answers. Research shows that the mind identifies and recalls up to six items easily. Adult learning studies have labeled this the “Rule of Sixes.” In terms of content, develop your slides in sets of sixes: six slides, which is 10 minutes of talking, with a pause, and then more slides. If you want information to go from short- to long-term memory, and you want to create rivers in the mind, fewer slides with breaks is the way to go. Pauses could include stopping to take questions from the audience, asking the audience a rhetorical question, or building in some other type of audience interactivity.

Illustrate only the complex. When presenting technical information, you often have multiple illustrations, such as photos, diagrams, and charts. Use these to tell a story only when you want to emphasize major points or simplify complex data or information. You can use illustrations to reinforce key ideas, to guide you through your talk, or to hold the audience’s attention for shock or awe. And the cutesy PowerPoint stick figure guys with question marks or light bulbs over their heads? Just say no. Use graphics to relay visual content. The entertainment should come from your talk, not prepackaged, overly used clip art that only clutters your messages.

Use the right kind of diagram. Highly technical information often requires extensive visuals, such as graphs with weather data or control-point trend data. Visually, adults have to choose a place to focus. That visual should be a form of content in your presentation, not just a talking point. In terms of charts and graphs, trends should be shown with continuous lines. Cognitive science tells us that adults can process three lines at a time. So presentation graphs that have six different colored lines are too cumbersome to really learn from.

If you are comparing two things in your talk, such as energy consumption before and after a retrofit, use a bar chart. Our brain looks at bar charts in terms of relative magnitude, so we think comparatively with the bars. And lastly, pie charts are best for illustrating relative proportions. We’d choose a pie chart for illustrating populations of building by type, for example. Using the right graphic for our aim helps the audience think through the visual; hence, they retain the information.

Let go of logos. And what about your company and sponsor logos on the bottom of all the sides during a presentation? Do those count as illustrations? Yes. It is more efficient for the learner if one of your opening slides includes all your necessary logos. Remove those logos from subsequent slides; focus on the content instead. Sure, you can put one small logo on the bottom of a slide, in an unobtrusive place. But strings of logos on each slide hinder your audience from determining where to focus their attention. You want them focused on the information and, more importantly, on what you’re saying.

Create topic slides. After you’ve designed a thematic slide with a graphic to open the presentation, you will be reinforcing the main points more efficiently if you take the key words from the theme and use them to create topic slides. Topic slides are those slides that provide a transition from major point to major point.

Now, here’s where it all gets different from what you usually do. The topic slides are only title slides—they have almost no text. They carry the original thematic graphic and one major point or topic in very few words. This helps the audience create an outline of your presentation in their minds. This is where you are making rivers out of the streams because you are creating links in participants’ minds of your major points as you present.

Fewer bullets and fewer words per bullet. This is the toughest cognitive principle to follow. Do you remember the last presentation you attended where the speaker had so many words on each slide it was difficult to read the slide and listen at the same time? If you help the adult focus on the words you are saying, you help them understand and remember information. Fewer bullets on each slide with fewer words are better.

Go back to the rule of sixes. Six bullets per slide is a good maximum, any more and you get too busy. Adults can process approximately 15 words per slide. So do the math: six bullets max, two to three words per bullet. This effectively makes your PowerPoint presentation an outline for you, not a script. You want people to be listening to you, not reading your slide. Really, you want your audience taking notes while they listen; that creates a pause, which fosters retention.

Animate for effect only. Animations such as fancy transitions, flying text, and revealing bullets as you go are often overused. As adult learners, animation ties to our emotions. Think about the last time you saw a presentation whose special effects made you laugh. Or a picture illustrating a worst-case scenario that caused you to shake your head in thought. Or a graphic on cost analysis that shocked you? Animation stirs our emotion, so animate when you want your audience to react. Reaction creates retention.