How do you know what to say?
You don’t want to patronise people. And you definitely don’t want to short-change them. You want to be helpful. So it’s an easy mistake to make. I’ve done it myself. Several times.
Teaching practice was scary. I was scared of running out of things to say, or things for learners to do. I went into every session with enough material for a week. The thought of blank, bored faces was terrifying.
Here’s what my tutors said:
‘Your students are confused. Information overload. Again.’
Knowing what to say and what to leave out is tricky.
How do you present both the right amount and type of information? Enough so people get it and want more. But not so much they feel confused and give up.
Well, what if you had a toolbox of proven building blocks that great communicators and teachers use the world over? A box of ingredients that, when you get it right, leave people hanging on your every word?
Want to know what’s in the box?
Read on to fast track past the biggest rookie teaching mistake.
Stop learners gagging from information overload
Imagine sausages, strawberries, chocolate, baked beans, meringue, beetroot, egg, basil and cream. All piled high on the same plate. Not very appealing.
How about being force-fed this yucky mix, with no time to digest? You’d feel a bit icky, you might retch or even throw up.
Well, trying to process loads of information is not so different.
When you touch on lots of ideas – ingredients that don’t go together – without covering anything in depth, you end up saying nothing. Nothing that sticks. Nothing that people understand or remember.
You force-feed people empty calories. So they feel full, bloated and ready to gag.
The right blend of information is like combining classic food combinations everyone loves: sausage, bacon and egg or tomato, mozzarella and basil. And to finish, meringue, strawberries and cream.
Want people to come back for second helpings?
Take one core idea and give it substance. One bite-sized portion packed with nutrition.
Step 1: Focus on one core idea at a time: a bite-sized portion people can digest.
Henneke Duistermaat is a marketer and writer who totally gets how people learn. Her blog has a loyal following because it presents helpful information that sticks. Her brilliant business blogging course is always full. In fact, she runs a waiting list. So what can we learn from her?
Henneke has blogged about metaphors, adverbs, clichés and verbs. But she doesn’t roll them all into one post on grammar and writing tips. She deals with each one separately.
You might think a whole article on adverbs is overkill. How much can you say about adverbs for gawd’s sake? But remember that plate of food – lots of great ingredients, but when served together they make you gag.
Step 2: Build understanding: Use nutritious ingredients that help people grow.
Now take your core idea and build on it. Let’s see how Henneke does this with the core concept – ‘Writing blog post headlines’.
Nutritious ingredient #1: Give people a reason to listen; help them give a damn
It’s tempting to dive straight into the nitty gritty. The detail at the heart of your subject. But this is the fastest route to glazed eyes and confused faces.
Of course the detail is important. But people need to understand the big picture first. They need to hook the details onto an overarching idea. It’s just the way the brain works.
Normally, if we don’t know the gist – the meaning – of information we are unlikely to pay attention to its details.
Stories are a great way to convey the big picture. Universal emotions and experiences make the core message memorable. They help people see the relevance. So they want to listen to the detail.
Henneke introduces headlines with a true story.
Joshua Bell – a world famous violin player – failed miserably at busking. People hurried past ignoring his exquisite playing. The core message? In a distracted world it’s hard to be heard.
She then asks, ‘How can you attract attention so people will stop and read your blog post?’
Joshua’s story helps people connect to the core message: in a distracted world it’s hard to be heard. We’ve all hurried past buskers, even brilliant ones. And we empathise with Joshua’s experience of feeling invisible.
When you paint the big picture first, you give people a reason to listen to the detail.
Nutritious ingredient # 2: Definitions – Make it clear
Do you remember day one? When everything in your profession was new? Probably not.
It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a beginner. So don’t make assumptions.
When you introduce a term you use every day – because it’s part of your professional world – ask yourself, ‘did I know this when I started?’ ‘Is this open to interpretation’? ‘If you don’t know this word, will everything else be gobbledegook?’
Clarifying what you mean isn’t patronising. It’s helpful. But not dull dictionary definitions. They turn people off.
Henneke defines a good headline like this:
A good headline grabs attention, arouses curiosity and promises a benefit
In our ‘How to use social media for business’ course (written for the Digital Business Academy) we simply said:
A follower is someone who signs up to receive information from you.
Make it clear. Don’t alienate people with fancy words that are part of your world, not theirs.
Nutritious ingredient #3: Examples – ‘Ah, now I get it’.
Examples are your best friend. The one you can always rely on.
Because they show what you mean. Examples are a simple, powerful way to build understanding. They anticipate people’s questions that left unanswered lead to confusion.
Henneke doesn’t assume people know what ‘Goofs, errors and mistakes headlines’ are – even though the clue is in the title. She gives examples to make it clear. She anticipates and answers the question ‘What do ‘Goofs, errors and mistakes headlines’ look like?’
Always assume people have questions and answer them with examples.
Because examples bridge the gap between what you take for granted – and so don’t say – and what learners need to know.
Nutritious ingredient # 4: Good vs bad examples – Help people work it out for themselves
Which photo is better? Why?
I rarely take photos. I’m a complete beginner, but I can look at these 2 images and work out why the one on the right is better.
- The mug’s dimensions suit a vertical frame
- The sunlight distracts from the main image
- Zooming in gives the mug more impact
We learn best when we get involved. When we think for ourselves.
Reading a list of photo composition do’s and don’ts is passive. It’s easy to skim read and not take anything in.
But working it out for myself is active. My brain is engaged. So I’m more likely to remember.
Henneke uses these 2 examples of the same headline to get people thinking about why one is better than the other.
How to Leverage the Power of the Kindle Ecosystem to Build Your Business
How to Use the Gigantic Power of Kindle to Reach Clients and Win Business.
Nutritious ingredient #5: Why XYZ works
Remember that confused pile of ingredients on a plate?
To bring out the flavour of your core idea you need to add depth. So take the time to analyse why something works.
Here’s how Henneke explains ‘Errors, mistakes and goofs’ headlines.
Words like errors, mistakes, and goofs are power words, attracting our attention. We’re all afraid of making silly mistakes, so a list of mistakes arouses our curiosity, encouraging us to find out whether we’ve been silly, too.
Analysing your topic like this helps people make sense of it.
And of course you can look at why something doesn’t work.
Nutritious ingredient # 6: Pros and cons of XYZ – let people size it up
I know what you’re thinking.
Pros and cons? Really? Isn’t that all a bit corporate Powerpoint? Yawn.
We may not do it on paper. But we use pros and cons all the time. It’s how we make every day decisions. Should we holiday at home or abroad? Should I drive or take the train? And we use them for huge life decisions like should I stay with my partner? We’re used to sizing up the big picture in our heads with pros and cons.
Pros and cons help learners to:
- Quickly see the big picture
- Think widely
- Reconsider their opinions
- Come to their own conclusions
And they’re good for you too. Listing pros and cons helps you think like a novice. To uncover things you take for granted. It helps you work out what beginners most need to know.
Nutritious ingredient # 7: Visuals – make it sticky, not pretty.
You want people to remember your message, right? To improve retention by up to 65%, read on.
If information is presented orally, people remember about 10%, tested 72 hours after exposure. That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture.
Forget learning styles. Everyone is a visual learner (unless you’re visually impaired). Images grab our attention and keep our interest.
But don’t use any old picture. Use images to enhance meaning. Make your message sticky not pretty.
Ways to make images sticky:
- Infographics make complicated information – particularly numbers and data – easier to understand. Canva is a great free tool for this.
- Use images to repeat or summarise a key message without boring learners. Repetition helps us understand and remember better.
- Avoid visual clichés from stock art sites. We’ve seen that handshake a zillion times.
In How to use Social Media for Business we explained the journey from followers to advocates.
Then we repeated the information with this visual.
Here’s Henneke’s visual reminder of the 3 steps to creating compelling headlines.
There are many ways to build understanding. These seven are a great place to start. They’re your basic larder ingredients.
Create a queue of people who want more
People love Henneke’s online course and blog posts. These comments are typical.
‘Fantastic insights and guidance. Your awesomeness continues. Thank you Henneke. Love. Love. Love your juicy posts’.
‘Henneke, you are a true master! Your lessons always surprise and delight your audience, but this one is especially good’.
That’s because she takes one core idea idea and gives it substance. She doesn’t skim over lots of ideas that merge it into one big mouthful of bleuh.
The most common communication mistakes? Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots.
Lots of force-feeding, very little digestion.
Don’t be scared of patronising or boring people. Our brains need a range of ways to explore one core idea. It helps us connect the dots.
Dive in. Experiment with the ingredients.
Start with Nutritious Ingredient ‘#1: Give people a reason to listen’ – to grab their attention. Add ‘#3: Examples’ – the corner stone of making yourself clear. Then choose the ingredients that suit your topic.
Make your subject digestible. Nourish your learners. Help them grow.