When Presenting to Large Groups, Create a Learning Ecosystem

Latest theories point to audiences retaining information best when it’s shared through a mix of formats—more than once.

Three types of people walk into a ballroom. No, this isn’t a joke. It’s the reality faced by every speaker who presents to large groups made up of those three types.

And if you’re not speaking all three of their “languages,” you’re going to lose their attention, says Judy Owen, vice president of talent development for event and marketing company Freeman.

Extensive research has delved into how people learn, particularly the three main learning styles: auditory, visual and kinesthetic.

“The most important thing when you’re presenting to a large group is your connection to the audience,” Owen says. “Plan and rehearse—and know beforehand—the key nuggets you want the audience to take away.”

In recent years, the academic study of learning styles has focused on modalities and blending. Linda B. Nilson, director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University, suggests that it’s the mixing of modes and repetition that can be most valuable. Why? Because a mix means people will use different parts of the brain, leading to better retention.

The approach becomes just as critical as the content, Owen points out. “If you’re delivering a message to a large group,” she says, “you want to consider all the types in the audience—how their minds are wired and how they learn. More than anything, that’s about your presenting style.”

How Brains Digest Information!

Presentations need to take into account multiple learning styles and include elements that appeal to each, Owen suggests. Here are some points to consider for each of the three chief styles:

  • Auditory: Speakers should pay close attention to tone, energy, pitch and enthusiasm in their voices. For instance, don’t just read a slide aloud—recast the information vocally and perhaps introduce music.
  • Visual: You’ll want to display the content of a presentation in multiple ways. Use varied fonts for text, diagrams and charts for data, and potentially video and even lighting elements as disruptive mechanisms to grab the attention of your audience.
  • Kinesthetic: To add in hands-on and participatory features, an event might include small breakouts that involve a related activity or integrate physical movement.

Bottom line, Owen says: Speakers shouldn’t spend too much time at a podium without some type of break. “Leave the talking heads at home.”