Learning from Audio: Eulogy of Coretta Scott King

Anna Belyaev and her team at Type A Learning Agency have inspired this question:

"What do professions outside the training/development/performance field have to teach us about learning design?"

They ask this of themselves all the time, and now they’ve got me thinking. I’m going to share my thoughts when they arise. Here’s the first one.

I heard Bill Clinton’s eulogy for Coretta Scott King and I was touched by it. It was a simple podcast from NPR. It was just audio. But I was emotionally engaged and I listened with great interest and intent.

Ms. King lead an especially meaningful life as a civil rights leader, advocate of non-violent struggle for racial equality, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Learning, first and foremost, requires learners to pay attention. This is often a conscious intentional process. It is often an unconscious and unintentional process as well. Either way, attention is one of the leverage points that we can use to spur learning and retention. Usually, if we increase attention we increase learning.

What if we could distill the factors that help keep learners engaged and attentive to our learning messages. Let’s take Bill Clinton’s eulogy for a minute. What does it do that grabs attention? Can we borrow these factors, or are they specific to eulogies and great public speakers?

Here are some of the factors that may be at work:

  1. Someone had died.
  2. The focus was on a celebrity.
  3. The speaker was a celebrity.
  4. The speaker was a person known for having his own struggles.
  5. The speaker understood his audience.
  6. The speaker got the audience to add energy to the message (clapping and chanting).
  7. The speaker talked about personal matters that most could empathize with.
  8. The speaker utilized religious symbols and meaning.
  9. The speaker repeated themes throughout his speech, but intermixed repetitions with other comments, and varied the surface form of the repetition, but not the underlying theme.
  10. The speaker modulated his voice appropriately, raising it to express power and importance, lowering it to connect personally.
  11. The speaker changed the speed of his delivery effectively, for example speeding up to move quickly through a list of attributes, slowing down, almost stopping, to create a sense of intimacy.
  12. The speaker used humor effectively.
  13. The speaker understood what was acceptable to say in the situation and moment.
  14. The speaker challenged power, creating a heightened sense of tension and importance.
  15. The speaker asked each person in the audience to examine their own actions and their own moral responsibilities.
  16. The speaker made a call to action. He asked for something.
  17. The speaker ended with an intensely moving sentence, tying it back to the person who had died.

What else did you hear that worked to make this a compelling communication? What didn’t work for you? Why did things work or not? Did your political beliefs and convictions affect how you received the message?

Obviously, there are some things on my list above that we may not be able to use in our training. Religious symbolism has its pitfalls. You can’t always find celebrities as voice talent. You can’t always find great public speakers. You can’t kill someone every time you create a course on Microsoft Excel.

But we can at least move in these directions. We can sometimes appeal to people’s sense of responsibility or justice. We can sometimes find appropriate ways to get highly-visible company personalities to get involved. We can sometimes find real-world stories that show the negative consequences of what happens when training recommendations aren’t followed.

I’m a big advocate for research-based or evidence-based instructional design. As we move through our own worlds, we can keep track of what grabs our attention and what spurs our learning. We can also pay attention to fields whose very survival depends upon grabbing attention or creating learning. There wouldn’t be television, theater, radio, newspapers, magazines, pornography, religious services, performance poetry, books, ballet, music, or Cirque du Soleil if people in these professions hadn’t figured out time-tested ways to grab attention and keep interest. The factors they use are there for us all to see and hear (and experiment with and utilize in our instructional designs), if only we begin to look and listen!!