Table of Contents

“Why do you never see elephants hiding in trees?”

Six ways to better connect your content to your learners' past experiences.

Elephant in a Tree

It’s grilling season in Seattle. Last weekend I was at my sister-in-law’s house for a cookout and over dinner my niece and nephews decided to play a round of: “Who can actually get Uncle Brian to laugh?”

From the sound of this game, I started to get the impression that I don’t laugh enough around them. Then my niece asked: “Why do you never see elephants hiding in trees?”  

As I was listening to the cousins firing off jokes, I could feel the energy at the dinner table. It was different. There was laughter. Everyone was engaged in the conversation. It was something I’d like to bottle and bring to every one of my training presentations.

In a presentation, I think energy like this can be replicated from the very beginning through whatever “anchor” activity is chosen to kick off the session.

Different people use different words for a presentation’s “anchor”. Ideally an anchor is something intentionally built in to your presentation to help connect a learner’s past experience with the new content you’re about to present. A few ways to connect someone’s prior experiences to new content include:

  1. “Think of a time when…” Asking people to think of a time when they experienced something that can be related to your content is probably the easiest and most direct way to activate someone’s prior experience. Before I present on adult learning principles, I’ll ask my learners to think of their best (or sometimes I’ll ask them to think of their worst) learning experience. What made those experiences so good (or so poor)? Then I’ll connect adult learning theory to their experiences.
  2. Tell a story. A brief story can capture the audience’s imagination and paint a picture of your content for your audience. If your story is connected to the industry or is something that a wide swath of your audience can relate to, it’ll be much more effective. Asking your audience if they’ve experienced something similar or if they can relate is a quick way to get them thinking of how the story connects to their own experiences.

Of course, there are times when the content is just too far removed from the audience to connect it to their previous experience, so a different anchor is in order. One of the following may help:

  1. One piece of data. What is the one fact, statistic or figure that will cause the audience to sit upright in their seats and want to pay attention? Chances are there will be more than one important data point, but if you use too much data, you may be burying the lede.
  2. Tell a joke. This is the thing that inspired today’s blog post, though I will admit that I’m not a huge fan of this strategy. Jokes can often come across as contrived at best, at worst they can be inappropriate and completely distracting from the topic at hand. I have, however, seen a well thought out joke work to both break the ice and help a facilitator launch into her content in one swift move.
  3. Show an image. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Flash an image across the screen and ask the learners what this might have to do with the topic at hand. Or perhaps you’ll want to combine the image with one of the other suggestions above – a brief story or maybe use the image to bring a significant data point into perspective.
  4. Tell half a story. Sometimes you can capture your learners’ attention by telling a sort of cliff hangar story. You can then challenge the audience to use your content to predict how the story ended, or you can simply share the ending as a reward to the audience for engaging with the rest of your content.

Whichever you choose, the top piece of feedback I continue to give when I’m reviewing presentations for others is that their plans lack a clear anchor to grab the learners’ attention.

Oh, and by the way, the reason you never see elephants hiding in trees? Because they’re good at it.

How about you? What are some things you do to grab an audience’s attention and connect their past experiences with new content?


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