Lessons from the Kitchen
I wonder if you have ever come away from a team meeting, training or presentation reeling and overwhelmed by the volume of content you have just had to sit through and yet still no clearer about what message you have received, or what you are supposed to do with it.
Some people - and I am one of these - become overwhelmed very quickly.
I can only take a small amount of information on board.
Give me instructions on how to get to the station and as long as it is fairly straightforward – left, left and then straight on – I am fine.
Much more complicated than that and I will be asking:
‘Was that left or right at the beginning?’
I used to use the analogy of filling a cup with water. Once the cup is full: stop pouring, because once the cup is full nothing more is going to fit in!
The implication is that once capacity is reached everything else you try to add afterwards will be wasted.
However, I now realise that a more realistic analogy is of an overburdened computer.
Too much in-put and instead of no more going in, the whole thing crashes, losing absolutely everything.
Therefore, maybe if I go back to the cup analogy:
a better image would be of a plastic cup where the force of liquid being poured becomes too overpowering and the cup tips over, spilling all its contents.
And that is how we often feel at the end of a presentation.
I have been to presentations where the speaker has organised his material around a small number of key messages and I have walked away with those messages.
I have also been to presentations where the speaker tells me everything he knows about a subject and I feel I have walked away with nothing!
Yourr audience needs to leave the room with a clear picture
‘Now I know ‘what’ I need to change.’
‘Now I understand ‘how’ to take the next step or simply.’
‘Now I understand ‘why’ I need to do it.’
Part of the problem is that a lot of presenters love delivering long lists with lots of bullet points
It is as if the presenter thinks these long lists will say
‘Look at how much depth of thought has gone into this.’
‘Look at how much detail we are covering.’
‘Look at how expert I am!’
An audience is unlikely to remember all the items on a long list, but much more likely to remember a few key highlighted items.
A long list can be likened to this shelf full of kitchen implements.
You might be able to take in an overall impression, but it will be hard to remember everything in the picture because there is no sense of hierarchy or arrangement.
A list of bullet points may seem to make the presenter look clever and busy, but what the listener?
What exactly does he want them to take away?
A finished presentation should be like a piece of furniture, well constructed and with a clear purpose.
We do not need to know how many pieces of wood and all the steps it took to make it: just its purpose and a couple of its key features.
A little test I like to put to presenters who are very keen on their PowerPoint slides is to suggest that at the end of their presentation they should close down the computer, turn off their projector, give every attendee a blank piece of paper and ask them to write down everything they can remember from the previous 30 minutes.
Firstly, they probably won't remember very much, but secondly, and more concerning, it will probably be different for each person.
And surely the main aim of a properly structured presentation is for each person to walk out with the same key messages: not just ‘a lot’ of messages.
A successful presentation will always be built on clarity of structure and clarity of purpose. The simplest way to guarantee that the audience walks away with the most important information is to arrange all the content you need to cover around 3 easily memorable messages.
As a simple analogy take another look at those kitchen implements in the picture above
They are laid out without any sense of order.
In this regard, they resemble most of the Powerpoint presentations you have ever attended – apparently random with no structure and no organisation.
if I were now to ask you to look away and tell me what you remember, the chances are that you will not retain everything.
And what you do remember may be different to what the person sitting next to you remembers.
It is often the case when a member of staff returns to work after attending a training, their manager, keen to know whether the company’s time and money investment have been worthwhile, will ask the attendee:
'What did you get out of the training this week?'
‘Oh, lots of things!’
(Pause) ‘Well…Lots of things!’
i.e. – they have been bombarded with information, but it lacked a clear purpose or direction and nothing stood out.
So let’s imagine a group of students have just come back from a training session on the contents of my kitchen and the manager asks:
‘What do you remember from the picture of Michael’s kitchen shelf?’
Student 1 responds:
‘Oh, lots of things.’
If Student 1 is lucky and her plastic cup did not completely tip over with the weight of content, she might be able to reply:
‘Well, there was a glass bowl, a knife – all sorts of things.’
However, Student 2 who has also succeeded in keeping his cup upright responds:
‘Loads – there was a mug and a water jug.’
And at the same time Student 3’s cup is lying upturned on the floor in the middle of a pool of water and replies blankly:
‘It was all too much!’
So at the end of this short interrogation about what they learnt about the contents of my kitchen, they have come away with either different messages or no message at all.
(And then you wonder why sometimes despite training there is still confusion in the workplace!)
instead, with a little structure we could have organised the kitchen articles into clear headings:
Ceramics. Metal. Glass.
Now if we want to, having come up with these headings, we can start to arrange further content underneath them.
The chances are that both student 1 and student 2 and even Student 3 will come away having at least registered the 3 key headings – that the contents of Michael’s kitchen can be categorised into 3 types of material.
We have now created the basis of a ‘hierarchy of knowledge’
If the overall purpose of the training was to become familiar with the variety of articles in Michael’s kitchen, we have a structured way of achieving that.
And as the trainer, by organising my training material into 3 clear sections it has become easier for me to highlight my key messages and in turn, it becomes easier for the students to remember the content.
Even if they retain varying amounts of detail at the end of the training, at least all my students will be aware that there are ceramic, metal and glass articles in the kitchen.
You may have noticed that the cafetiere is made of both glass and metal and so could go into one of two sections.
It is quite common to have content that could be placed under different headings.
Great! – on one day you may choose one particular heading to balance out the length of each section (ie, it goes into the metal section so that each category has 3 items for discussion)
or maybe on another day, you feel it is the ‘glassness’ of the cafetiere that is of most significance because that is what makes it easily breakable.
A common fault with lectures and training programmes is that there is not a clear sense of hierarchy.
In my example, 9 individual items could be seen as overwhelming, whereas
3 categories each containing three items are easier to grasp.
Finally and most significantly,
by organising your content into some form of hierarchy it means that students needing different levels of understanding on a subject can still benefit from attending the same training together. The one who needs a broad understanding only needs to retain the key headings:
‘Michael has ceramics, metal and glass in his kitchen – and that is all I need to know.’
This could be a manager that may not need the same level of detail as the individual team members but needs to retain a broad understanding of the subject.
At the same time the team member, attending the same training, gets a more detailed understanding of what is relevant to his daily tasks within these broader headings.
This student, needing more detailed knowledge than his manager, attends the same training, gains clear instructions on precisely what sort of glass articles are in the kitchen and how to use them.
A little while later in the workplace when the manager and the team member have a meeting together they are better able to understand and communicate with each other because the team member knows that while he is talking about the details of the glass or jug, that the manager at least understands that they are talking about an item that sits within the context of the ‘glass’ category.
As trainers or presenters, our main job is to make the complicated simple, to break our message into digestible chunks.
The best way to do that is to create a ‘hierarchy of knowledge’.
It gives the presentation a clear structure, makes the delivery more flexible and provides clear guidance to the audience.
Pinterest chunking list
For those of you interested in Neuro Linguistic Programming, chunking is a technique that is often used to organise thoughts, find levels of agreement or simply as an effective way of presenting material.
Typically information will be arranged in a hierarchy that moves from the abstract or general to the specific.
Therefore in terms of my kitchen,
on the more general, abstract level, like most people, I have cooking and eating implements.
More specifically I have items made of ceramics, metal and glass
And possibly uniquely to me and my kitchen, I have a specific set of knives, cups or glasses.
Have a look at this article for more perspective on chunking and hierarchies.