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The Tyranny of the Top Ten List … (or: 3 Habits to Start Improving Your Writing) … (or : 2 Ways To Approach Learning) … (or: The One Thing You Need to Know About Lists)


Lists help the instructional designer…

  • Gain attention
  • Structure ideas
  • Encourage discussion
  • Reinforce learning

..and if you want to understand what’s behind those bullet points, read on…

Habit #1:  Beware of Empty Calories

It’s trite and obvious… yet we, as readers, fall for it anyway.

"We are all individuals." -Life of Brian

“We are all individuals.” -Life of Brian

“3 Ways to Start Improving Your Life!” shouts the link…  or the glossy magazine cover…or the book cover…. and we feel compelled to click/flip it open.

Inevitably, we are disappointed once we read the article/book in question. The promise of quick and easy enlightenment is once again unfulfilled, and we search onward.

When it comes to the delivery of learning, as a trainer I regularly face a tyranny of the Top 10 List, i.e. PowerPoint slides with bulleted lists of items pretending to be instructional material.  There are too many slides in too many decks with too many bullet points.

Yet, somehow, when I flash those slides onto the overhead screen, I often see the faces of the learners light up — “ooh… a list!”  — but, depending on the list, the momentary rush of interest may fade just as quickly.

Gummies-WormsThe Top 10 List appeals to our love of informational snacking, but ruins our appetite for healthier, more nutritious mental meals that require real chewing and digestion.

..or as Tufte-the-PowerPoint-slayer puts it,

“There are many true statements about complex topics that are too long to fit on a PowerPoint slide.

What gets left out is the narrative between the bullets, which would tell us who’s going to do what and how we’re going to achieve the generic goals on the list.

What this means is that we shouldn’t abbreviate the truth, but rather get a new method of presentation.”

Edward Tufte, Information Visualization Geek

In the field of instruction, on the spectrum of “Sage on the Stage” vs. “Guide on the Side,” the Top 10 List is where the Sage has taken over and the audience has abdicated their responsibility for learning. Any natural tension that existed between entertainment and education has been lost — the cause of entertainment has won the battle — and the instructor has become simply a speaker, a storyteller.

ok energy drinks

“Everything is going to be okay.”

The Top 10 List attracts us with its packaging and then we gulp it down quickly… while it feels like we are “using our time efficiently,” we are in fact expending our time on empty mental calories.

If we habituate ourselves to this sort of “learning,” before long. we’ll find ourselves fatter and dumber for it.

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

For the group of learners that enjoy these lists, we do damage by feeding their habit.

As for the “healthful eaters” — the group of learners who have learned to see through the banality of contrived lists –we do damage to our own credibility.

So the first lesson of the Top 10 List is this:  Recognize it as a great way to attract initial interest… and then insist that there be some meat… some substance and purpose behind it.

Habit #2: ..But Don’t Be a Nutrition Fanatic

There is an opposite kind of tyranny, which is the instructor who insists that all learning must be heavy, fibrous, nutrient-rich information. No, that slice of zucchini-carob-carrot cake does NOT cut it… I want my Devil’s Food Cake.

It would be a mistake for a writer to say, “never present a ‘top tips’ list,”  just as it would be foolish for a reader to say, “refuse reading any article that uses the cheap trick of being titled  ‘x ways to get y.'”

In other words, don’t be a health food bully… give the kids some candy… or better yet, some high quality dessert.  I’m thinking dark chocolate…. 70% cacao at least, perhaps filled with a rich truffle ganache… (read more here:  6 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate) ..but I digress…

sea salted dark chocolate

This blog post brought to you by Ghirardelli Intense Dark™ Sea Salt Soiree™

Taking these two suggestions — Habits #1 and #2 — together, it reads something like this:   Use those “Top 10” Lists in your reading, writing and instruction, but recognize them for what  they are: pedagogical amuse-bouches…. small bits of instructional strategy used to refresh the learner’s attention and ease into a deeper conversation… much like using humor, a quotation, an image, etc.

Habit #3:  Give Your List a Purpose

The key to getting the right balance of Habit #1 and Habit #2 is to have a purpose in mind when deploying a list.

A Top 10 (or any other number other than the total number of fingers on a dominant primate’s hands) List can be used in a purposeful and even creative manner.

Here are just 7 of the ways a list can useful for authors, teachers and instructional designers:

  1. Provide a “hook” by making information seem easier to digest
  2. Break-down bigger, complex concepts into a series of smaller, simpler, essential facets
  3. Provide a structure or prompt to aid memory & recall (especially when combined with other mnemonic strategies)
    • (3.1) Organize information  so that it can be more easily referenced later
    • (3.2) Use the list number itself as a symbol or reference point (e.g. “The Seven Deadly Sins of List-Makers”)
    • (3.3) Introduce a job aid / checklist that will be used at a later time in the performance context
  4. Force the author to be concise
  5. Prioritize
  6. Spark ideas
  7.  _________________ (yeah, you saw that coming)

No, the above list is not presentation-quality… it has yet to undergo the process of recursive abstraction that will yield — presto — the summary list that appears at the top of this post.

Yes, there is a power in the making lists for the designer, as a way to structure information, as a way to encourage categorical thinking, and as a scaffolding for brainstorming… and they can make information seem less intimidating to the reader/learner. Usually not all of those things at the same time, mind you.

Indeed, there are often two ways that people approach learning:  learning as education, vs. learning as entertainment… but of course, it’s a false dichotomy.

As Marshall McLuhan said,

“It’s misleading to suppose there’s any basic difference between education & entertainment.

This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter.”  

Marshall McLuhan, Prophet

spoonful of sugar

The one thing you need to know about lists is this:  They are the spoonful of organizing sugar that makes the learning medicine go down… in the most delightful way.

Just take it easy on those spoonfuls, okay?


Biting the Bulletpoint: Scripts vs. Speakers Notes

A common thing you’ll hear from almost every business presenter (myself included) is this:   “I’m much better when it’s a conversation, when I don’t have to follow a script.”   This is because, for the most part, in business we’re not giving speeches… we’re having public conversations.  However, there are many situations that demand notes — detailed notes or even scripts — and in those situations we must find ways to balance the competing demands of having a predictable, pre-determined message while maintaining an authentic, unscripted voice.

Who Demands the Pre-Determined Message?

Every so often when delivering a training program on the topic of presentation skills, I find myself working with senior executives who live under a microscope.  These executives must communicate under intense scrutiny from external parties, such as various third-party organizations, government regulators or journalists. These are high pressure situations where every word counts.  In those situations, the executive will need a script to follow and the audience usually expects a degree of formality or “scriptedness” to the presentation.

Sometimes, however, the executive’s “regulators” are in-house – committees of people who want to make sure that they “message correctly” and “tell the story” using “the right language.”   In those situations, not every word counts, but there is a high level of pressure being created by the self-justifying process of intense quality control.   In those situations, having a scripted tone to the presentation would be a tragedy of the asymptotic curve of perfectionism:  By trying to make it perfect, you don’t just get diminishing returns on your effort… you risk killing the whole thing.

Words and Wandering Eyes

In the former situation — e.g. the senior executive at a press conference — a teleprompter is sometimes available.  The teleprompter allows the speaker to make eye contact with the audience while reading a word-for-word script.  Eye contact is important for the audience’s perception of the speaker’s connectedness. Eye contact also helps the speaker maintain a conversational tone with the audience.

The challenge, of course, is that most speakers don’t get to have a teleprompter.

Why not just read off a piece of paper?  Well, you might think that with just a bit of practice, anybody can stare at a sheet of paper and read paragraphs of text with a conversational tone.  You’d be right. Not only that, with a lot more practice (some would say an unreasonable amount of practice, depending on the stakes involved) a person can even read off a piece of paper while periodically looking up and good eye contact with an audience, effectively memorizing the lines being delivered. The challenge is in the amount of effort that this approach requires — sticking to a script while forcing one’s voice and eye contact to appear natural.  However, that’s not the only problem with reading off a piece of paper.

Requiring that a speaker access the words from a page right in front of them will inhibit gestures and movement (for many speakers, an important source of vocal energy) and mess with the speaker’s eye-accessing cues.

Eye-accessing cues are a subtle, but often very important way that a speaker keeps their natural tone of voice, by “accessing” certain information with their eyes from the distance in front of them… eye-accessing cues are usually very quick… but are long enough to throw the speaker off script.  In this way, paper scripts — and sometimes even rough notes — can mess a speaker up. When you hear a speaker stumble, especially where it’s apparent that they’ve “lost their place” in the words of a script, it’s often because of their eye-accessing cues.

Another common situation:  If the speaker must refer to a visual such as a diagram, the most natural way for the speaker to talk the audience through that diagram is for them to be able to look at the diagram periodically as they refer to it. Once again, a verbose script will get in the way of doing that.

Therefore, in the absence of teleprompters, what most speakers need — if they want to get the message relatively consistent — are good notes.

How to Make Good Speaker’s Notes?

Good notes allow the speaker’s eyes to wander off the page while keeping the speaker on track.

Good notes contain just enough information

that the speaker can hold in their memory

at a glance.

Good notes also provide a structure that helps the eyes follow along, by being

  • clear
  • easy-to-navigate
    • hierarchical
    • sequential
  • concise

..which is why bullet points are so popular.

Unfortunately, bullet points get abused and misused in speaker’s notes, as well as on slides for an audience.

  • People forget the point of bullet points
  • It’s not to break sentences up into a list format
  • Especially if those sentences are still sentences

Rather, bullet points (used correctly) are meant to help the eye spend less time searching the page for the next idea.

Expanding into Two Dimensions and Beyond

We’ve covered some of the dynamics of scripts and speaker’s notes, why these matter and what they can do to a speaker and their ability to connect with an audience.

We’re looking for ways other than a script to keep a speaker on track, while giving them the freedom to speak naturally.

Sentence fragments and bullet points are about as far as you can go if you’re constrained to a linear text space, such as in the slide Notes field of MS PowerPoint.

On the other hand, if you want really good speaker’s notes — the kind that work well with your eyes and with your brain — you want to expand into two dimensions (or more) by using flowcharts,  mind maps and memory palaces.

In the spirit of one thought one post, however, I save expanding on those for a future posting…

..yes, the Wikipedia links will have to suffice for now…

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