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Use Your Head

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

I've often been told that it can be very useful to consult and heed the advice of others - because those who think in different ways than we do can often provide us with perspectives that we'd never have thought of on our own.

Now, I can't imagine people more different than me than those who do economic research, given the fact that I have no training whatsoever in that area. So I found it intriguing - and profoundly educational - when, a number of years ago, I read a report written by the U.S. Committee For Economic Development that addressed the issue of the personal characteristics necessary to be successful in the 21st century. After an analysis of extensive surveys completed at universities, large corporations and small businesses, four of the five traits considered essential for success were the following:

5. Ability to communicate - This makes sense, of course, as good communication skills are usually considered to be one of the most important qualities of successful people.

4. Problem-solving skills - Again, it's predictable that being able to solve problems would be on this list, as ‘thinking on your feet' is usually seen as a most desirable quality in an individual.

3. Ability to set priorities - Unsuccessful people waste a great deal of time focusing on ‘busywork,' steering clear of their primary assignments that need to be confronted and looked after. Successful individuals, on the other hand, aren't afraid to tackle important issues head-on.

2. Striving to work well - Just as there are athletes who lack the gift of natural ability but perform at a superior level through hard work, so too are some businesspeople able to achieve great results in the workplace by applying intense effort to the tasks they perform.

And the #1 essential trait? The most imperative and indispensable attribute of successful individuals? It's knowing how to learn, because - in a fast-paced world that's constantly changing, and in a technological environment where many things we did just a few years ago are not just different but, in many cases, are now completely irrelevant - we unquestionably need to have the ability to adapt, reorganize and evolve.

Back in the 1970s, Alvin Toffler, the author of a ground-breaking book called Future Shock was way ahead of his time when he wrote that "the illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." How prescient!

If knowing how to learn is so incredibly important, then, let's take a look at how we can understand and overcome some inherent problem areas with the way our brains operate.

The Things We Forget

Because our short-term memories are very limited and only retain information for mere seconds, we're constantly forgetting things we just heard, read or saw. You'll be happy to know that this is perfectly normal. (If you don't have memory problems yet, trust me, they're right around the corner!) Here's a list of the Top 10 Things We Forget:

83% of us forget people's names.
60% of us forget where we put things.
57% of us forget telephone numbers just checked.
53% of us forget words ‘on the tip of the tongue.'
49% of us forget that we told someone something.
42% of us forget people's faces.
41% of us forget directions we've been given.
41% of us forget what we just started to do.
41% of us forget what we were just saying.
38% of us forget whether we locked the door, turned off the lights, etc.

Does that make you feel better? I bet it does! As it turns out, these kinds of mental lapses (or ‘senior moments,' as some people call them) are quite normal and shouldn't be a great cause for concern. On the other hand, though, these memory hiccups bother us because they can seriously affect both our personal lives and our professional performance.

How To Strengthen ‘Brainstick'

Because our brains don't naturally hold onto facts, especially if they're not terribly interesting, we need to employ certain techniques to create a mental environment that's more conducive to positive memory experiences. Here are three strategies we can use to help move pieces of information from short-term to long-term memory, where they can be stored and accessed later on:

1. Organization - When important details are presented to us, we can't assume they will be naturally and immediately stored in our memory banks. They won't be. So we should reorganize the information, changing it somehow in a way that suits how our own personal brains function. That doesn't necessarily mean that we have to write it down (although that can often be a useful exercise); instead, it might simply involve asking a question, repeating it in a different way, or just making a mental note of the reconstructed material. The main thing is that we pay enough attention that we're conscious of rearranging the information in a way that makes sense to us.

2. Chunks - Our brains are easily overwhelmed when presented with large amounts of data, so it's important that we sort through it and break it down into smaller bits, or ‘chunks,' that can be understood and absorbed one part at a time. That's the way textbooks were organized for us as students (through the use of titles, headings, sub-headings, bulleted lists, etc.), and that's the way business reports are presented to us in the workplace too. Dividing a profusion of facts and figures into separate sections will eliminate confusion, relieve stress on the brain and make the material more understandable.

3. Imagination - While organizing material and breaking it down into chunks makes perfect sense to the left (logical) side of the brain, we also need to appeal to the right (creative) side of the brain as well. After all, the right side of the brain can make a powerful impact on the memory process. So it's a good idea to add an element of imagination to what we're trying to remember - through colour or music or design. (Think about why you remember certain advertisements long after you've seen or heard them and you'll get the idea.)

The Cone of Learning & Experience

Many years ago, an American educator named Edgar Dale realized that his students were much more likely to understand and remember academic material when they learned actively rather than passively, and his initial research led to further examination by many researchers long after his original discoveries were made.

Eventually, a model called the Cone of Learning & Experience was developed to illustrate the implications of his work. (It's called a ‘cone' because of the way it was first diagrammed, but it‘s often illustrated as a pyramid.) While the percentages in each of the six categories below weren't actually assigned by Dr. Dale himself, they are now accepted as being a pretty accurate representation of the way most people learn.

Cone of Learning

We tend to remember 10% of what we read -- Because we read at a rate so much slower than the speed at which our brains operate, reading on its own is not an especially useful way to store information in our heads. In fact, reading is a classic example of the limitations of passive learning. Our brains simply have too much time to be distracted and think about other things.

We tend to remember 20% of what we hear -- Listening to someone talk to us isn't necessarily a great way to learn but, according to the Cone of Learning & Experience, it's twice as effective as reading. The more senses we use, the better our brains will function -- so adding a hearing component to the process of learning is helpful. That's why students taking independent reading courses often, at some point, seek out someone to answer their questions verbally. It's also why, after reading reports, businesspeople organize meetings so they can discuss the reports' contents and listen to what others have to say.

We tend to remember 30% of what we see -- The brain is a very visual organ. Words and numbers don't enter easily into our memory banks. As discussed, we need specific strategies to help us remember those kinds of pieces of information. On the other hand, pictures and images and shapes and colours are much more readily accepted by our memory systems -- which explains why material presented in paragraph form is so often quickly forgotten, but that same material presented as a graph, a chart or a diagram is so much more memorable. We've all heard that "a picture is worth a thousand words" but, actually, neuroscientists would now argue that a picture is worth way more than a mere thousand words. More like a million words, probably.

We tend to remember 50% of what we hear and see -- Combining the two senses of hearing and sight leads to a major boost in the brain's ability to recall information. The learning process improves considerably when we're given the opportunity to both hear and see information simultaneously. Thus, activities such as watching a movie, looking at an exhibit, watching a demonstration or seeing something done on location will naturally enhance the learning experience. (Here's a situation all of us have faced far too often: We drifted off while listening to a speech and realized, far too late, that we missed a number of key points that we needed to understand. Fortunately, these days, many speakers wisely choose to supplement their words with visual backup by adding some type of media component to their presentations.)

We tend to remember 70% of what we say -- Many education institutions offer ‘peer tutoring' services by pairing strong students with weak ones, the theory being that the less successful students will benefit from studying with the high achievers. While this would seem to make perfect sense, programs like this often backfire, as the reality is that it's most likely the person who does the talking (in this case, the superior student) who derives the most benefit. This has significant implications in the workplace, of course, so we should look for ways in which to share our thoughts verbally. Participating in discussions and delivering presentations are two constructive ways to do so.

We tend to remember 90% of what we both say and do -- At the base of the Cone of Learning & Experience, we find the suggestion that doing a dramatic presentation, engaging in simulations and ‘doing the real thing' are methods that will maximize our learning experiences, making them both potent and lasting. Now, perhaps that doesn't sound like a terribly practical suggestion to someone working in an office. A businessperson once said to me: "You can't do a dramatic presentation of accounting!" But that's not really true, is it? Isn't that simply a case of the left side of the brain flexing its muscles and insisting that logic is the only way to use our brains well? The truth is though, that with just a little effort, we certainly can enrich material by adding a healthy dose of right-brain pizzazz. In fact, anything we do to complement facts and figures with an element of entertainment is automatically going to help us learn and remember. Because brains love to have fun!

In summary, it's important to understand that all of us face occasional episodes of forgetfulness that are common to everyone. But, while it's true that our brains might not always work quite as well as we'd like them to, there are simple strategies we can use to counteract these natural limitations. By organizing information into chunks and then adding some imagination to the material, we can do our brains an absolutely huge favour. And if we learn the lessons taught by the Cone of Learning & Experience, we'll give a tremendous boost to our brainpower and be able to rise high above the crowd.

Brian Thwaits is the founder of Brainspeaker Inc. ( and has delivered presentations across North America and in Hong Kong. He‘s the author of The Big Learn: Smart Ways To Use Your Brain.

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