Two hundred Spanish government officials populate Giancarlo’s slides during a session in London, England in 2018

The Art of Sharing Knowledge

By Giancarlo Brotto

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in a large auditorium watching a speaker address a room full of people and thinking, Wow, what does it take to be so capable that you get the opportunity to stand on stage and share knowledge with so many people?

As a 10-year old kid still struggling with long division, the thought of being able to remember and articulate so many facts unaided in a set period of time seemed like an impossible feat. But as impossible as it seemed, the honor of being asked to address a large audience was motivating and became the catalyst for me to work toward that privilege. Ironically, after several years of speaking in front of large audiences, I realized my aspirations were wrong.

What I realized was that public speaking, whether it’s to a packed auditorium or in a meeting with two people, represents a unique opportunity to impact the audience’s capacity to do something great with what you’re sharing. Those who excel at this will tell you it feels like an art when you do it right. Yet despite what many might think, this art is accessible to everyone.

It slapped me in the face . . .

Many years ago, I attended a well-known conference that brought together leading experts in education. The speakers were some of the most well respected in the field, having spent most of their lives researching the conditions that optimize teaching and learning.

As I sat in a knowledge-sharing workshop learning about what works and what doesn’t work, I realized the speaker’s own strategy fell under the “doesn’t work” category – it was the infamous “death by PowerPoint.” I realized at that point that those of us steeped in transforming education need to use every opportunity to model the efficient practices we advocate every time we get on stage. In simpler terms, the more presenters move away from being a talking head on stage with some cool images on a big screen, the better!

Knowledge share with impact

Often those on stage have accomplished great things in their lives. They have walked on the moon, invented a trendy electronic gadget, or won multiple Olympic medals. But do our lives have to contain some heroic feat to make us worthy of attention? Or is it reserved for those with ultra-charismatic personalities, those born with the natural ability to entertain?

The truth is, every single one of us has knowledge or insight to share, and our ability to impact others is a skill we can develop and improve. Look at this research comparing the amount of time 15-year old students spent learning inside and outside of school per week with their performance on the international assessment of science skills (OECD-PISA, 2015).

Notice that students who spent less time learning received higher PISA science scores. What this tells us is . . .

It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality of time spent that matters.

Countries like Finland, Japan, Estonia, Switzerland, and Canada have defined and applied a more efficient teaching/learning strategy to their education system. What can we learn from these highly efficient countries and the available research?

It can be summarized in one simple concept: Actively involve your audience (mentally, emotionally, physically) with your content.

Let me make one thing super clear: Talking about something interesting with a thought-provoking picture in the background may seem active to you, but it isn’t active enough for your audience.

How can you increase audience involvement in your presentation? Ask your audience to do one or more of the following:

  • Predict outcomes before you share them
  • Discuss the answer to a question you’ve proposed with the person next to them
  • Reflect on an emotional moment in their lives
  • Give anonymous, real-time input to generate “live” slide content

The above activities draw your audience into your message. Making it memorable and usable beyond your time is key.

Another way to encourage audience engagement – with your content and with each other – is by changing the physical layout of the room. Below is a picture of an average meeting room and how I changed it before the presentation began. Notice how a simple change in seating shifted the focus to the audience. When possible, get the audience out of their seats to interact in different groups, as pictured in the third image below.

“Presenting” to CTOs from across the United States. Florida, 2017.

Lessons from the experts

If you are trying to fine-tune your ability to share knowledge, there are several key experts from which I have gained great insight. Dr. Carmen Simon (@areyoumemorable) cognitive scientist, keynote speaker and founder of Memzy, for example, has spent the last decade helping people apply research-based guidelines to craft their messages and presentations. She leverages brain science to make presentation slides more memorable.

Two more favorites of mine are Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. They have spent years trying to uncover why some stories are memorable and others are not (think, for example, of the sticky story of the razor found in a child’s Halloween apple). In their book they explore common elements of “sticky” stories.

For those of you who present webinars or have your content recorded for later consumption, there is mounting insight that can help you improve your presentations as well. For instance, edX (a popular MOOC platform founded by Harvard University and MIT) conducted a large-scale study involving more than 6.9 million video watching sessions. Their findings are summarized in a report entitled How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos.

Another example comes from researchers Logan Fiorella and Richard Mayer, who noted the differences in observers’ knowledge transfer when varying how images were drawn or represented. They studied the varying degrees of effectiveness in viewing an instructor’s entire body while they were drawing, just viewing their hand, only viewing a static image, or viewing an image being drawn in real-time through a device like Apple TV or Chromecast. Overall, the research suggests there are greater gains when the instructor’s hand and/or body is visible while drawing images. You can read more about it here: Effects of Observing the Instructor Draw Diagrams on Learning From Multimedia Messages.

It’s safe to say there is no shortage of insight to help people develop more effective knowledge-sharing strategies. So why do the majority of speakers around the word still follow ineffective strategies?

Human – Time

The simple answer is that as humans we gravitate to behaviors that are familiar. Doing something that is different feels awkward and usually takes more time. A simple way to experience this is by crossing your arms. Notice you either have your right arm over your left or your left arm over your right. Now cross your arms with the opposite arm on top. For most of you, it will take more time and thought to complete the same task.

What’s more interesting is that even if you spend the next five minutes practicing this “weird” way of crossing your arms, you will likely revert back to the familiar if asked to cross your arms again a week from now. That’s a common human behavior. It is exactly why the majority of us get stuck in antiquated, inefficient strategies for sharing knowledge.

Think back to all your past learning experiences as a kid and as an adult. What did you experience more: A person standing in front of you talking for at least 80% of the time? Or a person that got you actively involved (mentally, emotionally, physically) with their content 80% of the time? I was guilty of the former too, but I was able to become a more engaging presenter.

Here are the five steps you can take to make your presentation more active:

  1. Want to change: I wanted my behaviours to align with the insights I had been gathering from the education field so I could support the success of others. Get in touch with your reasons for changing your strategy.
  2. Do what you would normally do and create your presentation, but don’t spend time making it pretty. Instead, continue to the next step.
  3. Make a list of three to five key concepts from your presentation. Ask yourself: If I can get 80% of my audience internalizing and applying three to five concepts consistently, which concepts would have the biggest positive impact?
  4. For each of your three to five concepts, ask yourself: What kind of experience can I create for my audience that will get them actively (mind, heart, body) connected to this idea?
  5. While presenting, take note of how your audience reacts/interacts with these experiences.

Before you know it, more and more people will thank you for your insight and the gained impact.

Giancarlo Brotto engages with education thought leaders, school system leaders, researchers, policy-influencing organizations, as well as government officials to gain insight and influence trends in the K-12 education space.

Giancarlo Brotto
Global Education Strategist
SMART Technologies