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June 07, 2007

Stop telling me. Show me!

How many trainees do you have that make you feel like a broken record?  You tell them the neat orderly steps in sequence, and have them try it – once, twice, then over and over again, and it never seems to click.

What gives?

What you may be dealing with is a Visual/Spatial Learner.  V/SLs process most of their information on the right side of their brain, and tend to think in terms of pictures.  They need to either see a picture to understand, or form a picture in their minds of a verbal instruction.

How do you know you’ve got one?  How about the trainee who’s always late for class, or “just in time?”  Time, and how it moves in a linear way, is too concrete a concept for most V/SLs, and they tend to have no idea how long it takes to complete projects or assignments, or even how long it’s going to take to get to class. 

Or maybe it’s the trainee who’s manual looks like a random clump of papers and handouts, with no organization whatsoever.  V/SLs organize by piling.  Sometimes the piles are horizontal, vertical, or even in a binder, but the pile is the thing.  You will quickly find that if the concept, subject matter, or job tool is not in plain sight, it might as well not exist.

Finally, it could be the trainee who seems to take longer to grasp concepts that others get quickly, but once she does, is able to synthesize the information into the big picture, rather than just performing the task by rote.  Visual spatial learners often skip competency, and move straight to mastery, but it can take a little longer for that first step to happen.

Studies by Dr. Linda Silverman have shown that 65% or so of people in a learning setting need some kind of visual/spatial stimulation in order to learn, and yet as trainers, we often spend more time telling, than showing.

Teaching VS/L’s in the way they learn best is one of the quickest, and least expensive ways of dramatically increasing retention and application.  Some of the simplest methods include:

q       Minimizing the amount of text you put on white boards and power point presentations.  Replace it instead with pictures, diagrams, and flow charts.

q       While it’s important to break down complicated tasks and concepts into small chunks, V/SLs need to see the whole picture first – they need a road map.  Begin instead with a theoretical framework and overview of what they are going to learn, and how each upcoming piece fits.

q       Remember, a picture is worth 1000 words.

So if you feel like you’ve hit a brick wall with a trainee, and they’re just not getting it, then maybe stop telling them, and start showing them.  You might be surprised with the results.

Jason Allen is the Training Manager for Myron Corporation’s Hamilton, Ontario Sales Office.  He has been researching learning styles and personality types, and how they impact instructional design, for over a decade.


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Jane Bozarth

Excellent comments! I'd like to add that one of my own frustrations as a trainer-of-trainers is the fact that, while we know few people learn via auditory means, we continue to talk...and talk...and talk. I also concur with Jason's dead-on suggestions here for using pictures in meaningful ways: providing colorful templates and cute clip art does not "support visual learners but can, in fact, distract them from important information.

For an interesting tour of an off-the-scale V/SL, take a look at Temple Grandin's wonderful book, "Thinking in Pictures". I just checked Amazon and there's a new edition in print now.

Tom Tiernan


You hit the nail on the head. As a visual/spatial learner I can tell you that talking at me or showing me Powerpoint with lots of words is a sure method for directing me to the siesta zone. I would also add that involving touch (kinesthetic) is also important for the learning process.

My company specializes in using photographs to facilitate conversations. Our tools and techniques help people access all of the right-brain, creative information not normally accessed in more traditional tools and processes. Using photos to facilitate is not just for V/S learners. We use them for all audiences including, drum roll please, linear, analytical types. The key with that type of audience is to provide them with some theoretical framework for what they are going to do.

I'm going to post your article on our blog. Hope that's all right. Of course credit will be given where credit is deserved.

Great post. Thanks

Tom Tiernan

Paul Tarquinio

Hi, I tried accessing www.visualsspeak.com and got following virus warning from company web monitor - Trojan-Downloader.HTML.Agent.ij. Wouldn't let me access web site. I'm assuming it's error, but thought I'd mention.

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