Acing a technical talk: How do we learn anything?

Learning is a complex processes, but research in cognitive psychology has found at least a commonly agreed upon process. The purpose of a talk, presentation or training session is to present new information and ultimately, learning this information to affect a change in behaviour in some way.

These aren’t my theories but scientific research that I read up and my notes. I use them while preparing my training sessions or talks that I give.

There are five stages involved in learning something:

  1. Selection
  2. Linking
  3. Organisation
  4. Assimilation
  5. Reinforcement

Selecting new information to learn

IMO, this is the most important and critical stage of learning. Once a participant is sure that this is something they want to learn, the rest is easy. Even if you falter with the rest, it’s still not as bad because the learner will put extra efforts if they have seen the importance of selecting a particular thing or piece of information to learn.

For example, there are so many programming languages to learn. There are so many frameworks and readymade systems to work with. Why does one learn WordPress in particular? A lot of people say this happens by chance or is forced by circumstances. In such a case, often when the selection is not out of one’s own conviction, it is harder to learn something.

It is the facilitator’s (or speaker’s) job to ensure that the learner will select the information that they present, willingly, out of their own conviction. What convinces us to learn anything new?


I want you to pay attention to your breathing. The breathing in and breathing out. You breathe all the time, but never pay attention to it. At any given moment, our senses get a lot of input. We perceive a lot of things but our brain filters out information that is not important and we selectively attend to only a few things out of our perception.


Which is why unless the new information captures our attention, we are not going to do anything about it. If your audience or students have chosen to learn this piece of information over others (for example in a multi-track event), then you probably already have their attention. (They could have other reasons to be there; you still have to work on the capturing their attention.)


Once, something interesting catches our attention, one must be motivated enough to go through the learning process. There are various theories of motivation like Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs displayed below. This is essentially something that’s summarised by the acronym WIIFM (What’s in it for me?)


Aspiration Management” by Ken Georgie MathewOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


Does the learner have the confidence that this is something that they can do? That they’ll be able to learn this new information.  Another acronym, YCDI (You can do it!).


This is more of an introduction to the new information, the topic of your talk or lesson or a pitch. Once your learner or audience has successfully given their attention, are motivated to learn and have the confidence to learn, they have chosen to learn it. You are no longer teaching random people in random states of mind. You are interacting with people eager to learn.

Linking new information to existing information/knowledge

It is going to be extremely rare (close to impossible) that what you are presenting is so new that it has no connection to any existing information that your learner has. Without forming such links, it’ll be impossible for the learner to move on to the next stages of the actual recording stuff in their mind. In such a case, the participants will just memorise something by repetition without any functional use for the new learning.

Also, there are always prerequisites that you need in your audience. You cannot just stand in front of an audience of bloggers and start talking about Git commands in a session about GitHub. That’d be a bad idea. In fact, listing and explaining commands is a bad idea. Listing and explaining anything is a bad idea, in general.

There are two strategies involved in such linking:


pieces-of-the-puzzle-592798_640The participants are made to recall existing knowledge, by various methods. So, from the numerous stuff crowding the brain, the main sockets come to the surface. At this stage it is important to remember that you are not the one plugging in the new information. The participant have to plug it themselves.


mark-516279_640For that to happen, you just present the information but make sure that the participants are able to make connections between the sockets and plugs, i.e. their existing knowledge and the new information that you are presenting. Once they understand the relationships, they’ll know what goes where and will do so accordingly.

As a speaker at a conference, your responsibility ends with these two stages of learning. Although a knowledge of those is necessary for an effective presentation.

We’ll discuss the remaining stages, as well as the practical methods involved in achieving all of this in subsequent posts. As of now, I’ll leave you with

An exercise

Let’s take our example of a talk on GitHub further. As an exercise, you could try creating a talk structure that involves these two stages. You can assume that your audience is made up only of programmers.

  • What could get their attention to GitHub?
  • What can motivate them to use GitHub?
  • How will you convince them that using GitHub (or effectively Git) is easy and doable?
  • What existing knowledge will you make them recall?
  • How will you relate using GitHub with what they already do?

What next?

We look at the remaining three stages of learning viz. Organisation, Assimilation and Reinforcement.

2 thoughts on “Acing a technical talk: How do we learn anything?

  1. Pingback: Acing a technical talk: The actual learning - Hook, Refine and Tinker

  2. Pingback: Acing a technical talk: Reinforcing knowledge - Hook, Refine and Tinker

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