Acing a technical talk: The actual learning

In the previous post How do we learn anything?, I discussed the first two stages of learning

  1. Selection (selecting new information to learn)
    1. Attention (grabbing attention to the information)
    2. Motivation (What’s in it for me or WIIFM)
    3. Confidence (You can do it or YCDI)
  2. Linking (linking new information to existing)
    1. Recall (recall existing information)
    2. Relate (relate new information to existing information)

In this one, we’ll discuss the next two stages, Organisation and Assimilation. We keep Reinforcement for another post. These are stages that all of us give enough importance to. That’s why many of the steps or strategies are common knowledge and/or are pretty well understood.

I’m not sure if you noticed the irony in a statement in the previous post, where I have said “Listing and explaining anything is a bad idea, in general.” and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. 😉 Could there be a particular reason why this contradiction exists?

Organising newly learnt information

Your participant has eagerly linked all the concepts and information you have provided with their existing knowledge. The next step is to organise this new knowledge. Without a meaningful organisation, it is impossible to learn. Very few people can learn randomly, without patterns and meaningful structure.

Structuring Content

We need new information’s boundaries defined and the information’s structure clear so as to integrate it within our memories and thinking. This gives us an idea of the big picture and helps create an empty framework of knowledge where we can hang what we are now going to learn.

Table of Contents is a common structure. However, it is not the most effective way to show the structure. For instance, when teaching something like a WordPress theme, compare the following:



  1. Header
  2. Content Area
  3. Footer
  4. Sidebar/Widget Area
  5. Menu
  6. Footer

Which of the two do you think helps better?

Setting Objectives

Objectives are basically well defined statements that describe

  • what the participant will be able to do at the end of your session,
  • under what conditions, and
  • what criteria or standards would be used to evaluate this.

For example, if we were to do a session on Code Documentation, depending on the time at hand, one of my objectives could be:

When presented with a code statement declaring an action hook, the participant will be able to write a doc block as described in the WordPress coding standards.

This is not the same as

The participants will know how to write doc blocks for action and filter hooks.

The verbs are important. What the participant does (differentiates, enumerates, performs, etc) has to be demonstrated, observed and confirmed. You may pass on that responsibility to your audience.


Without clearly stated objectives, a clueless bunch of people may get entertained by your session and even say it was nice. However, if you ask them what it was about or what they learnt, you may encounter a lot of fog.


I want you to memorise this number


Now this


Finally, I want you to memorise this number


Which one is easier to remember? Breaking down complex information into meaningful pieces or chunks is useful for learning. It has another benefit, our working memory is limited and can only hold a set number of pieces of information at a time.

The 10 digit number is either

  • one large piece of information (too complex), or
  • ten small pieces of information (too much).

While the second one breaks into five chunks, the chunks don’t hold any meaning by themselves. The easiest is the meaningful 1800 (tool free prefix in India), 11, 00 and 88 (repeating digits). It is also the smallest with just four chunks.

By the way, that number is the toll free helpline of the National Commission for Minorities.


All our sense have different memory stores. What we see, what we hear and how things feel(touch) are three distinct types of Sensory Memory.

Sensory Memory is considered to be outside of cognitive control and is instead an automatic response.


Which is why a picture is worth a thousand words, text layout and whitespace matter, infographics are better than blog posts and videos trump everything.

Due to the nature of our sessions, we feel we can’t use touch. All that is there is visual (iconic) and auditory (echoic) memories.

However, I have something for you to consider. In a session on Code Documentation, what would be more successful

  • showing the audience what a doc block looks like
  • writing a doc block in front of them
  • making them type in a doc block into their computers or mobiles on an existing piece of code that you have already provided.

Hint: Only one of them involves impressions of touch (haptic).

Often making people do things is better than making them just see or hear things. While they do, they also see. Your responsibility is just to help with the auditory input. That’s why Workshops are great ways to present some types of knowledge!

Assimilating newly learnt information into existing information/knowledge.

This is where the plugging in of the new knowledge into existing knowledge happens. In many ways that’s what we generally understand as learning.

Smart learners are able to organise new information and link it to existing knowledge. Interested learners already have your attention. Often in technical talks, we get away with jumping to this stage assuming that our learners are smart and interested and have already built the mental framework. We just go with our bricks to build the building.

Quick Question

Can you predict the strength of a building or how long will it stand based on the quality of the bricks alone? Does the framework or scaffolding need to be strong, too? Between a solid framework and excellent bricks, what do you think is more important for the strength of the building?

Presenting Knowledge

How we present knowledge depends on the type of knowledge we present. According to a classification, these are

  1. Declarative Knowledge
    1. Facts
    2. Concepts
    3. Principles
    4. Mental Models
  2. Procedural Knowledge
    1. Problem Solving
    2. Troubleshooting

We’ll look into the types of knowledge somewhere else but at this point, it is important to note that as technical facilitators, we love talking about procedural knowledge. How to do something or how I did something (problem solving) is one of the most common, well-received and popular type of sessions at technical conferences along with how to fix something that’s broken (Troubleshooting).


Presenting Examples

By using the logic that’s already present in their head, you have just created a reusable pattern or framework that your participant can fit their new knowledge into, easily. This also helps later retrieval.

Consider the following picture. It’s WordPress with a bad theme.


This is WordPress with a great theme.


In your opinion, was that a good or a bad example. What example can you think of, when you explain theming to someone.

What’s next?

We look into Reinforcement, after which we get into a proper training session via blog posts where we’ll structure your session, step by step.

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