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Learning Style – A misnomer or useful business strategy?

August 11, 2009 Articles, Communication No Comments


Learning styles – A quick quiz…

- What do a German Shepherd dog’s ears look like?

- Who has a deeper voice, your best friend or your boss?

- How do you tie your shoelaces each morning?

As you read these questions, there’s a high probability that you accessed your memory in three different ways – visually (for the dog’s ears), in an auditory manner (to compare your friend’s voice with that of your boss) and kinaesthetically (you may have actually gone through the movement of tying your laces).

What is your learning style?

We all store memories in three formats … visual. auditory, kinaesthetic.  Although every one of us uses all three every day, as individuals we tend to have better access to our memory for specific events, using one of these three modalities.

 Many writers, particularly in the area of teacher development, have suggested that our preference for the use of one of these three memory modalities also helps us learn better.  So, the concept of “learning style” developed.

This has been transferred to the workplace.  Trainers have suggested that to cater for people and their individual learning style, we need to present information in a variety of ways.  Think back for a moment to the last meeting you attended where a presentation did not impress you.  What format did the presenter use?  How interested and involved in the presentation were you?  Why did it not hold your attention throughout?  Now think back to one of the best presentations you have ever attended – what were the differences between the two?

Please stop for a moment before you read on.  Think some more about the differences between the two meetings.  We’ll return to address your thoughts shortly.  If you’ve been sitting for a while reading Business Executive, you may even want to take a break, or share your thoughts with a friend before continuing this article (I’m just taking my own advice and going for a cup of tea).

Welcome back (if only from your thoughts).

Many of you will have learnt a second language.  If you learnt the second language as an adult, think back to the best lessons you experienced.  Did you learn best by reading the text, listening to a tape (or the teacher), or perhaps taking slightly differing sentences and analysing these differences with a friend?

If you now review your thinking about how you accessed your memory in the two examples – the two business meetings and learning a language – you should start to get some idea of your own preferred style – visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic.

This has important implications for how we communicate, particularly within business and most importantly, when we are trying to influence the behaviour of a colleague, business partner or key stakeholder (perhaps our boss?).  Whatever the topic you are discussing, no matter how simple or complex, you and your audience will be using a preferred style to access past memories in order to make sense of the current topic.

However, critics of learning style theory, such as Professor Daniel T. Willingham, of the University of Virginia, say that when used for example, by teachers in the classroom, it doesn’t work.  As a “learning style”, he may well be right.  What Willingham does agree with, is that:

  • 90% of people believe intuitively in the theory.
  • Something close to the theory is right. People can learn in different ways and some people are specially good at learning certain types of information.
  • If you already believe it, you’ll probably interpret ambiguous situations as consistent with the theory – for example using a visual analogy to help someone understand a complex subject may lead you to erroneously believe that they have a visual learning style.

Although it seems to make sense, numerous tests on learning and individual learning style have not proven the theory that people learn in different ways.  These studies may have been testing for the wrong thing, i.e. for “learning” per se.  In the classroom for example, the teacher has the need to help the students learn “meaning based” information – is that what we try to do in business?

So perhaps it’s a concept of “communication style” (to assist people access past memories to help make sense of the present) rather than “learning style”, that has particular implications for business communication.  Generally, we are not trying to teach people, we are trying to influence them.  And to do so we need to use strategies and tactics that will appeal to them.  This is where style preferences play an important part.  As a writer of this article for example, I’m in the process of trying to influence you on the merits of style preference as a communication tool.  If you review what you’ve already read, you’ll see that I have tried to get you to access the three modalities as often as possible (that word “see” just gave away my own preference).

Using memory and learning style preference in business to influence others, involves two stages:

  1. Identifying the preferred learning style of the other person
  2. Using differing forms of communication to cover all three modalities

How do you quickly identify others preferred learning style?

People who prefer … … are more likely to use words and sentences such as …
(seeing and reading)
“I see what you mean” “I’ll look into that” “The future looks bright” “The solution flashed before my eyes” “Show me”
(listening and speaking)
“I hear what you’re saying” “I hear you loud and clear” “He’s calling the tune” “Tell me” “Listen to me explain”
(touching and doing)
“I’ve got a handle on that” “I can’t seem to put my finger on it”  “Hold on a second” “I know how you feel” “Can I try that out?”

As you practise listening to how others are describing things (and perhaps picking up on how you too describe things), you’ll start to get better at identifying preferred styles.

How do you use style preference to influence others?

The following ideas are suggestions only.  They will apply in some situations and not others.  However, they should start you seeing the importance of varying your communication; talking with colleagues about the use of preferred communication styles; and trying them out in a number of business situations such as, meetings, negotiations and formal presentations.

If you know that someone prefers a visual learning style . . . Avoid speaking with them over the phone – use face-to-face or a communication medium that includes voice and visual (such as Skype) – use graphics, visual models and lots of pictures to explain concepts – ask “if you’d like to take notes as we speak, please do so” – use white boards and flip charts to summarise key points – use colour to highlight key points and provide highlighter pens (if appropriate) – try using mind maps to develop themes – if you have reached agreement on a key point, suggest they write it down – ask them to describe how they might see the solution working in practice
For someone who appears to have a preference for a more auditory learning style. . . Ask more questions – have more discussion – also encourage them to discuss topics with colleagues – ask them to give verbal reports – have them participate on panels – if working with a large group, break them into smaller sub-groups frequently for discussion points – if appropriate, encourage them to tape your discussion for later replay – ask them to verbally summarise the points discussed so far so that you are both sure of what you have heard – ask them how they might tell others about how the solution will work in practice
For someone whose preference appears to be more like a kinaesthetic learning style. . . Keep them active – encourage them to get involved for example by making models – make sure they are able to move regularly – get them to demonstrate what they mean – encourage them to key the points into their laptop – ask them to demonstrate to you how they would show others how the solution will work in practice
To combine all three modalities and particularly when presenting information, ensure you use analogies or metaphors that include seeing, hearing and doing . . . “I found her easy to communicate with.  It was like looking in a mirror.  She actually touched a nerve with me.  I could really hear the rhythm of her message.”
A special note on the use of Power Point in presentations . . . Try to avoid repeating on the screen what you are going to say.  This does not address those with a visual preference.  Rather, it reinforces the auditory message – use graphics and pictures – intersperse these with audience interaction and movement.

This article started with the question “Learning style – misnomer, or useful business strategy?”

Despite the tremendous amount of research into different types of learning style, the jury seems to be still out as to their validity.  However, the evidence is very clear that we all have three modes of accessing memory – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.  We also know that people use past experiences and learning style to try to make sense of current data and information coming to them.

So, if you are in the business of influencing people:

  • develop an understanding of people’s preferred styles,
  • learn how to identify them in yourself and others and
  • employ communication strategies that will best suit your influence targets.

Such skills can undoubtedly improve your influencing ability.


About the Author -

Bob Selden is the author of the best-selling “What To Do When You Become The Boss” – a self-help book for new managers – see details at He’s also coached at one of the world’s premier business schools, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and regularly advises managers around the globe on their current challenges. Please add your comments to this article or contact Bob via if you would like some free advice on your current management challenge.


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