In the quest to make sales training more effective and gain traction with participants, sales leaders often get caught up in plausible but totally unsupported thinking about the way our brain works.
These erroneous beliefs can cause a sales leader to make the wrong choice about training, and to overlook critical options to improve sales performance over the longer term.
Let’s face it… sales leaders can’t be experts in the fields of neuroscience and learning as well as being expert in their own role. So let’s have a look at these 3 common, but invalid, learning myths.
3 Common Neuro Myths About Learning and Training
It is important to recognise that we’re now able to move beyond a personal opinion about what works. Due to the increasing use of fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to monitor specific areas of brain activity, studies in the field of neuroscience have been able to identify fact from fiction when it comes to assessing these neuro myths.
Neuro Myth #1: Learners forget 90% after one month.
Have you ever heard the line, “Training is a waste because they’ll forget most of what they learn over the next month”.
This thinking often stems from misinterpretation of the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1880’s. His studies discovered the ‘spacing effect’ – the idea that being exposed to the new material at intervals over a long time span will increase retention (and learning).
Ebbinghaus also developed the ‘forgetting curve’ which shows an exponential decline in retention over time if there is no effort made to access it. The theory proposes that people can lose half their new knowledge within days or weeks if they do not review it at intervals (but this was never based on sound research).
That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Forgetting most of the new knowledge within the first few weeks.
Review of other research has found that the best remembering comes with spaced learning sessions held approximately 30 days apart. However the whole concept of measuring how much learners remember is fraught with problems and is difficult to reliably determine.
In fact more recent work has shown that the degree to which learners remember new information is impacted by a number of factors such as:
- How much experience the learner has with the information.
- How meaningful the information is (does it make sense?).
- How the information is presented.
- How often the learner uses the information.
- Motivation for learning the information.
- Preconceived ideas or information held by the learner.
- The learning experience: environment, interaction, instructor.
Yes, learners will forget (how much they will forget is hard to estimate). However the good news is you can create a training program that aims to lower the rate of forgetting by implementing good practices in developing the training, how the sessions are presented, and by implementing spaced repetition afterwards to cover priority concepts and application in real life settings.
Neuro Myth #2: People have a learning style that helps them learn more
What’s your preferred learning style?
Have you ever been asked that question? The implication is that you, as an individual, have a definite preferred style of learning that will help you learn things more easily.
Learning styles are usually considered to be a preference for material to be presented in one particular mode, such as:
Similar to the concept of a preferred learning style is that we, as individuals, are either predominantly a right-brain (creative) thinker, or a left-brain (logical) type of person. Accordingly – the theory says – our learning experience, and the method of workshop facilitation, should favour our left- or right-brain tendency to help us learn the most.
However this is all misunderstood and incorrectly applied to learning opportunities.
Whilst the format and manner in which information is presented does has an impact on learning, the end result is reliant on a combination of factors rather than being mainly determined by alignment with the individuals claimed learning style.
And when it comes to using the left-brain or right-brain, the truth is both brain hemispheres are interdependent. They work together at different levels for different tasks.
Also under this theme of learning style considerations is the Expertise Reversal Effect. This effect shows that learning formats which are highly effective for novices may be totally unsuitable for those who are experienced with the information.
The research underpinning the Expertise Reversal Effect has found that novices learn better from studying examples, whereas experienced people learn better by solving problems (i.e. applying their previous knowledge to new situations in order to extend their thinking).
Another learning model that diverges from the preferred learning style concept is Active Learning that first appeared in the 1990’s. This proven model promotes the idea that people learn best when exposed to a variety of learning formats and opportunities (i.e. multiple modalities). As opposed to traditional ‘learning by listening’, under Active Learning the more ‘doing’ and ‘thinking about the doing’ that learners undertake, the more they will learn.
The concept of individuals having a preferred Learning Style is not valid. The fact that a learner, when asked, will state a preference for a particular format of information does not mean they will have an improved learning outcome when information is presented in that format. In fact the Expertise Reversal Effect and Active Learning model show that some learning activities are suitable for everyone, based on their level of experience, rather than based on their self-perceived preference.
Neuro Myth #3: We only use 10% of our brain
Whether you think we only use 10% or 20% of our brain, it doesn’t really matter. This long-held belief has clearly been disproved by modern brain research. In fact our brain is fully used at all times, and fMRI studies have identified different activities stimulate responses in different areas of the brain.
Unfortunately many people still believe this myth, as evidenced by this 2012 study of teachers in the UK and Netherlands where nearly 50% of teachers believed it was true.
The danger in believing this myth is that is provides a false hope that if you can access the other 90% of your brain you can experience immediate improvements in your performance.
The reality is we already use all of our brain all of the time. In fact to avoid brain overload and enable optimal learning outcomes, Cognitive Load Theory identifies three different levels of thinking: Intrinsic, Extraneous, and Germane. Each of these cognitive loads should be managed through the choice and structure of learning content and format.
It’s not about ‘unlocking’ some hidden region in your brain; it’s about managing what your brain is doing.
It might be exciting to think that we have more potential, if only we could access the hidden parts of the brain. And maybe it is comforting for some people to think their low performance is due to not being able to access their whole brain (or not as much as other people can access). But rather than looking for a magic ingredient to unlock the rest of the learner’s brain, training should be structured to help participants identify and apply the key learning points using their whole brain.
Conclusion: Key points for Sales Leaders
Sales leaders are not neuroscientists. As a sales leader you need to know what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do to achieve higher revenue, stronger client relationships, and better sales outcomes.
Here are the most important action points for sales leaders:
(1) Always use spaced repetition as part of a training program.
Participants will forget some of what they are exposed to during any training session. How much they forget is largely up to you. As the sales leader you can create a system of regular exposure to the new concepts or techniques. Plan for these follow-up (or refresher) sessions when you are considering the initial training event. Involve your trainer in this planning to create a seamless flow of learning opportunities for your team.
This is particularly important for developing new thinking patterns and skills. Embedding new sales behaviours takes time, practice and persistence. In most cases it won’t happen overnight – it’s just human nature.
(2) Create a positive learning environment.
What the sales leader does ‘before’ any training takes place is one of the most important factors in achieving impact from training, including:
- Communicate the importance of the training.
- Create the expectation of change/improvement.
- Work with the trainer to focus on critical development factors.
During the training participate as much as possible, without hindering participation by your team. Lead by example and show the training is important by attending.
After the training follow up with each participant. Let them know you are interested in their progress. Consider the use of coaching sessions for your team (by you or by an external coach) as part of the learning journey.
(3) Get everyone involved with the program.
Successful adult learning is not a passive activity. Use the principles of Active Learning to create opportunities for participants to be immersed in the concepts being presented.
Throw out the idea of individual learning styles. Instead, introduce suitable challenges for your team. For less experienced participants they will need more direction, and to be told the basics, as they don’t have a strong foundation of experience to draw on. For more experienced participants give them challenges that will use their knowledge and stretch their thinking.
(4) Manage the learning process to avoid cognitive overload.
There are no hidden zones in the brain waiting to be discovered. The whole brain is always used. That’s why effective training takes into account the cognitive load created by the training program, such as giving participants time for analysis and processing of Germane cognitive loads which are most important for learning.
Part of this approach is recognising the Intrinsic cognitive load (the inherent level of difficulty) for participants and ensuring participants are not overloaded. The goal is to help participants adopt new sales behaviours, not simply remember information by rote.
To get more insights into how to avoid common mistakes with sales training and maximise the impact for your team, download The Sales Training Illusion ebook.
This free ebook explains the 5 major internal causes of sales training failure, as well as the 15 contributing factors that usually get overlooked.
Plus it contains a handy management checklist with sales training improvement ideas!