When packing for trips, how often do you try to stuff your soft-sided suitcase until it’s visibly lumpy?

Like suitcases, you can’t cram human brains beyond their capacity and expect them to function well. Crammed suitcases are prone to broken zippers and wrinkled clothes. Overloaded brains struggle to recall information.

Recall is the gold standard for memory, explained Dr. Lila Davachi, director of the Center for Learning, Memory and Emotion at New York University, at the 2017 NeuroLeadership Summit. When adults recall their training, they’re able to reflect, interpret and apply what they’ve learned to their situation.

Unfortunately, most adults only recognize the information they’ve encountered in training. They have a familiarity with the terms they’ve heard and the slides they’ve seen. If their training programs were stuffed suitcases, they’d be able to recognize their checked luggage at the airport’s baggage claim area as it came off the conveyor belt, but they would have minimal memory of what was packed inside.

Why are training participants able to recognize yet not consistently recall?

To recall, individuals need to experience coherence with their training, according to Davachi. Coherence happens when you sew the content together with a “golden thread,” which integrates it and provides congruence. That helps the brain organize the new information into schemas — patterns of thoughts and relationships. If the schema is already familiar to the learners, like the stuffed suitcase metaphor, their brains will have an easier time consolidating and integrating the new content.

By contrast, without coherence, the brain will perceive new content as isolated, random elements. To use a food metaphor, the content is popcorn rather than creamy risotto. The new kernels of information scatter all over the place, making them difficult to put together. For training, two types of schemas, used together, help retention and recall: the structure for organizing and presenting your content and the content itself.

The organizational framework can take different forms. You can present in chapters (preferably no more than three), or you could use these three key lean communications® questions:

  • What and why? (What do participants need to learn, and why it this important?)
  • So what? (Why should they care?)
  • Now what? (What do they need to do?)

As for the content, less is more. Focus on the “vital few, rather than the trivial many” concepts that participants need to learn. To help with recall, look for a unifying theme that acts as the “golden thread.” Ideally, it’s a visual hook related to the content, such a metaphor or a mnemonic device.

How do you adopt this “less is more” approach, which can seem counterintuitive to learning?

First, when developing your content, stop asking, “What else do I need to include?”, and start asking:

  • If participants can only recall three concepts after the training, what are the three most important ones? How do I explain why these concepts are the most important?
  • How will individuals apply the three concepts I’ve identified?
  • How can I help them develop habits to make their application easier?
  • How can I space the training so they’re learning over days rather than hours? Can I set up debrief webinars or do one-on-one or group check-ins later to answer questions and reinforce key points?
  • How can I test individuals to ensure they can maximize and sustain their recall of these concepts? (Testing improves recall better than restudying information.)

Research shows that recall is much more effective if it’s spaced over time – preferably days, not hours. In other words, five hours of learning over five days is more valuable than five hours of learning over two days. The brain has more time to organize the data, especially during sleep.

By answering these questions and honoring this “less is more” approach, you will base your training on scientific principles of recall that help the brain.

If you find yourself wanting to add more content, remember what it’s like to pack for a trip. You don’t transfer all your clothes from your closet into your suitcase. You edit, selecting the most appropriate items you’ll need.

The individuals you’re training expect the same from you. They want to trust you to curate and edit what they think will be both interesting and useful for them so they can improve how they work.