Engage Your Learner (by Talking to Their Elephant)

5th July 2016

We’ve all been there. There’s information that we know is important, that we have been told we have to memorise and that we read over and over again whilst our mind drifts to what we should cook for dinner and who’s birthday we’ve forgotten.

The problem lies with your elephant. Your conscious mind (the rider) knows fully well that this information must be retained but your unconscious mind (the elephant) is wandering in a different direction.1 Your rider may be able to control your elephant for short periods but it’s exhausting and the strength of the elephant will always win in the end. The rider is also very good at pretending it was planning this different route all along (how often have you been able to explain a gut feeling with rational argument?).

This can be a real problem for compliance training, not the most exciting subjects but vital to the safety and performance of your company.

The trick is to get the rider and elephant walking the same path. The way to do this? Engage the elephant. Here’s a few tips how:

1.     Visuals have more of an impact on our brain than text and have the added value of strengthening in memory recall days after the event. By creating strong visuals and carefully selecting colours you can evoke an emotional response in the learner.

2.     These emotions are key to connecting with the elephant and story telling is also a great way to do this. By placing the learner at the centre of their story and allowing them to make decisions and watch the consequences, you are appealing to the subconscious where memories are stored and retrieved. Presenting familiar scenarios also allows learners to add to existing memories rather than create new ones, making the connections stronger and easier to retrieve.

3.     People respond to people. Including video content and ‘looking’ the learner in the eye is far more effective than simply relying on text on the page.

4.     The people we respond to the most are our peers. Encouraging social interaction appeals to the elephants heard mentality.

5.     Try not to overload and scare the elephant. Keep clutter to a minimum and focus the learner on what is important on the page. Using bite sized chunks of information revealed one step at a time through interactive content is far more effective than endless scrolling text.

6.     This kind of discovery and learning through play is the perfect way to engage the elephant. Putting the learner in the driver’s seat and encouraging problem solving motivates and ensures higher levels of retention.

7.     It is important to fully immerse the learner in the experience and this won’t happen if they need to constantly speak to their rider. Keep navigation simple and familiar (employ standard solutions that the learner is used to) and ensure the delivery system is robust to allow the  learner to flow through the course.

By following these simple rules you can ensure that the rider and elephant work in harmony together, resulting in a happy learner who has retained the information effortlessly.


1. Haidt, J. (2007) The happiness hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom