I was a demanding member of the audience in physics and chemistry lessons. I wanted the materials to put on a spectacle for me. And unless the teachers were good narrators, things like Einstein’s special theory of relativity would glance off my brain, never to be seen again.
It’s science show time.
So the stars of my secondary school science lessons were:
The Cheeky Alkaline Brothers: crumbs of sodium, potassium and magnesium doing their ‘can’t catch me’ routine on the surface of the water. I remember a lot of whizzing around, hissing, smoking and even a lilac-coloured flame. (Don’t forget to stand well back and don’t try this at home.)
The Copper Sulphate Siren, who produced dazzling blue crystals over the course of a week. I couldn’t wait to return to my next physics lesson. A real lure.
The Roaring Bunsen Burner: once you put on your white coat and oversized goggles, you knew you were in for a bit of crucible drama.
As you gather, I find it hard to absorb scientific information until I flesh it out with real life examples.
The issue of learning styles – and how people process complex ideas – hit me recently when I took my daughter to the Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux in East Sussex.
Its hands-on exhibits cover every aspect of physics and astronomy, from forces, magnetism and momentum to sound, light and colour:
I spent a good five minutes trying to shake hands with the ghostly reflection of my own hand.
Then, embarrassingly, I elbowed my daughter out of the way to have a go on the Plasma Globe. You suddenly get a Hogwarts-like ability to draw streams of glowing gas towards your fingers:
If someone had sat me down in front of a book about electrodes, filaments and high frequency currents, I wouldn’t have been enthralled. But that hands-on-hand-glowing moment did prompt me to look up noble gases (the things inside the globe) on Wikipedia – and get my head around plasma science.
What this means for your web content.
The idea of learning styles – that we all have preferred ways of processing information – divides opinion. (And if you’re interested in the debate, this is a useful summary: www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk.)
But even if you’re a sceptic, you’ll probably be aware of approaches that never work for you. For instance, if you buy a shiny new phone complete with chunky instruction booklet, you might do one or more of the following things:
- go straight to a video on YouTube and watch how it’s done – visual learning;
- ring a friend (on another phone, obviously) with a similar model, and get them to talk you through it – audio learning;
- methodically plough your way through the instruction booklet – read /write learning;
- intuitively fiddle around with phone and work it out through trial and error – kinaesthetic learning.
(These terms are taken from VARK – which embraces the idea of learning styles and stands for Visual, Audio, Read/Write, Kinaesthetic strategies.)
A variety show of content.
If you want your audience to grasp a complex topic, it’s worth remembering that different people will gravitate towards different formats – just as you do.
So you could think about presenting the main messages in different ways – diluting the text with charts, diagrams or photos, or offering an alternative version in audio or video.
And if you’re unsure about which formats are working, analytics will give you a steer on the star performers – be they words, photos, infographics, audio podcasts or video snippets. (You don’t have to resort to the pyrotechnics of the Cheeky Alkaline Brothers – but a bit of variety might help to get your message across.)