Here’s a simple formula for creating content that effectively communicates your point, especially if the subject matter is novel or complex. This strategy can also dramatically reduce the time it takes you to put together tutorials, white papers, or presentations of any sort.
The key is to cover all the bases when it comes to the different learning styles of the audience. Let me elaborate on that point a bit.
One way in which otherwise quality content fails to satisfy the needs of much of the prospective audience is by failing to address different learning styles. Moreover, failing to properly structure the different approaches to communicating information will leave many of your readers confused and your content in shambles from a flow perspective.
Luckily, it’s easier than it sounds, thanks to the 4MAT methodology developed by Bernice McCarthy as a strategy for teachers to create more effective instructional materials. This same approach will help you develop educational marketing materials such as essays, blog posts, and white papers, and develop tutorial content that draws traffic to your site and creates satisfied new subscribers.
The Four Learning Styles
Studies have identified four discrete styles of learning based on the different ways people perceive information:
- Innovative Learners (approximately 35% of people) want to know why they should learn something, and how it will benefit them. This is the “what’s in it for them” factor.
- Analytic Learners (approximately 22% of people) want “just the facts,” and will be keen to see what the features or supporting data looks like once the benefits have been communicated.
- Common Sense Learners (approximately 18% of people) are interested in how things work, and are best served by concrete, experiential learning activities.
- Dynamic Learners (approximately 25% of people) are enthralled with the possibilities offered by the information, rely heavily on their own intuition, and seek to teach both themselves and others.
Integrating the Four Learning Styles
Failing to address any of the four learning styles will likely diminish the impact of your content. More importantly, the four styles are interdependent, in that type 3 and 4 learners cannot optimally connect with the lesson without having first experienced content aimed at type 1 and 2 learners. Plus, addressing each learning style also offers something for everyone, regardless of that person’s preferred style of learning.
This is why the 4MAT approach is called a cycle, and is represented as a sequential pie chart with each learning type representing a phase of the instruction. Structuring your writing or presentations with this cycle in mind can make you a more effective communicator.
- Phase One: WhyBesides targeting the largest learning style group, starting off your content with the reason why the information is of value is a foundational element of the rest of the piece. It’s also critical for attracting attention. This is why your headline and opening paragraphs must quickly and clearly express a practical benefit to the reader, and why presentations must grab attention immediately before getting into substance.
- Phase Two: WhatNow we come to what analytic learners call the meat—the features of a product and the supporting data. In other words, they want cold, hard facts and analysis. This phase of your content naturally follows the statement of the “why,” and failing to properly segue into phase two by dwelling on too much fluff up front will hurt you with these people, as well as bog down your overall delivery.
- Phase Three: HowOnce common sense learners have heard the why and the what, they’re ready to dive in and learn—by doing. While it’s tough for people to get hands on when reading or listening, you can appease the how crowd with specific examples and illustrations of how things work in the real world. Case studies and other concrete scenarios bring things together for the common sense learner, and add extra understanding to the innovative and analytic learner.
- Phase Four: What If…The dynamic learner has absorbed everything offered so far, and has been sitting there wondering what would happen if x is modified, or what if I did y instead because my situation is slightly different? These are the people who shine during Q and A at a presentation, who take the time to email a question to the author, and who leave comments requesting clarification or offering up their own illustrations in order to sharpen their understanding. Having an interactive online presence completes the learning cycle, and allows for the conversation to spread onto other blogs and social media sites.
Engaging Left and Right Brain
Now that you have the four-step cycle down, make the presentation of your information flow by keeping the reader constantly engaged across both hemispheres of the brain. How? Follow up facts or main points with stories, anecdotes, relevant quotes… basically anything cool that holds attention and reinforces learning. This method engages left and right brain in a healthy cadence that makes the experience less of a chore, and more entertaining.
The Four Phases and Business Blogging
You’ve likely noticed that this post is heavy on the why and what, with only a sprinkling of how and very little in the way of stories and illustrations. Comments are open so we can engage in what if… However, the great thing about applying this methodology via a blog is you can do a series of posts on the same topic and approach the subject from each of the four learning styles, or otherwise break up the content in a way that makes sense. This is why blogs can be such powerful tools for both educating and converting readers into customers and clients—they allow for a running dialogue via easily digestible portions.
Reader Comments (50)
Probably my favorite article yet.
The books “Multimedia Learning” and “Sales Dogs” compliment this advice nicely. I highly recommend them.
Tony D. Clark says
I’ve always been fascinated by learning styles, and have seen this approach before. It’s a great way to maximize your information content across the most common learning styles. I’ve used this along with some other methodologies for training and presentations as complex as nuclear plant qualification practices. Even really complex concepts can be expressed clearly and easily.
Another couple of books to add to Shane’s recommendations are Renaissance eLearning and Training for Dummies (one of the better “Dummies” books due to author Elaine Biech’s background).
bill perry says
I’ve been wondering over the past few months how to do something similiar on my blog. I’m glad there’s a name for it, and research to boot.
Very useful. I will use this when presenting my information. You wrapped the info up nice with a bow right on top. Thanks!
Nice article, this content connects 😛
Dang it BC !
You keep making me say, ” That’s your best yet ! ”
Can you aim a bit lower, so I don’t have to keep groveling at your feet O’ Mighty One ?
Martin Lindsey says
Brian, I think my latest linking technique incorporates those four leanring styles and the four phases. I’d like your help in proving the theory. I know it’s been helping my rankings this week alone.
I’d like for my readers to know more about you. Would you mind doing a blog interview with me on MartyBLOGs? It will be composed of open-ended, non-invasive questions. Answer them in detail as if we were talking in person. Include any web/blog links that you want to refer to. If you think any question is inappropriate just let me know and I’ll replace it with another question.
Sound O.K.? If so just give me with an e-mail address that I can send your questions to. Then we’ll work out a time line for you to reply back to me so I can schedule a posting date.
Michael A. Stelzner says
A few comments.
But first, the widely accepted use of the term “whitepaper” is actually “white paper” (two words).
I would say that engineers seem to fall into the common sense learner category.
The other thing is this.
I agree with you that no single document should try to do all of these as it will not really appeal to anyone.
With white papers, it is useful to pull apart the “why” from the “how” as they serve two unique purposes.
Keep on with the great work Brian!
Best post I have ever read. It isnt just well written which often most posts are, but it actually gives you solid info which I will definitely use. I didnt think it would be a nice post from the qualitative look it had on the page, but its rightly said “looks can be deceptive”
Jack Norell says
Great article, I hadn’t come across this methodology before. I’ll be picking up the two books Shane mentioned as well.
i’ve been doing it without knowing it 🙂
i’m now in the process of defining the blog’s elementary elements (aims, main target, values, objectives).
my comment is a “what if” regarding the audience.
and it goes like this:
what if i define my audience as a “technical” audience? (interested mainly in the “how” stuff).
should i still go and explore all the phases?
@ Mike Stelzner – I deal with engineers on construction jobsites every day and have for a couple of decades.
They never, ever, ever, never have a lick of common sense.
Wonder why they want to read that way, yet never display it.
They value numbers over common sense and “feel”.
Michael A. Stelzner says
You may not think engineers have any common sense because you are in sales.
Ask them what they think about you 🙂
They always want to know how more than why.
I’ve always considered engineers to be classic analytics… they want the features, facts and data. They can usually figure out the “how” from there–that’s their job, after all. 🙂
Adam Kayce : Monk At Work says
I dunno… I’ve known a lot of engineers, and they seem to fall into two camps (it was an engineer who told me this, by the way):
1. The analytic, “just the facts, ma’am” types, and
2. The ones who take that analytic stuff and then “freestyle” from there into “what if” land. Much more intuitive, dreamer-type people.
That said, I dig the article — I teach a lot, and write a lot of notes for my students, so I’m going to start looking through these four lenses as I work up my materials, and see what changes.
Amy Lillard says
This makes wonderful sense and builds on the models we’ve all come to practice and revere. Thanks, Brian – I will be coming back to this post many times as I plug away on projects!
Tony D. Clark says
I can speak from experience regarding “selling” ideas to engineers using learning formulas.
The “what” and “why” has to be specified clearly. Just like any time you’re presenting information, there has to be an immediate hit of “what’s in it for me?” especially with engineers.
Like Brian said, I’ve had great results by letting them figure out the “how.” That’s what they do best, and letting your client determine (with some well placed and planned influence) “how” based on their own real-world experience makes the content gel. It makes it real, as opposed to some guy prattling on about a nebulous concept.
I guess you could call it a form of “Tutorial Marketing.”
Yep… just added the tutorial marketing logo to this post. I still like that term. 🙂
You know, this stuff works with your kids too.
My wife and I are homeschooling and we’ve got an “Innovative Learner” who asks the strangest questions about what’s going on, but then seems to really understand after a few of those questions. Really gets behind the scenes.
We’ve got a “common Sense Learner” who starts working while the instructions are being told to them. Learns really well through failures.
We’ve also got a “Dynamic Learner” who brings in periferral ideas and practical examples to get a better grasp on the idea.
This is helpful to know, and keeps us (and them) from being frustrated when we hit a wall.
We’ve got another one who just talks and smiles a lot right now. Not sure how she learns yet, maybe through hugs.
Schools could benefit from training their teachers with this sort of information.
Incredible article! Good idea to approach each phase of learning as a step in the writing process to make sure you are relating content to all your readers in some way or another. This would work well in e-books too.
Thanks for the useful insights.
What if … can be wonderfully served by photos, if you’ve explored what if’s yourself.
I’m always looking to reach my whole audience from novice to experienced learner, and this is great advice!
Sean D'Souza says
A very spot on article, but extreeeeeemely hard to rollout. We’ve had training over the years, and it’s taken us four generations of stuff, to even get close to this level of ‘teaching’. And I’d see most copywriters struggling (a lot) to put this into action.
Easton Ellsworth says
“The great thing about applying this methodology via a blog is you can do a series of posts on the same topic and approach the subject from each of the four learning styles, or otherwise break up the content in a way that makes sense” – exactly. Nail, meet head. Great post, Brian.
You teach a group most effectively by tailoring elements of your presentation to the learning needs and susceptibilities of each recipient.
Sean D'Souza says
Do you have an example of sales copy online that does all of the above?
I will stand by two decades of experience that tells me that engineers have no common sense, only book sense … otherwise they’d be salemen !
This is an excellent article! I think I’m a person with 3 out of 4 of those traits! Hit them all, and you’ve scored a home run. I’m going to re look at some copy, and refocus it. Thx!
Great article; I’ve just subscribed to your blog and this is one of the first of your articles I’ve read. I’m going to be using this method as I develop my blogs. It is simple, easy to use, inspiring, and makes sense.
Latarsha Lytle says
What a refreshing post. I’ve always known about the need to address the “why”, the “what”, and the “how”, but I am pleased to see the feature “what if…”
This is actually quite interesting. Id never really considered different learning styles to deliver what I always assumed was just “content”. Definitely something I need to take onboard in the future when writing blogs and articles.
Id like more examples of this theory if possible.
mark vidale says
While you all have interesting suggestions how would you all use this information to explain to someone how to present this work to someone that does not know his/her personal learning styles meaning, what method or tool would you all use??
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