Why Learning Styles Don’t Matter in Presentations. It’s About Experiences

November 16, 2015

leadership and learning stylesMany respected organizations and writers (myself included) have spread the idea that 65% of people are visual learners. But turns out, the whole concept of learning styles may not hold much water.

The four VARK learning styles -- visual, aural, verbal, and kinesthetic -- are apparently not supported by scientific research, according to an article published Vanderbilt University.

In 2009, Psychological Science in the Public Interest commissioned cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork to evaluate the research on learning styles to determine whether there is credible evidence to support using learning styles in instruction. They came to a startling but clear conclusion: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous,” they “found virtually no evidence” supporting the idea that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.”

So if 65% of people are not visual learners, what does that mean for presenters?

What is the best way to communicate ideas with an audience?

The answer is: It depends.

More specifically, it depends on the ideas you are trying to communicate.

Public speakers should build their presentation as a series of experiences, with each experience designed specifically for the concept being conveyed at that time. To develop a presentation that is a series of experiences, identify the most important concepts in your presentation and determine the best way to help the audience understand the takeaways.

The ideas that are best explained orally and visually will be a perfect fit for the traditional presentation experience that involves a speaker talking while displaying visual slides.

Some elements of your presentation might be easier to convey if the audience has a hands-on experience. For example, if you’re giving a presentation on social media marketing and you’re explaining how to write a compelling tweet, I would suggest showing the audience the steps to success, and then let them pull out their phones and try the technique right then and there. The extroverts in the audience will relish the opportunity to briefly chat with their neighbor about their tweet, and since the conversational aspect of this activity is optional, the introverts will be satisfied as well. In this example, learning by doing has multiple benefits.

learning styles public speaking

Lastly, some concepts in your presentation will be a perfect fit for pen and paper. For these points of your presentation, ask audience members to jot down some notes or draw a diagram based on the concepts being presented. Studies prove drawing is especially powerful. The researchers said drawing encourages learners to engage in generative cognitive processing during learning such as organising the relevant information into a coherent structure, and integrating it with relevant prior knowledge from long-term memory.

If you are explaining a complicated idea during your presentation, ask audience members to draw the various aspects of the idea so they can reference their drawing later. Not only will they have a reference for the future, but they will also be more likely to recall the information even without referring to their sketch.

Throughout your entire presentation, use slides and oral explanations to guide the audience through your various teaching styles. Even if a concept is best understood through an interactive experience, don’t completely abandon the traditional presentation format. However you can let your explanations and slides take the backseat every now and then to ensure you are transferring information to the audience in the most effective manner.


Creating a presentation that is a series of experiences is an unusual approach to public speaking and that is a good thing. The human mind craves novelty. According to Salesforce, in order for a lecture, sermon, sales presentation, or the like to stand above the rest, you must take information and package it in a way the audience doesn’t expect.

About the Author

Leslie Belknap is the Senior Content Strategist for Ethos3, as well as a board member and speakers’ coach for TEDxNashville. Say hi to Leslie onTwitter; she manages tweets for Ethos3.