4 Tips for Teachers (from an Ad Man)

We’re in the 21st Century, and expe­ri­ence is still the best teacher. That’s quite a streak.

The reason is simple: the mind bog­gles. The left-brain/right-brain theory is offi­cially last-season now, and appar­ently even fancy brain train­ing apps don’t improve cog­ni­tion: it seems we only get better at the train­ing tasks. Clearly we’re still strug­gling to under­stand how we learn, so it’s really hard to teach.

Somehow though, adver­tis­ing is doing pretty good. People listen to us. They eat what we tell them to — and when it makes them sick, they take what we tell them to. Especially with the Data Revolution, adver­tis­ing has mus­cled its way into the realm of sci­ence. We talk of ‘deliv­er­ables’ with a con­fi­dence that is often backed by experience.

Probably an ad will always have more kick than a school syl­labus. Still there is no reason why our child­hood mem­o­ries should be crowded by com­mer­cials, with only a hand­ful of pleas­ant learn­ing expe­ri­ences. Full-time edu­ca­tors prob­a­bly know these things, but older sib­lings and babysit­ters and new par­ents may find them useful.

Tip 1: They don’t know. That’s why you are telling them.

Children can be pathet­i­cally dense. It takes them months to learn how to locate their nos­tril with a finger. It may take a decade to learn not to do this in public. But we grow in time, quickly for­get­ting how we flashed our under­gar­ments with glee. This dis­con­nect between adults and chil­dren is at the root of all our prob­lems. By the time we start teach­ing, our lessons have sunk into our sys­tems, so the rela­tions between objects and cog­ni­tive sym­bols seem obvi­ous. When the kid skips count from ‘four’ to ‘eleven’, we clench our teeth because our mem­o­ries have made pre­cisely that jump, age-wise.

But adver­tis­ers don’t blame the con­sumer when brand recall is low. We are trained to lay things out, as many times in a day as we can. We break down the steps; we cue reac­tions with colour; we often resort to tod­dler-friendly rhymes. We don’t plan cog­ni­tive leaps, because we don’t expect them — we assume that recep­tion is pas­sive. Perhaps it helps that we don’t get to blame the audi­ence when we fail.

Tip 2: Learning can’t be boring. 

Boredom shows there’s some­thing wrong. Story prob­lems have an advan­tage over abstract lessons because they sim­u­late the envi­ron­ment, making it easier to remem­ber the appli­ca­tion. Learning is largely an asso­cia­tive process. Unfortunately our formal sys­tems are designed to stuff the stu­dent with words and fig­ures, hoping some­thing will stick. This system often fails and we see people fail­ing at life after acing the tests.

In com­mer­cials, we create the need before we intro­duce the prod­uct. Good head­lines never ask the con­sumer to do some­thing new; they tie into some­thing old — a fear, or a drive, or a common memory. The idea is to create pock­ets for lessons to lock into, like the moun­taineer with his pick. Don’t just sol­dier on when you see blank stares, unless you want to estab­lish a firm link between your lesson and face-melt­ing bore­dom. Jump on a table. Make a funny face. It’s not silly if it works.

Tip 3: What you say doesn’t matter — it’s what they hear. 

“How can you get it wrong? I just told you!” It didn’t get through. Try again. Feedback always mir­rors the input, but the prob­lem is that the input includes envi­ron­men­tal and psy­cho­log­i­cal inter­fer­ence: pass­ing vehi­cles, fear of being sin­gled out, what we had for break­fast. All of this before the infor­ma­tion even reaches the murky depths of the thing we call ‘under­stand­ing’, where exist­ing knowl­edge gives it a prison-yard wel­come. If you get frus­trated and don’t repeat the lesson, the infor­ma­tion won’t mag­i­cally recon­struct itself in the student’s head. Kids just gamble to avoid punishment.

But with ads, you can’t broad­cast and dust off your hands; your audi­ence won’t do your work for you. There’s some sci­ence to our strat­egy, but mostly we just catch them where it suits us (can’t sell lot­tery tick­ets in a hos­pi­tal) or we catch them every­where. (Remember when pro­mo­tional t‑shirts were cool? Good times.) It takes empa­thy, and com­mit­ment. Feed it to them. Repeat it. If it looks hope­less, change tack. They haven’t got it until they can hand it back.

Tip 4: It’s an honest-to-good­ness superpower.

In your hand lays a human being, a person who may very well be pres­i­dent in thirty years. (Or a celebrity, if that’s still worth any­thing by then.) And they are going to make the extremely impor­tant deci­sion to press a big button marked ‘Launch’ — or ‘Post’ — and alter the very fabric of civ­i­liza­tion, what­ever that means to those leo­tard-wear­ing people. Or they may not, if you handle this right. They may cure AIDS or ded­i­cate an Oscar to you instead. You may fail to con­vince one fledg­ling felon that the world isn’t really made up of chumps, but you’ll prob­a­bly bring sev­eral others to the Chump Side, bless your heart. You are alter­ing real­ity for a human being. And there’s no corn syrup or credit card debt involved!

Nicely done.