The Instant Forgetter

Have you ever conducted a training class for your sales team and later discovered that they are using little or nothing of what you taught them? If so, then you will want to read this article. I am sure you would agree that knowing and doing are entirely different skills. A learner of any important subject must first learn ideas and then put them to work. As I was writing my book, R3R1: The Sales Formula for Success, and producing my online sales education program, The Science of Selling Academy, I spent much time thinking about the challenges of my audience. Yes, I pondered how they would learn and retain the knowledge I was sharing and then put the ideas and concepts into practice. I realized that if they could not implement my strategies, they had no value. It is all about implementation. In this article, I will discuss the challenges organizations have in training their sales teams and what you can do to improve your sales training program. As you will discover as you read on, teaching adult learners anything new is difficult. This article will address the problems and several proven methods you can use to increase your training capabilities.

The reason why training retention is so seemingly difficult is explained in a study performed many years ago by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus, a German Psychologist and pioneer of the experimental study of memory, is known for discovering “the forgetting curve” and “the spacing effect.” Ebbinghaus was also the first person to describe the learning curve. How much information does an average person retain from a specific training session? Based on his research, the answer is very little. If you are not familiar with Ebbinghaus’s research, you may be surprised by his conclusions. You will also discover why his suppositions deserve your scrutiny.

The forgetting curve hypothesizes the decline of memory retention in time. This curve shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it. A related concept is the strength of memory that refers to the durability that memory traces in the brain. The stronger the memory, the more extended period that a person can recall it. A typical graph of the forgetting curve purports to show that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material. Even though this research dates back to the late 19th century, in 2015, an attempt to replicate the forgetting curve with one study subject has shown the experimental results such as Ebbinghaus’s original data still conclusive.

As you study the graph, which demonstrates the forgetting curve, it shows that a person may only retain ten percent or less of what they learned in the training session in less than one week. Therefore, it becomes evident that sales trainers may need to do some things differently to improve retention. The question you may be asking is, why do people retain so little of what they are taught? The answer is found in the amount of information that adults have come into their minds daily. Yes, the new data is fighting for memory space along with all the other information that the mind must process, and if the latest information is not put to work quickly, it is discarded in a last-in-first-out (LIFO) process.

Some of what we do at R3R1 to help course participants enhance their retention skills might be helpful suggestions for your training purposes. We use methods similar to processes used by the group, Intervention Central.  Intervention Central gathered ideas from leading educators about memory retentions. From the article, Helping Students to Retain Skills and Content, here are their tips (in italics), along with my comments on the application in sales training.

“Use multiple direction formats. When directing students to complete a task, provide those directions through more than one format.”

For example, in The Science of Selling Academy course, we accomplish this by using more than one video style. We use studio-style, two-dimensional animation, whiteboard animation, and silhouette formats to keep participants engaged. So, a varied approach with presenting information helps your team remember the key points.

“Encourage read-alouds. Research shows that when we read a passage aloud to ourselves, we retain more information than when we read the same text silently. The act of reading combined with the act of listening to one’s own reading increases attention and retention.”  

“Simplify learning with guides and organizers. Teachers can use various types of organizers to streamline tasks and allow learners to concentrate on the most important content to be memorized. Handouts distributed prior to a lecture can highlight key concepts to be covered.”

“Break tasks into checklists. Students tasked with memorizing a multi-step cognitive task can benefit from having the steps of that task converted into a printed checklist. Initially, the student may need to reference the checklist sequentially while completing steps of the task.”

 In my book and online course, we show a sample checklist of steps in the sales process and encourage participants to develop a checklist and refer to it before every presentation and after the presentation to perform postmortems to determine if they followed the steps of their process.

“Have students work collaboratively. The likelihood that skills will be retained increases when the learner reviews or practices those skills with full attention. Collaborative learning activities are naturally motivating and can help to boost student engagement.”

“Activate prior knowledge. Learners’ capacity to retain newly taught skills or content increases when they can link that new material to what they already know.”

Finding the baseline knowledge of salespeople is a difficult challenge, especially when they are new. However, once they have some basic understanding of the sales process and consumer behavior, it is important to build on what they already know to increase competency.

“Use memory tricks. An effective approach to improve retention relies on is to teaching students’ explicit strategies for memorization and recall… One memory trick is to use an acrostic, an easy-to-remember word whose letters each signify an element or step to be memorized.”

Memory tricks may be complex to teach and call for creativity by sales trainers. An example of an acrostic used in sales training is FAB (feature, advantage, benefit); another one is R3R1 (Relate>Reason>Resolve = Results).

“Employ summarization activities. Students sometimes have difficulty retaining information from informational passages because they cannot identify the most important facts for recall. In short, they can be overwhelmed by information. Any activity requiring the student to summarize and reflect on their reading can help the learner to winnow the content and increase the odds that they will retain the essentials of the passage.”

In The Science of Selling Academy, we follow this process in two ways. First, we show a video introducing the key points of a subject before each session. Second, we show another video to summarize the key teaching points from each session.

“Overlearn’ the skill. A powerful method for skill retention is to have the student ‘overlearn’ it through frequent practice. With overlearning, the teacher sets a skill-proficiency goal for the student that is higher than required for classroom success. When the student reaches this ambitious goal, he or she is more likely to retain the skill over the long term. When first learning the skill, the student practices frequently (‘massed practice’) until reaching the teacher-selected mastery level.”

Again, overlearning is required in sales training. The salesperson must review the material multiple times and overlearn it to put the skill to use – watching the same training video repeatedly and reading instructional books and other written materials.

“Practice memory retrieval. Retention includes the ability to retrieve memorized content or skills on demand. Like any other ability, retrieval of information from memory improves with practice. Even better, each time that students successfully recall information, they can access it more easily in the future. One strategy to promote retrieval is for teachers to give frequent quizzes –rather than infrequent longer exams—.”

In our course, we have short multiple-choice tests to check the participant’s knowledge of the session. Additionally, we ask the student to explain if they are using certain aspects of the R3R1 process.

After reviewing these great ideas on sales training retention, I am sure you would agree that it is crucial to include these suggestions in your training program and implement as many of them as possible. But why is high-quality sales education so important now more than ever? The principal reason is that salespeople continue to experience failure at an increasing rate. However, with the implementation of an advanced sales training program, incorporating powerful teaching techniques and basing it on a solid foundation of consumer behavior and sales process, you can get your sales team prepared for success.

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