How to Cater Your Presentations to Different Adult Learning Styles

By Emma Hickey

You’re a subject matter expert and you’ve been asked to hold a learning session at work. The goal is to help your team learn from you so that everyone can improve at their jobs. You know your topic like the back of your hand, so leading the session should be no trouble at all, right? Of course not! If you’ve ever been in this position, then you know just how misguided that thought process is. Knowing your subject is one thing, but knowing how to teach is a whole different animal. Teaching is a challenge, and while every age group presents their own obstacles, teaching an audience of adults only further complicates things. Luckily, by doing some research into adult learning styles and catering aspects of your presentation to each type of learner, you can create a lesson that will stick with your team and effectively help them learn.

First things first—why is it so difficult to teach adults? After all, their attention spans are much longer than first graders, and their hormones are far less distracting than those of high schoolers. Shouldn’t that make them an easy audience? The challenge in teaching adults lies in the fact that you’re dealing with people who are fully formed, with years, or even decades, of experiences that they’d much rather draw on rather than whatever new thing you’re trying to teach them. School-aged students may not always be thrilled to be in class, or interested in what they’re learning, but they understand that they’re supposed to be learning something. When teaching adults, you’ll likely need to convince them why it’s worth it for them to learn whatever you’re teaching them. That may feel a bit like having to justify your lesson before it even begins, but there’s a way to do it without being defensive. Present your audience with conclusive, fact-based evidence for why they need to learn what you’re teaching them, and more importantly, how they will use your lesson. Unlike freshman in high school, your colleagues won’t be willing to learn algebra because you say so, they’ll only be willing to learn algebra if you can prove that it will be useful in their day to day work. If you begin your presentation by making this point, and you’ll be sure to get audience buy-in.

Now that we know how to get your audience onboard with your presentation in the first place, let’s dive into creating a memorable presentation. There are college classes, and even entire degrees, dedicated to the practice of teaching, but for the sake of your presentation, we’ll focus on just one aspect of teaching—understanding and then appealing to different learning styles. There are three main learning styles, according to William Burke Barbe. His model is often referred to as the VAK model, and while there are many other theories on learning styles out there, his remains one of the most straightforward but useful methods of understanding learning styles.

According to the VAK model, people typically fall into one of the three following learning style categories

  1. Visual

  2. Aural

  3. Kinesthetic

Before we break down each learning style, you may be wondering what your learning style is. Here’s a simple scenario that may shed some light on the way you best learn, borrowed from

Imagine yourself in an uncomfortable situation. If you were lost in a strange city at night, how would you find your way to your destination? Would you use a map (visual), ask someone for directions (auditory), or just keep walking until you worked out where you were (kinesthetic)?

Obviously this thought experiment is nowhere near as robust as a some of the learning style quizzes that exist online, but hopefully it gives you a sense for which style you lean towards. Now let’s take a look at each one.

Visual learners learn best through pictures, images and graphs. They understand and retain information when they can see it, which is why a visual learner would be inclined to turn to a map when trying to remember directions.

Auditory learners absorb information best when they hear it. They learn well through lectures, audiobooks, music—anything you can hear. They’ll often need to repeat information back to themselves so they can hear it and commit it to memory.

Kinesthetic learners are people who best learn through hands on experiences. They’re more tactile than the two other types of learners, which is why they’re much more likely to remember directions after having physically completed them themselves rather than using a map or listening to an explanation.  

According to the Social Science Research Network, 65% of people are visual learners. This is why presentations, specifically slide show presentations, are among the most common forms of teaching, and are most often used in the workplace. There are always ways to make a presentation even better for visual learners, though, while also including elements that appeal to auditory and kinesthetic learners too.

To help auditory learners retain your lesson, it can be helpful to incorporate sound bites into your presentation. Even though you’ll probably be doing most of the talking, auditory learners are well equipped to remember information that came to them in a different voice or tone than the bulk of the presentation. Auditory learners especially remember changes in inflection, rhymes, and mnemonics. You might even consider including movie clips in your presentation, which would also be great for your visual learners and create an all around more dynamic presentation. Incorporating discussions into your presentation is also a great way to engage auditory learners.

Kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. That’s not too hard to coordinate in a workshop-style setting, but you’re not running a workshop. You’re running a presentation. One of the most effective ways to appeal to kinesthetic learners in a method that fits into the lecture format is by creating role playing scenarios that your audience will act out between themselves. Any form of an exercise that you can incorporate into your presentation would also work well for kinesthetic learners.  

Finally, visual learners. Ah, visual learners. Much of the school system, and the educational world, is already catered to them, so you might be thinking you don’t need to put in any extra work in order to appeal to the visual learners out there. You can always make things better, though. Go beyond slides filled with bullet points and words. Include pictures, charts, graphs, maps—whatever you can think of to visually represent the information you’re teaching. By going above and beyond in this way, you will help your visual learners better absorb your lesson.

Giving presentations at work is hard, teaching is hard, and teaching your adult colleagues in the workplace is a challenge unto itself. You can make things a little easier for yourself as the teacher, and more easily absorbable for your coworkers as students, though. By understanding different learning styles and then working to ensure your presentation appeals to each learning style, you can create a memorable presentation that will effectively teach the topic at hand.

How (and Why!) to Work Fun Into Your Business Travel

Which Avenger are You In the Workplace?