Styles of Adult Learning: Your Current Sales Training Misses the Mark

Learn the Seven Distinct Styles of Adult Learning

Most people intuitively understand that teaching a new concept to an adult is much different than teaching a child.  For starters, children (especially young children) approach a learning opportunity with a blank slate, meaning they have very few related past experiences that might influence their ability or willingness to grasp the topic.  Additionally, learning for children is often more directive – children are told what they will be learning rather than encouraged to explore the ideas that are most interesting to them.

Adults, on the other hand, are more likely to independently seek out learning opportunities that will benefit them in some way.  For example, they might be motivated to improve a certain skill so that they can better perform their job and earn a promotion.  Even if they are directed to attend a mandatory training session, they are more capable of understanding the secondary and tertiary impacts of that education on their professional future.

Great news, right?!  Adults are more likely to self-select into training programs, so they should be engaged, attentive, and invested in the mutual success of the program and its participants.

While this may be true, anyone who has to stand and deliver professional training to an audience of adult learners will tell you that it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Teaching adults comes with its own set of challenges…

  • They are constantly bombarded with distractions. Adults have responsibilities, both at home and at work, that distract them from their learning objectives.  Even if they adhere to your strict “no cell phone” rule, they are still thinking (and worrying) about how the world is passing them by outside of the training room.
  • They have pre-established ideas and biases around the material. Remember when we said that children are the educational tabula rasa?  Well, that’s certainly not the case with adults.  This is especially true in professional training environments, where participants likely have direct experience with training topics that have cemented ideologies and habits that can be really, really tough to influence or break.If you could observe your sales reps in the field in the 30-60 days immediately following a training session, I bet you would see some real behavior change for the first two or three weeks.  Eventually, many participants will slip back into their old habits and start making the same mistakes they made prior to entering your classroom.  We’ll talk more about the implications of this tendency later.
  • They value their time and expect to see a return on their training investment. Every minute that is spent in your training program is a minute that adult learners aren’t communicating with their team, handling their own work responsibilities, or spending time with loved ones.  In the mind of an adult learner, the time they invest into learning and practicing must generate a positive ROI in the form of new knowledge or skills that will help them to their job better.Unfortunately, many training participants are quick to blame the content (or worse, the facilitator) for poor outcomes from their learning experience.  What they don’t realize is that there are personal setbacks (see bullets one and two) that diminish the results they get from their training attendance.

So what does all of this mean for today’s sales training and sales enablement professionals?

First, before you try to teach any new concept or practice, you need to tell a compelling story about why this is important.  As we mentioned before, participants demand to see a positive return on their training investment, so you need to front-load your curriculum with messages and stories that illustrate how their life will be better as a result of this program.  What new skills will they learn?  What processes will be simpler and/or more effective?  Who do they know that has applied this and seen positive results?

Second, you shouldn’t expect to see positive behavior change overnight.  The forces that distract your sales reps during training are even stronger when they go back to their home office.  Most sales training doesn’t “stick” because it is a live, one-off event that has little reinforcement during the following 60-90 days.  This lack of accountability measures creates gaps that can quickly be filled by the “more urgent” fires of day-to-day life or allow bad habits from years of “winging it” to creep back in.  The most effective sales training programs are more than a one-day investment, they are a personal and professional commitment to continuous improvement over the long-term.

Finally, the historical model of an annual, one-size-fits-all training event is disastrously ineffective.  As we will discuss in a minute, there are seven distinct adult learning styles that you may see staring back at you when you take the podium.  How you address and support each participant, both during the training session and beyond, will be a direct determinant of the value that they derive from your program.

The first step to tailoring your training for the specific needs of the adult learners sitting across the table is to understand the seven distinct styles of adult learning.  The remainder of this article will cover each of the seven intelligences originally identified by Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard University, and provide ideas for how you can present your sales training in a way that best meets the need of each of these adult learning types.

1. The Visual (Spatial) Learner

Intuitively, a visual-spatial learner is a person who generally thinks in pictures, rather than words.  These are the people that are quick to jump up and map out an idea on a scrap sheet of paper during a meeting.  They may also point to marketing collateral, “talk with their hands” or act out a scenario when interacting with prospects or teammates.

For visual-spatial learners, the learning process takes place all at once.  They are able to absorb huge amounts of information in one sitting and are quick to understand how it fits into the bigger picture.  However, visual learners may struggle to keep track of all the details or may gloss over individual steps in a structure, sequential process.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  Beyond using a slide deck, make a concerted effort to incorporate more visual representations of training concepts (Ex: diagrams, pictures, videos) that guide the learning process.  Don’t be afraid to draw on a whiteboard or capture group discussion points on a flip chart.  This is an easy, low friction way to check the box for visual learners in a classroom setting.

Outside of the classroom:  When it comes to reinforcement, visual learners would rather watch a video or engage in hands-on practice than read an email or case study.  If you’re able to get in a room with them, try to bring along visual aids (Ex: marketing collateral, forms, training materials) and lay them out on the table as you walk through training concepts.

2. The Auditory (Musical or Rhythmic) Learner

The single best way to teach an auditory learner is to employ the “call and response” method of training.  Auditory learners absorb information through the spoken word, so they benefit most from hearing a training lecture and then reciting it back to the presenter.  These are the training participants who tend to look at you rather than the slides or their workbook, sometimes without even taking notes.

Additionally, auditory learners may be the individuals who raise their hand and ask you to say something one more time.  They may also interject with something like, “So, let me see if I have this right…” before going on to explain their understanding of the message you’re conveying.  During exercises, auditory learners will be the people who literally talk themselves through the process while completing an assigned task.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  Outside of your lectures, auditory learners will love to participate in group discussions, team activities, cordial debates, or question and answer sessions.  If you notice an auditory learner, consider calling on them to answer a questions, share a story, or give the room a backbrief on something you just covered.

Outside of the classroom:  Video reinforcement can also be a great way to support auditory learners.  Sending a video example of a training concept in action will give an auditory learner everything they need to internalize the message.  If you must send emails or other written products, try following up with a phone call to give them the opportunity to talk through it with you.

3. The Verbal (Linguistic) Learner

A verbal or linguistic learner is one step beyond the auditory learner.  Not only do they learn from the spoken work, but they also get value from reading and writing about training concepts.  You may have come across these individuals in school – they were the students who took notes by hand and sometimes re-wrote them two or three more times to get the ideas to “stick.”

In a training environment, verbal-linguistic learners might be the people fervently taking notes on every topic you cover.  They may also volunteer to be the scribe during group exercises or may frequently chime in with questions or observations around exercise instruction or workbook material (which they are actually reading to completion).

How can you better engage them?

In class:  The single most effective way to teach a linguistic learner is by telling stories, using real-world examples, and describing events, practices, or training concepts with vivid verbal imagery.  Using a phrase like, “You know those customers that push back by saying our product is too expensive…?” can form an instant mental connection with a linguistic learner and prep them for the mitigation strategy you’re about to share.

Outside of the classroom:  Similar to visual and auditory learners, verbal learners benefit from video-based reinforcement solutions that allow them to practice training concepts, view best in class examples from peers, and receive valuable feedback from coaches.  Try providing a linguistic learner with a roleplay prompt that is rich in background information and contextual details.  They will be more likely to throw themselves into the work and deliver a response that checks all of the right boxes.

4. The Physical (Kinesthetic) Learner

The physical or kinesthetic learner learns best by getting actively involved in the training process.  These are the people that start putting furniture together without looking at the directions.  They just want to see and feel the problem and physically experiment with ways to solve it.

In a training context, these participants take a scientific approach and insist on hands-on practice with new skills.  They may explicitly admit to hating long lectures or may frequently get distracted when there are long periods between group activities.  Those who are more aware of their challenge in focusing during lectures may take copious notes, doodle in the margins, or engage in other kinds of “busy work” to keeps themselves physically occupied while you’re speaking.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  More than any other participant, physical learners need group activities that get people out of their chairs and moving around.  If you have the means, consider allowing your visual learners to physically relocate to a separate room or outdoor space as they plan for exercises.  Breaking down complex training topics into smaller, bite-sized chunks with plenty of hands-on practice can also be more effective for this crowd.

Outside of the classroom:  Again, online training content should be short, digestible reviews of key concepts with plenty of independent practice included as reinforcement.  Video-based practice tools can allow these reps to record themselves practicing learned material, alleviating that, “I can’t sit in front of a computer” objection that you may often hear.

5. The Logical (Mathematical) Learner

The mathematical learner prefers using logic, reasoning and systems to understand new ideas. They are quick to recognize patterns and connections between training topics that may take other participants longer to see.  Additionally, logical learners enjoy taking new information on in sequence – first x, then y, finally z – to provide some structure and order to when and how they should apply these ideas in their day-to-day life.

Looking around your training room, these will be the participants who frequently use similes or metaphors to illustrate their understanding of your message.  They may say things like, “So this is kind of like…” before relating a training concept to some seemingly un-related structure or process.  Logical learners are also likely to support their points of view with real-world examples and/or statistics and may even point out flaws in the ideas or actions of other participants.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  Structure your training content in a way that it aligns with some sort of end-to-end process.  For example, you may align your content to the buyer journey and begin with discovery skills before going into solutions presentation, objection handling, and closing techniques.  Also, make sure that group exercises have detailed directions and that the expectations around “what good looks like” are clearly outlines.

Outside of the classroom:  Logical learners will benefit most from an online training program that has well-organized chapters/modules/exercises that fit together in a logical learning path.  They will appreciate activities that require them to use logical problem-solving to meet expectations.  Finally, in-person reinforcement interactions with logical learners should have a clear training/coaching agenda that is sent in advance so that they can prepare themselves accordingly.

6. The Solitary (Intrapersonal) Learner

The intrapersonal learner takes a “lone wolf” approach to education, preferring to work and learn independently.  They draw from a deep well of internal motivation and are not typically attracted by external motivators like money, recognition, or competition.  They aren’t always introverts, but they often participate in just enough group interaction to get the idea before retreating back to their personal space to internalize training concepts.

Intrapersonal learners can be tough to spot in a live training event that often requires them to participate with a group.  However, you may have reps that frequently share stories using phrases like, “I have noticed that I always do ____” or “I usually handle this by _____.  Is that what you’re talking about?”  Someone who appears to be a bit reserved during group exercises and also displays this level of self-reflection can be telltale signs of an intrapersonal learner.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  Intrapersonal learners will get most of their training value from pre- and post-work assignments that they complete independently.  In their mind, your role is to answer questions and clarify topics that they weren’t able to completely grasp themselves.  Try to be attentive to their needs during the training session and be prepared to receive notes before, during, and after the live session with questions or observations.

Outside of the classroom:  Online training and reinforcement programs are perfect for intrapersonal learners.  They view this type of independent study as a safe space to develop their professional skills so that they can perform at a high level when it matters most.  Because of their introspective nature, you may have to be proactive in asking about any questions or hang-ups they may have with training material.

7. The Social (Interpersonal) Learner

Operating in stark contrast to the intrapersonal learner and the last of the styles of adult learning is the interpersonal learner, who learns best by interacting with and relating their personal experiences to others.  These individuals are avid participants in team exercises and relish the opportunities to hear stories about how others have used training concepts back at their home office.  They are often natural extroverts who know the names of everyone in their cohort by the end of Day 1.

Finding the interpersonal learner usually isn’t difficult.  They may be the chatty participant who can’t seem to restrain themselves from quietly talking with their neighbor while you’re presenting.  Other interpersonal learners may enter group discussions with phrases like, “Does anyone else…?” or “I’ve heard that some people…”  that illustrate their constant need to relate their experiences and ideas to those of others.  Finally, if you have someone that almost always comes up to spend one-on-one time with you during breaks or immediately before/after a training sessions starts, odds are they are an interpersonal learner.

How can you better engage them?

In class:  The social learner will cherish every opportunity to interact with their peers and with presenters.  Groups activities are a great way to appeal to interpersonal learners, but games or friendly competitions are even better.  Most of the time these participants will naturally find each other, but consider pairing social learners together to multiply the impact of training material – just don’t let them get sidetracked with off-topic conversations!

Outside of the classroom:  For social learners, online reinforcement programs can feel cold and isolating.  However, video-based solutions that allow them to interact 1:1 with their manager/coach/trainer and share experiences with their peers can be a great way to solidify training messages and drive behavior change.  Interpersonal learners will love learning from examples set by other members of their cohort and will progress much more quickly through direct feedback and coaching on their own performance.

We believe the best sales training is customized to the audience. To learn more about the styles of adult learning or our sales training methodology, check out our sales training recommendations.

About The Author

Author photo Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.

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