How Understanding Learning Styles Helps Me Teach and Communicate

Jan 20, 2016 / By Andy Davis

What’s Working Now: This advisor started studying learning styles and realized he needed to revamp his communication with clients in order to boost their understanding.

Quick Overview

Advisor: Andy Davis
Madison, Wis.

Years in business: 35

Firm: CWAG Leadership Institute

What’s working now: Being aware of clients’ learning styles.

I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison back in 1977. I have a degree in actuarial science—the mathematics of pensions and insurance. In 1981, I made the switch to financial planning with a company called IDS which is now Ameriprise. I started a district in 1984 and by 1987, we were number four in the nation in terms of productivity. I then became a vice president with them for ten years at American Express. I came back and now am in a team practice. There are 30 of us and we have five offices in two states managing about a billion dollars. I also run the Madison Youth Foundation and two other charities.

Understanding learning styles

For a long time there has been an understanding that there are three basic learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. But there are variations on all of them. It’s important for us to understand how all of our clients learn so we can present to them in a way they understand. For myself, I learn best by hearing, so it starts there. When I’m at a session and somebody says, “Pick up a pen and write this down,” I don’t do it because that’s not how I learn. Instead, I listen and process. Then I write it down. Later that day, I’ll rewrite it. I’ll discuss it with someone. But I learn it best when I teach it.

It’s auditory—hearing it. Writing it down is kinesthetic. At the end, it’s auditory when I’m teaching it. And I had to learn that. After realizing my own learning styles, I started noticing the different learning styles my clients have. I started finding that I had some clients who needed me to hand them a physical agenda before the meeting or they would disconnect. Or some people need to see everything on a screen—it’s all different.

The lightbulb went off and I realized, “Wait a second. It isn’t about how I teach. It’s about how they learn. And if I don’t know how they learn, they aren’t understanding what I’m trying to communicate.”

Let’s take auditory for example. With an auditory learner, the questions are: Do they learn by hearing it? Do they learn by speaking it? Do they learn by interacting back and forth?

For visual learners you have to ask: Do they want to see bullet points or a paragraph? Do they want to see graphs and charts? Do they want to see movement?

Incorporating different styles

When we do our analyses and reports with clients, we try to make sure that anything we put in writing has each of the different pieces in there. If it’s just one client, we only have to worry about one style. But with a couple, you can’t just address one—you have to address both. It’s important that what we create can be used for the different learning styles of our clients.

I’ve found that a lot of times, you need to toggle between the different styles. I did a conference in Salt Lake City about six weeks ago, and I made sure that I used visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. There were times I said, “OK, hold up your hand and do the following things.” There were times I’d ask questions to the crowd. I wanted to make sure that I engaged all the different styles of learning. I couldn’t say whether or not the people agreed with me, but I could make sure they were engaged. Because if they don’t engage, they will never learn.

It’s easiest in a one-on-one situation because I can focus on presenting the information in the way that one person needs. The challenge is that it’s difficult to get everything one-on-one. We have two advisors and usually two clients in every meeting. That means there’s up to four different learning styles in the room.

It became more important that we put together PowerPoint presentations and reports that could address all the various learning styles. Because even if the client says, “This makes sense,” and then they go to their attorney and tell them—the attorney has to be able to understand too. So it’s important to us that we are incorporating all the various learning styles where we can.

Communicating with millennials

I’m currently working with John E. Nelson who wrote What Color is Your Parachute? For Retirement. We want to create an updated version for millennials because it’s totally different for that group than baby boomers.

We need to figure out how to communicate and how to do it in much shorter snippets for millennials. There’s less patience from millennials because they’ve been raised on, “I can get on Google and find this answer within 30 seconds.” So the challenge becomes, “How are we going to take these learning styles that we’re using to present to baby boomers and figure out how to do it in 10% of the time?”

It’s critical that we do that or our industry is going to become anachronistic. We have to be able to address millennials as well as baby boomers—all of the various social styles and learning styles. It is incumbent on us to learn how to communicate so that they understand.

Filling the information gap

When we first started looking at this we found some marvelous books out there for teachers up to about the fourth grade. And somehow, in a lot of our education, once you’re in fourth grade it becomes, “Sit down, listen, and then write notes.” Suddenly, the students start to diverge dramatically as far as how well they learn and how well they perform.

There’s very little written on how to communicate, how to make sure students learn beyond fourth grade. There’s even less about how we should be communicating with adults and we think that’s very important. We run a team meeting every month and when we first started on this learning styles track, I thought it would be easy to constantly find materials to bring in. It wasn’t. And I was frustrated. Finally, somebody came up to me and said, “Look, you were a VP with American Express for 10 years. You are in these charities. You do this. Why don’t you create the materials?” That’s why we created the CWAG Leadership Institute.

Now I’m reaching out to the John E. Nelsons in the world. I’m reaching out to Doug Lennick from Think2Perform. I’m working with Bob Davies. I’ve got to work with people out there that are leading edge. What has shocked me the most is that those people will talk to us. It’s easy but you have to make the effort. It’s incumbent on us to not sit back and say, “I was never taught.” As professionals, it’s our responsibility to go out and learn. We have to take the initiative and make the choice to be a learner as opposed to assuming it’s going to come to us.

Before and after

We ask a lot of questions at our team meeting and it’s not always so direct. I can’t just measure A versus B versus C—I wish I could. At one meeting, a question came up about the word respect. And I said, let’s go to TED Talks and find some of the great videos on respect. Well, they don’t exist. We started looking at other places and we found that respect is not a concept that people are looking at right now. And that prompted me to ask our team: Do your clients respect you? Can you bring up any issue, any topic? Can you bring up things that are not easy to talk about—and will they listen?

You can’t earn their respect if they don’t understand what you’re telling them. One of our clients told us that we have to become a “financial paraclete walking along beside us throughout the journey.” And we thought, “That is so cool. What the heck is a paraclete?”

Well, paraclete is from the Greek, meaning a mentor or a tutor. In the Bible, it was when the Holy Spirit came down in tongues of fire so everyone could understand. And it was like, “Holy cow. That says I have to learn to say the same thing at least five different ways so everybody understands.” That’s learning styles.

My advice

The first thing you have to do is try simple things. Put out an agenda in writing and see if the client picks it up. Have a pen there—do they take notes? If you put something up in the screen—do they look at that or do they watch you? Do they interact back and forth? When you’re saying something, do they speak back to you?

You’re watching to see what they do. You have to get out your antenna—you have to be consciously aware of what they relate to. And then, you can be aware of what mode they are using to absorb the information.

When we try new things, sometimes advisors are nervous about that because they say, “Well but if I’m doing this, isn’t a client going to think I should have known that before?” If you ever run into that, ask the client this: “Would it be OK if three years from now I knew more than I did today?”

They’ll say, “Well of course.” Then you can tell them what you’re trying to focus on now. And if the client respects you and they know you respect them, they will help you build that because it’s doing nothing more than helping build that bridge of communication.

Back in 1982, I was chosen as one of four advisors in Madison, Wisconsin to represent the city. They asked me, “What is it that you do?” And I said, “The best description of what we do is that we are capitalistic social workers.” Seventy percent of what we do is psychological, educational, and motivational. Thirty percent is numbers—managing portfolios is worth maybe half a percent a year.

The value of what we do is how we can be high-touch and personal, and also inspirational and compelling with our clients. We can’t do that if we can’t communicate.

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