Reflections on the First Three Minutes of Learning

We recently asked readers of Learning TRENDS to comment on the need to design the first 3 minutes of learning more intentionally. Here is a sample of the more than 100 comments we received:

“I was a classroom teacher for a total of 23 years and since then have conducted hundreds of workshops and seminars for corporate clients and professional associations. For those about to begin a presentation of any kind, it is imperative to keep the following in mind:
Research studies involving millions of participants reveal that, in face-to-face contact, one's impact is determined as follows:

  • Body Language About 60-65%
  • Tone of Voice 25-20%
  • What Is Actually Said 15% (tops)

During voice-to-voice (e.g. during a telephone conversation) contact:

  • Tone of Voice About 75-80%
  • What Is Actually Said 25% (tops)”

-Bob Morris

“Though I understand the point you're trying to make regarding this subject, I don't think that such stress should be put on those 3 first minutes. I think that both good teachers and good learners should always make a conscious effort to keep an open mind both about people and ideas. That's the basis of a good learning attitude: not letting prejudice and fast/easy judgment stand in the way, for it will only have you lose what could be a good learning opportunity.
I think that adjusting expectations between the teacher/lecturer and its audience is a key point to starting off "on the right foot", so it should be discussed right from the start. But this depends on the particular situation you're addressing. In a number of learning scenarios, scope and expectations are very clear from the start for both sides, so it wouldn't make sense going on about it. In many cases, probably the first 3 minutes won't be so important, apart from the fact that some people try to make too much (of a case) out of too little (information/experience).
Maybe you should promote a discussion on how many times we've made quick judgments only to find out that we were dead wrong. I know it happened to me a lot of times and probably some of the times I was just too blind to even see it.”
-Pedro Freire, Deptº de Gestão de Aplicações, SUMOLIS, CSP-SI

“Although I've been a classroom trainer for over 30 years, the last 8 have been online and I have to say...the first 3 minutes are even MORE important online. I always, always, always start my first 3 minutes with an interactive activity. Things like having the students point to a map of where they are or collaborate on something on a whiteboard. I want everyone to know right up front that this is a collaborative interactive session and not a time they can sit though and check their emails!”
-Linda Uli, Cisco Systems

“I design primarily e-Learning where people seem to quickly turn off to the learning. One way I attempt to keep them engaged is by posing a thought provoking question. Soon thereafter, I attempt to provide a solution that is feasible, but I then contradict it and say things like ‘what if’ or ‘however.’ Then I question how it relates to the specific learning topic. I try to use this initial thought provoking question as a reference and example throughout the training/learning in an effort to tie the topic into a real world application and to the job.
I am interested to see what other have to say for their 3 minutes. I know I have tuned out after just 60 seconds of an online page turner.”
-Kevin Haley, Travelers - Hartford

“My business partner and I want the very first second the participant enters the room to begin to stimulate and intrigue. To that end, we use lots of vibrant colors in the room set-up for instant stimulation (e.g., table cloths, table tents, posters with lots of color, a resource table overflowing with materials and tools to touch and feel). We use table toys, learning placemats that are linked to the topic and are in coloring book format. We also place a bright container with markers in it so they can color their placemats during the presentation. We don't force seating (feels too rigid). We might move people later, or have some sort of sorting method in place (we did a baseball theme for one class). To break up potential cliques, we gave people tickets to the ‘game’ as they came in. Each table had a different seating section--bleachers, green monster, box seats, etc. We have music playing as people enter, and often have a game in progress as people arrive (e.g., bingo). Tables, preferably round ones, are set up independently...no school room or business meeting formats. One of us meets participants at the door and introduces ourselves as they enter while the other works the room getting people settled, answering questions, and making sure things are in order. That is all before the official start of class. In the actual 'called to order' first 3 minutes, we tell them that we are not there to teach them anything, they are there to discover for themselves. There will be no test, and that their level of participation is up to them. We know they don't have to look at us to pay attention so they should feel free to play with table toys, color the placemats, stand or sit as they please and to just be respectful of their classmates.”
-Kathie Sucidlo, LL. Bean

“Here’s what my colleagues and I do in the first three minutes: After welcoming everyone, we say something like:
‘I don’t have to tell you that X days is a lot of your time and money (or your organization’s money). If I were you, I’d be thinking that this had better be really good. So we’d like to start by asking each of you a few questions:

  1. Your name, your role
  2. How you are feeling about being here
  3. What needs to happen for your time to be well spent

We’ll capture your answers to the last question on flipchart paper and post them so we can check to see how we’re doing in terms of meeting your needs. Who would like to go first?’ Key principles: be transparent about the focus on the learner and their likely mindset, then ask for their needs with genuine curiosity.”
-Matt Beane, Roger Schwarz & Associates


“As learners enter, play music that is applicable to the lesson with quotes or interesting ‘sayings’ on the walls. Begin not with introducing yourself, but with a story that keeps them interested for the first 3 minutes. The story must be tied into the course goals and to the information on the walls and to the song.”
-Sharon V. Leynes

“I start my classes with something different or unexpected. I did a session on Positive Psychology and started with a poem titled, “I Know Something Good About You” by Louis C. Shimon. It was an unexpected yet related way to begin learning about the topic.
I have started science lessons by reading stories, short picture books that allow the learner to begin thinking about the content in a non-threatening and welcoming manner. For example, “June 29, 1999” is a story about giant vegetables and fruits that mysteriously float down to earth from the sky. It is through this fun, little book that we begin learning about and studying vegetable plants and what they need to grow.
In still other situations, I ask people to write down three reasons for being here, and I share mine. Usually we find that our reasons are similar but how we plan to apply what we learn is as varied and original as the individuals in the class.
In subjects such as math, science, legal or HR issues (where people tend to be bored, scared, afraid, or anxious) I try to help put them at ease by using humor, enabling a small success for each individual, or even asking them to describe their experiences with the subject prior to our gathering. I have also used “free-association” when it seemed appropriate. “
-Michael Vitali, FedEx Express

“Too often we experience facilitators first talking about themselves and about details of the class. Rather, the first few minutes are more effectively used in better understanding and appreciating the learners and their needs. I like to begin by asking open-ended questions about them; their experience with the topic; what they need from the class; how they can contribute to the subject matter.”
-Laura Mankowski, Mercury Insurance

“Don't wait for the 1st minute to begin. Having posters, words, or pictures (for example) on the wall that hit some of the relevant points set the mood for the learning. Also make sure the room is conducive to learning. Ensure the right temperature, lighting, seating arrangements are used.”
-William Kelly, J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

“Good, clear communication basics don’t change: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them (William Safire, “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, 1997, W.W. Norton & Company, p. 21, www.wwnorton.com, ISBN 0-393-04005-4).
In the first three minutes you should be working of the overview (who, what, when, where, why, how) with enthusiasm…enthusiasm and organization seem to be the strong recurring themes students comment on as I review hundreds of faculty evaluations. Paint the big picture…show them the puzzle box top and how big/how many pieces there are…be fascinated…be the tour guide! Tell them how your class is going to improve their life.”
-Stephen S. Davis, Ph.D., USAF Maj (Ret), Ohio U College of Osteopathic Medicine

“I agree that the 3 minutes are the most powerful. That is why I believe in POSITIONING in the 3 minutes and changing the game from being an instructor to a listener and engaging the audience to understand their position on the topic.
Their ‘already existing listening’ is what an instructor is competing with! Listening to their already existing listening and hearing what and where they stand on the issue, tells me about the energy in the room, the mood and how to move next.”
-Mohamad S Kasti, MS, MBB, MCA, Center for Transformation & Innovation (CTI)

“I *always* make sure the class has an ‘ah-ha’ moment before the introductions, before the icebreaker, and of course well before the lecture, where they get to see a powerful example of what skills they are going to learn - so that they realize there was an important, life-changing reason they came to the workshop.
When teaching customer skills, I ask people what to say to someone whose car they just towed away, and challenge them to come up with only statements that *benefit* the tow-ee. After a lot of hemming and hawing and squirming in their seats, they usually come up with great answers – ‘Your car is in a safe place.’ ‘I know where your car is."’ ‘I can help you get your car back.’ ‘I get frustrated when this happens to me, so I know how you feel.’ - and when I then show them the mechanics of how simple psychology can defuse *any* situation they face, they are hooked for the rest of the class.
Similarly, with my program on painless feedback, I get people talking about what to say to an angry employee who goes off on a customer. When they see there is a teachable process to suck all the heat out of, even the most difficult discussions, they are hooked.
This is particularly critical in e-Learning, where there is a tendency to cover step 1, step 1a, step 1b, etc. before ever getting to the ‘meat’. Give them a free sample of the most powerful things they will learn first, before you do *anything* else, and they are yours for the rest of the program.
One other thing I am doing up front nowadays is using funny stories to drive points home. For example, my latest book "What to Say to a Porcupine" uses 20 humorous stories based on Aesop's fables to teach specific customer skills - and guess what, I am finding that people read and retain this advice much better than they did from my big, thick books on the same subject.”
-Rich Gallagher, Point of Contact Group

“I am surprised by how many trainers don't introduce themselves or even acknowledge people as they walk into a classroom. This may have a negative effect on the learner before the class even starts.”
-Dallas Tye, CSC

“So no matter how good your content is, your 3 minutes may already be up!
I see that some trainers are busy still setting up, and this may also send the wrong message to learners. (hey, he's not prepared, I wonder what his material is like?)
This note about the first 3 minutes caused a flurry of conversation in my group! One tip that we came up with is that it is important to start on time. We teach technical all day live virtual classroom training (i.e., with Elluminate). We have a support person in every class to help the stragglers get in or those with technical difficulties, and the instructor starts on time. We even use a count-down timer so that all students know exactly when we're starting. Because we start with activities for introductions, by the time the stragglers join they won't have missed any technical content.
My group also talked about how the logistics of enrolling and joining the virtual class are part of those first 3 minutes and it's important that it's easy and straight forward. We had a debate about when do the 3 minutes start. We've been evolving these processes over the last year or so to fix all the ragged edges.”
-Linda Flanders, IBM UNIX Software Support Education

“Our propensity (readiness or perceived need) to make instant decisions is not limited to formal learning, it, in my view, applies to all of our interactions with people places and things - anything new.
Indeed the research establishes that our brain is apparently so oriented to the way things are (steady on the same course) that it often/nearly always interprets new as error!
It seems to be like an immune system rejecting anything "foreign" as "potential danger".
Yes of course we make our minds up in 3 minutes (7 seconds some people say - is the life span of a brochure - interesting? Or it goes in the bin) because we actually don't use our mind at all. We are not assessing evidence, we are deciding (without evidence) whether this new thing/person/course 'fits' and might be useful.
There is more but that was my 3 minutes worth.”
-John Loty, AI Advocate and Facilitator

“It is vital to establish the tone and to underscore the theme for your session. It doesn’t hurt to start singing our song loud and clear at the beginning of class.
For this particular situation, I am starting with a quote that contains a key word for our objectives. I may even repeat the quote and invite them to write it down.
Other elements I view as important are inviting the participants to share examples, questions, or comments to get them invested in the class and explaining to them what they can expect – including my role as their facilitator.
I used to wing this but am discovering that it is safer to actually write a “cheat sheet” so that I won’t forget any of these steps.”
-Anna Watkins, Mesa Mental Health/Corporate Health Resources

“Here's what I'd like to see us ideally doing in the e-Learning world to improve that first look experience:

  • Spend less time (and space) on flashy titles and branding. If your employees don't know where they work, you have bigger issues.
  • Loose the "Learning objectives" bullet points. We should be engaging our learners with a storyline or an experience that makes it clear why they are here. "Measurable Objective Statements" are for the designers, not the learners.
  • Make it clear to the learner what they are responsible for learning and let them do it. If this means allowing them to skip to a summary and take the test, so be it. It may not be pretty, but it's reality.
  • Make links to other learning resources available from the beginning. Why should this course be the only source of information?”

-Erik Jaros, Chase Card Services, Performance Improvement

“The pre-learning time spent properly will help prepare for an effective first three minutes:

  1. Before the presentation, understand the level of knowledge of the learners. Prepare for a range of minimum knowledge to expert.
  2. Where appropriate involve the expert learners during your presentation.
  3. Understand the age range of the learners keeping in mind that “Millennials” want context and meaning, make it fun. Boomers may want to be led to the information.”

-Paul, Paul W. Bartlett, Inc

“In e-Learning training, I like to set the situation...put them in the mindset of a particular problem or place that will help them remember why they need to pay attention. I'd say this would apply as well with instructor-led, but I develop much less of this.”
-Mina P. Busch, M.Ed, Cincinnati Childrens Hospital Medical Center

“In the first minutes of a software class I ask students their names and what they have come to learn, filling in a simple diagram so I can call them by name when they have their hands up. As each student says what their goal is I say ‘Yes, we are covering that’, or, ‘that is something special that I can show you during a break’, so that they know I take their learning goals seriously.
-Liz Scott

“Describe two benefits that will accrue to the participant from using one or ywo of the ideas to be presented. Describe how the participant will feel during and after their use of one or two of these ideas.”
-Don Thoren, CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

“Interesting stuff, but please notice for those of us who have been actually educated in the learning business, that this type of information has been available for at least 40 years. This might be an “ah-ha’ for those who arrived to the business with no formation on it.
Some of the wonderful research conducted in the 40's - 50's in the USA, as an example, gave us most of what people seem to be so mesmerized today about. Some times I wish there were standards to enter this profession of us and standards for universities to qualify their graduates in the ‘learning and training’ business.
I'm writing because I concur with your efforts and contribution; to that end, I suspect it is important to provide a bit of history/context for knowledge that seems to be new but it is only in the minds of those who haven't learn before/don’t know the achievements of their field”
-Luis C. Moreno , Change Architects Incorporated

“I learned a critical rule in my screenplay writing class many years ago: you have to hook your audience within the first 3-5 minutes.
In that time, you need to set the tone of the film and introduce at least two of the following elements: supporting characters (directly or indirectly involved with the protagonist or antagonist); the protagonist or the antagonist and his/her/its motivation, the primary conflict, or the genesis of the primary conflict.
Engaging and effective e-Learning adheres to a variation of this screen-writing 101 rule. Set the tone of the training via design aesthetics and functionality as determined by whether the event designed to inform, build a skill or competency, or certify; introduce the learner's role and motivation; efficiently recount the opportunity/problem for which the event is designed and associated situations. All of this can easily be done within the first three minutes of any module using a story (and in the some cases, the remaining of the training event could be a story, too).”
-Robert G. Flores, Strategic Learning Services, Edward Jones



“The instructor above all else has to convey to the class he/she is excited to be there. The students have to see and hear the instructor’s excitement. The instructor does this with his voice inflection, making eye contact with various students, strong body language, and smiling.
Another tactic the instructor should use is to go around the room while students arrive, shake the student’s hand, introduce himself and ask a question that requires the student to give some kind of personal information of themselves. Immediately I have conveyed to the student he is welcomed into my classroom and more importantly, the student and instructor have created a small bond with each other.”
-Philip D. Crowder, Travelers Claim University

“E-Learning- the opening screen of the course should be simple, error-free, welcoming, and the first steps the students need to take should be readily apparent ... navigating the course should not look overwhelming, complicated, complex, difficult etc as, in our experience, this takes the students focus away from learning and increases stress levels while simultaneously decreasing problem-solving abilities. A clean, clear, inviting screen can increase motivation while the opposite situation will lower student motivation and interest.”

-Karen Quinney, Loyalist College

“Set the scene in anticipation: - Who are they? In what Context? Why they need me?
Give a minute about yourself to them: show your passion and your love.
Give a minute to the objectives: tell a story or an example.
Give a minute to them: show that you made your ‘homework’ about knowing them.”
-Etelberto


Since a good percentage of e-Learning is mandatory I am interested in knowing
the effect on this group if the first 180 seconds receives a "thumbs down." Is
this then a total loss of not only the investment by the organizations, but also
a complete waste of the participant’s time?”
-Jacqueline Hendrick, The Hendrick Group

“An engaging story--classroom or eLearning, that serves to motivate and let the learner know why this is the best thing to do with their next 10, 20, 30 minutes!
Thank you for these valuable insights. I'm anxious to hear the ‘reboot’ story responses because in a few months I'll be in the scary, interesting and exciting position of rebuilding a learning/training/development dept from scratch! As you can imagine, the real estate industry has/is making incredible leaps of change and we'll have the opportunity to imagine and build something new for our company's agents and leadership.”
-Linnea A. Jacobs, GMAC Home Services Director of Training