Style Matters

June 1, 2010
Gwen McLean
Pharmaceutical Representative
Volume 0, Issue 0

Pharmaceutical sales trainers are tasked with providing sales professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively. There are several challenges involved with this pursuit. Some of these challenges stem from the information that needs to be delivered. Is it too dry, tedious or scientifically complex? Other challenges stem from the learners, and more specifically, the types of learners they are. Are they able to sit still and listen to a lecture? Are they comfortable doing role plays? Can they relate the content to their everyday lives on the job?

Pharmaceutical sales trainers are tasked with providing sales professionals with the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs effectively. There are several challenges involved with this pursuit. Some of these challenges stem from the information that needs to be delivered. Is it too dry, tedious or scientifically complex? Other challenges stem from the learners, and more specifically, the types of learners they are. Are they able to sit still and listen to a lecture? Are they comfortable doing role plays? Can they relate the content to their everyday lives on the job?

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When developing training pieces for pharmaceutical sales representatives, whether those pieces are stand-alones or whether they comprise an entire curriculum, trainers need to consider not only the content they are delivering, but the learning style or styles of their trainees.

Learning Styles

Different theories, learning inventories and types of assessments exist in the field of training. For example, there is David Kolb's model, which points to four styles of learners: Accommodators, Divergers, Convergers and Assimilators. There also is Neil Fleming's VARK model, which categorizes learners as: Visual, Aural/Auditory, Read/Write and Kinesthetic. Trainers may use one model or another, or combine what they like about certain models with other models and create a style that works for both them and their learners. Let's look at one such adaptation that categorizes learners as visual, auditory, kinesthetic or emotional.

  • Visual learners use their eyes. When we learn by reading or looking at pictures or watching someone else perform an activity, we are engaging in visual learning.

  • Auditory learners use their ears. Auditory learning occurs when we learn by listening. We could be listening to a CD in our car or sitting in an auditorium listening to someone give a lecture.

  • Kinesthetic learners use their bodies and learn by doing. For example, if you are learning how to ride a bike, there really is no better way to learn than to get on a bike and try. You'll eventually get it. Watching or listening to others tell you how to do it will only get you so far.

  • Emotional learners use their hearts. Many of us learn by making emotional connections to the topics we are learning about. For example, let's say you are learning about how cancer cells grow. If you have lost someone to cancer, you may make an emotional connection to the training content. This emotional connection may make you more motivated to learn the information and more likely to retain it in the future.

We all learn through a combination of these styles, but many of us favor one style in particular.

A Master at Work

Individual trainers meet the needs of learners with different learning styles in a variety of ways. In school I had a professor, who I now know was a master of teaching to different types of learners. Back then, I didn't think about how people learned, or what in technical terms made certain educational experiences more or less effective. In college, I mostly read books and listened to relatively bland lectures and took notes to learn what I needed to learn. However, there was one professor who did things differently. And everyone noticed. And everyone looked forward to his classes. And everyone did well. I will call him Marcus Stevens.

  • For the eyes: When I went to school, professors did not use slides to complement their lectures. They positioned themselves up at the front of the room, sometimes sitting down and other times standing up, and talked and sometimes wrote on a black or white board. However, Marcus was different. He used slides. He also provided written handouts that summarized topics and key points covered. This allowed learners to look at the slides and listen closely, rather than scribbling down every word he said, and missing information while doing so. With his slides and written handouts, he appealed to the visual learners.

  • For the ears: Marcus was also an organized speaker who could lecture on just about any topic and make it interesting. He did this by speaking in an animated way and telling a cohesive story. When he wanted to make a side point, he would literally step to one side of the room and say out loud, "Let's go to the embellishment corner," and take time out to talk about the tangential topic. Then after a minute or so, as if uninterrupted, he would physically step back to the center of the room and continue his lecture.

  • For the bodies: Role plays are useful, if not always popular. Marcus used role plays sparingly, but always encouraged people to come by and talk with him afterwards if they wanted to bounce ideas off him or work on applying what they had learned in role plays.

  • For the hearts: Here is where Marcus excelled over all my other professors. As I stated earlier, Marcus was a great story teller. This not only helped the auditory learners, but the emotional learners as well. I can remember sitting in his class thinking, "Why is he spending so much time telling us about his brother with Cushing's syndrome?" I now know that Marcus was probably not just shooting the breeze and sharing a family story. In fact, he may not even have a brother with Cushing's syndrome. Instead, Marcus was trying to let the emotional learners make a connection that they could remember. The story had to do with his brother gaining the nickname "Moony" for having a "moon face." To this day I remember that people with Cushing's syndrome may have a round, puffy face. I remember this because Marcus allowed my class to sympathize with his brother and make an emotional connection.

Like this professor, effective trainers integrate a variety of delivery methods to help ensure that all types of learners get what they need from their training programs. Pharmaceutical sales trainers can do the same using the variety of tools they have available to them.

Broadening Learner Reach

Pharmaceutical sales trainers often use three general program formats when training sales representatives:

  • Distance learning: These include text-based modules, audios, videos and online programs that are completed on an individual basis by the learner.

  • Live workshops: These involve bringing a group of representatives together for a live meeting, which may include one or more of the following components: lectures, slide presentations and application activities.

  • Shadow programs: These involve new representatives working alongside (or "shadowing") experienced representatives, who serve as mentors. First, the new representatives observe "what good looks like." Then they are asked to perform themselves (e.g., make a sales call), and their mentor provides feedback.

Within a given format, trainers can build programs in different ways. For example, one trainer may use text-based modules for the distance-learning pieces, slide-driven lectures for the workshops and written directions for the mentors who participate in the shadow programs. However, given that learners have different learning styles, this design could effectively reach only a limited number of learners. Text-based modules may work for visual learners, but what about everyone else? Slide-driven lectures may work for those who are visual and auditory learners, but the emotional and kinesthetic learners may tune out. Shadow programs may appeal to kinesthetic learners, but may not work well for other learning types if not supported with complementary components.

By providing complementary components, trainers can use a given training format as a base while ensuring that all types of learners are able to get what they need. For example, if a trainer is going to do a slide-driven lecture, that trainer may want to consider including application role plays, anecdotes and/or case studies for the kinesthetic and emotional learners. Similarly, trainers using text-based modules can enhance learning reach by providing a follow-up conference call with trainees and/or application worksheets to help those who are auditory and kinesthetic learners. All program formats lean toward one learner style or another. It is the job of a good trainer to provide add-on pieces to help ensure that different types of learners receive at least part of the content in a way that matches their preferred learning style.