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What I Learned from Howling at the Moon March 27, 2008

Posted by cjescribano in Uncategorized.


As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the great experiences I had in San Antonio was at a piano bar called Howl at the Moon. Those musicians were masters at creating a totally engaging audience experience, something so “sticky” that it was really hard to leave, even after a long hard day of conference attending.

So, I wanted to step back from the experience a bit and think about the elements of that experience. What specifically was it that made it such a great experience?  How could I translate that to learning design?

So, here are the reasons I stayed and stayed at Howl at the Moon, with some thoughts on how instructional designers might use those same approaches to keep learners engaged:

  1. Relevance and emotional appeal: They played songs that I knew, and more importantly, songs from my past that carried an emotional appeal. When they sang Queen’s Somebody to Love, I felt like I was in high school all over again.
    Implications for learning design: Make it relevant to the learners; tie to what they already know or have experienced, and ideally, tie to a past experience that has a positive emotional association for them. So, for example, if you’re launching a new initiative for an organization, try to relate that experience to a successful initiative from the past.
  2. Audience control: Through their requests, the audience determined what music was played.
    Implications for learning design: Allow the learner to control the environment. That’s easily done in a Web-based environment. For a classroom session, a show of hands can be used to let learners request what’s important to them. Or perhaps, you could use a flipchart as a request board.
  3. Audience Expression: The audience could express themselves not only through requests, but also by paying to have their messages written on the mirrors behind the pianos. These messages could be anything–a quote, a greeting, some teasing or taunting; one guy even advertised his accounting services. They changed throughout the night as people paid to have their messages featured.
    Implications for learning design: Let audience members express themselves during your training–perhaps using something like Twitter. Or you could have a flipchart up throughout a class where they can post comments when they see fit.
  4. Friendly Competition: They included some friendly competition, such as seeing who could sing louder–the men or the women.
    Implications for learning design: Use friendly competition to motivate people to try a little harder. For example, you could have teams compete to see which group can best summarize the key messages from the class.
  5. Surprises: There were lots of surprises. You weren’t sure what they were going to do next, so you stuck around to find out. They previewed these surprises a bit too, like TV shows do, so you’d stay a bit longer to see how things turned out.
    Implications for learning design: Throw in some surprises. Sometimes we’re so focused on making things “user-friendly,” that we hold people’s hands too much. We take away the excitement that comes of figuring things out for yourself. Or we’re so consistent that we put learners to sleep. Every now and then we need to shake learners up so they wake up and learn.
  6. Easy to Participate: They made it easy to participate. You could tap your toes, clap your hands, sing along, send money in for requests. You never even had to leave your chair if you didn’t want to. Braver souls might stand up and dance. The really daring would go up on the stage to be picked on, while the rest of the audience enjoyed the hazing from afar.
    Implications for learning design: Give people a low threshold for interacting at first. Don’t expect them to jump in and start role-playing or ad-libbing at first. Build them up to those more interactive activities. Recognize that some people just don’t want to have the spotlight on them, and give them unobtrusive ways to participate.
  7. Changed Up the Leads: There were about 5 musicians–two playing piano, one playing guitar, one playing bass, and one playing drums. All 5 musicians could play all the instruments, so there was a lot of rotating. That provided a lot of variety in style and songs.
    Implications for learning design: Change up the people who are leading the learning experience. For a facilitated session, have different facilitators for different segments. For a Web-based course, use different narrators or different coach characters.
  8. Pacing: They kept the pace moving. There was never any down time, so we never had a chance to think, “Maybe I should leave now.” Instead, the next song would start playing, and we’d think, “Well, let’s just stay for this one more song.” Needless to say, that went on for many, many songs.
    Implications for learning design: Think carefully about the pacing of your course and how you can optimize that. Keep learners so engaged that they never have time to think about clicking off to something else. This means catching them right away with an intriguing idea and then giving them something they have to do to follow the path of that idea.
  9. Know Your Audience: They talked to us as if they knew us, and they did. Their comments, such as, “I bet you guys really want…” hit the mark pretty much every time.
    Implications for learning design: Know your audience, and be sure that they know you know them. There’s nothing so satisfying as feeling that someone understands you and knows what you need.
  10. Appeal to the Senses: The experience at Howl at the Moon was definitely multi-sensory. There was a lot to look at, especially when people were willing to get up on stage and make fools of themselves. Of course, there was great music to hear. The beer was good, so we had something good to taste. I can’t say much for the smell, and I don’t think I really touched anything, but the kinesthetic sense of dancing to the music felt good.
    Implications for learning design: Think about classes you attended in the past where all the materials were bullet points in black and white. Dulled your senses, right? Think about adding some color, some sound, some motion, maybe even a little taste to your learning materials and activities.
  11. Involved the whole body: When they played a good song, it was almost impossible to sit still, and the musicians encouraged people to get up and dance. So, my whole body was engaged in the experience. I was singing, clapping, dancing, laughing. It was as much a physical experience as an emotional or mental one.
    Implications for learning design: Look for ways to involve audience members physically. This could be as simple as providing play-doh or pipecleaners on the table so that kinesthetic learners have something to play with while they learn. Or provide activities that force learners to get up and move to different parts of the classroom. Set up stations and have them travel to each station to complete activities. Current brain research shows that exercise prepares the brain to learn and increases intelligence. So, think about staging a few optional physical activities for ice-breakers or optional break activities.


1. Lisa Neal - April 17, 2008

What a great idea! I often look at very different experiences and see what I can learn from them to apply to other areas. Would you consider sumbitting a revised version of this to eLearn Magazine – I believe it would be of interest to our readers.

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