“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” 

That’s what psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University wrote this month in the journal Science and amplified in the Harvard Gazette

The psychologists conducted a study in which they tracked 2,500 people and asked them, at random intervals, what they were doing, how happy they were at the moment, and if the activity they were engaged in was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. 

Based on their results, the psychologists wrote, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” 

They added that “only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness.” 

They further concluded that a wandering mind was the cause, not the result, of unhappiness. 

For trainers, a clear implication is that, if our subject matter is not interesting, attendee minds will wander. And, because they wander, greater unhappiness may result. My inference is that the resulting unhappiness may reflect on our instruction evaluations and results. 

One additional quote from the report is instructive. “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.” 

Five Ws 

To combat the non-present, it is essential to keep trainees mentally present in the classroom. A way to do this is by answering the Five Ws. 

An old but true cliché in the newspaper business recommends that reporters answer the Five Ws in their articles: why, who, when, what, where. The same Five Ws are equally critical to a presentation. 

Why should I pay attention? 

Many programs start with learning objectives. These, while important to the organization sponsoring the learning event, do not matter to the attendees. Objectives explain what will occur rather than why what will occur matters. 

To answer “why,” a presenter must dig deeper. It is at a deeper, more emotive level, that attendees become engaged. Connect the content to what matters in the attendees’ lives and you will have tapped into that deeper, emotive level. 

A company training of a new hours-worked software recording system, for example, would focus on the details of the hours-worked recording system. That focus, although appropriate and necessary, does not elicit passion. If the software training was instead built around getting paid correctly so that “you have the money you need to enjoy your life and weekend,” the learning becomes personally connected. 

An opening segment that passionately answers the why question has a greater chance of getting learners excited about the material to follow. 

Who are you to teach this to me? 


This question is important, but often overstated in training classrooms. Traditional instructional methods place introductions near the start of a program. This gives the trainers an extended opportunity to share their pedigree of years served, jobs held, and awards received. It’s very impressive. It also wastes participant time and focus. 

An effective opening segment that answers the “why” question will have already established the facilitators’ presentation ability. Additional facilitator biographical information is relevant only as it relates to material being taught and should be shared when it becomes necessary. If the facilitators find it necessary to expound on their accomplishments, a bio placed in the handout will suffice. 

The participants, assuming that the presentation has started by effectively answering the “why” question, are eager to begin learning and should do so as quickly as possible. 

When will we break and end? 

Participants, having biological and social needs, will want to know approximate break, lunch, and end times. Sharing this information immediately after answering the “why” and “who” questions will help participants relax so they can focus on the material. 

What is the content? 

Most training programs, as stated in the “why” discussion, begin with objectives and then dive directly into content. “What” is obviously the most important question to be answered during a learning event. It’s where the meat of the material is taught. 

“What” informs the participants of concepts, details of the concepts, and ways in which the details work. “What” content is of critical importance to the organization sponsoring the event. Once “why” is answered, it is also of critical importance to the participants. The best approach to presenting an effective “what” segment is the delivery of effective “why,” “who,” and “when” segments. 

Where can I apply it? 

The final segment of a learning program should focus tightly on addressing the “where” question. Participants, in this segment, identify applications of the material to their work and lives. 

Sometimes, due to an overabundance of “what” material, facilitators run out of time and cancel “where” activities. Other facilitators, in an attempt to share every ounce of information possible, will continue offering new details right up to the end of the program. 

Material heard is not, unfortunately, material learned. For true learning to take place, the learner must do something with what they have heard. If you are still providing information with only 15 minutes left in a program, then you likely have failed your learners. 

Reserve that last block of time for participants to identify and share relevant information. Turn the ending of the program into an excitement-building, idea-sharing, passion-eliciting promise to take action on the material learned. For an example of an effective instructional design, read How to Design an Orientation Program in 11 Steps

Focus on the Five Ws will not, by itself, keep trainees attentive. An immersive environment, brain-friendly materials, a compelling story, and an engaging trainer also help. The Five Ws will, however, help you turn reluctant attendees into fully engaged participants. 


© 2013 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.