Talk Less, Do More

What Is Experiential Learning and How Does It Work in the Context of Events

An Interview with Learning Seeds’ Founder and Chief Learning Officer, Erica Key

Driven by the boom of the experiential learning movement, meetings and events are placing increasing emphasis on providing immersive education opportunities via on-site activations to boost engagement and ensure attendees are connecting with brand messages on higher levels than ever before. 

What is experiential learning and how does it work in an event environment? It may seem obvious that a lot of people learn better by doing, but it’s actually more complex than that. To dig deeper into this topic we spoke with Learning Seeds Founder and Chief Learning Officer, Erica Key. 

Learning Seeds made waves this summer as an exciting new ed-tech company in the latest round of Boston’s MassChallenge Startup Accelerator. And Erica herself has spent over two decades honing her craft as an experiential educator specializing in social skills development and real-world inclusion training for children with autism and their parents. 

Her unique insights into understanding how experiences impact cognition and why event marketers should be thinking more like experiential educators made this an exciting interview! 

Why does experiential, or immersive learning work?

When you think back to school, your favorite days were the labs and the field trips and all the full sensory experiences that you had. So part of that is because our brain takes in stimulation through all of our senses, right? 

We like to eat things, we like to smell things, we like to hear and touch things, and if you do just cognitive learning, you tend to sit your body still and just take in ideas and it doesn’t activate as much of your brain. So you don’t have as much of an emotional reaction to it. You don’t release as much of a brain chemical response and you don’t retain it as well. 

It also doesn’t tap into more emotional needs, like wanting to eat and be safe and find shelter. If you look at a lot of successful branding, it’s always appealing to this idea that I’m a part of a clan, and I can get my needs met. I get to indulge in things that are sweet or happy or pleasant. So all those sensory experiences really enrich how much you retain and how much you remember. 

Everybody learns in different ways, right? Like listening, seeing, or doing?

It’s true that we all learn in different ways because our brain is just a big, self-created jerry rig of millions of connections. And so some people take in connections better and create more connections in certain ways. It doesn’t hold up in research that you are just an auditory learner, or a visual learner. But it is definitely true that it is the sum of those experiences that helps you have a cognitive experience.

If I were to say, hey Jonathan, think about what you would do with a new tool. When I say that, you probably start picturing something. You probably picture a place, you probably picture an action, and you probably picture a tool. You think of some tool and you think of yourself using it in a place and you think of what you’d be doing with it. That’s your Gestalt imagery which is built on years and years of pretending and reading stories and being able to imagine so well that you can generate an image for yourself.

To the extent that people are really good at doing that, they’re really good at predicting what they would like in the future. But to the extent that that’s hard for them, you are replacing that when you create an immersive experience for someone.

You’re saying, you don’t have to rely on your own ability to richly imagine yourself using this. By me just talking to you and you creating that sensory experience for yourself virtually in your head, on this chalkboard in your mind, and especially if you’re in a busy, noisy place with a lot of other stuff going on, people are just getting maxed out on what they can throw up on that chalkboard. So when you create the sensory experience for people and you immerse them in it, you’re letting them picture it without having to do the work.

It’s the same way when you go to a movie. They’re doing the work for you that you could be doing for yourself in a book, right? You could read the story in a book and you can picture it, and there’s a real difference to the experience. There’s a real freedom to being able to picture the characters exactly as you want when you’re hearing a story, but there’s a real ease to watching a movie and just letting the images stream right in, and somebody else already figured out what it all looks like.

People who say the book was better than the movie say that about their favorite books, not all books. Otherwise the library would be swamped and Netflix would be struggling for money. If you go to see a movie and you’ve already read the book, you’re already a devoted consumer of that story. But ease is important when you’re trying to get somebody to adopt something new. Somebody who is not devoted, or not in the market for that story. The experience makes it easier to convert them.

So experiential education is the best way to convert somebody who’s not already a brand loyalist. 

Yes, because they don’t already have a picture in their mind and it’s a lot of work to build a rich picture in your mind. Reading a book is a lot more work than watching a movie. So if they don’t have a compelling reason to do that work, then you’re saying, let me make it easy for you to sample what it feels like to be in a relationship with this skill or this brand. And then once you’re hooked, then my follow up can be to think about what work you can do to deepen and personalize your own connection to it. 

One of the trends we’re seeing at events lately as immersive experiences explode, is organizers trying to replicate childhood moments. Playing with LEGO’s, baking cakes together, this throw back to careless and creative childhood nostalgia. What do you think psychologically is behind that desire for us as adults to go and relive some of these childhood moments and that being a catalyst for connection?

I think part of it is the retro fun of it, but I would imagine that those experiences are almost as successful if you offered them to somebody who happened to have had a LEGO-free childhood because there’s something about the invitation that’s about sort of flashback to the past.

LEGO’s, especially the old school LEGO’s, are an invitation to playfully iterate on pattern without an end goal, and it gives us an opportunity to not be working specifically towards a goal or a challenge, but to just do. LEGO itself has already lost that a little bit because now it comes with a picture on the cover and the instruction manual, but that’s not what they’re dumping out on the table for you, right? 

So, to me, what’s inherently pleasant about that play, and we just offer it to children more than adults, but what’s inherently pleasant about it isn’t a remembrance of being young, it’s the invitation itself. That this has a pattern, so it’s not directionless, but it doesn’t have an outcome, so it has a very free direction. 

So whether for child or adult professional, how important is play for education?

Play in every manner of research has shown to be essential for creative thinking. Any kind of play that involves imaginative or pretending, where you’re thinking about things as representing other things, is really good for framing your thinking about cause and effect.

An interesting trend with young kids right now that I think adults would also geek out on is watching time lapse videos. Like a time lapse of a LEGO tower being built, or time lapse of some huge airplane model being built. Children love it because it’s a way of experiencing what you experience when you actually build things. It’s changing, and the pattern is emerging, and it’s going somewhere, but you don’t know where. There’s structure of pattern but freedom of direction.

How should event marketers be thinking more like educators?

That’s a great question. To me it starts with thinking about the difference between a gimmick and a learning experience. When you really think about the outcome of what this person has to understand, and be devoted to learning more about, that they didn’t understand when they started.

So for example, you gave that really cool example about the Merrell shoes, but what I think you’re trying to get people to experience is, if I just put on some shoes in the middle of a bunch of other sensory experiences in a big noisy auditorium in hall, I’m unlikely to pay a lot of attention to how my feet feel. But if you heighten my adrenaline and you make me feel like rocks are falling all around me and you make me think that I’m on a cliff or a bridge, there’s all these things that are making me feel like I have unstable footing. You will have heightened my attention significantly to how my feet feel. 

So it has all the cool gimmicky stuff, right? I mean you could have a cool bridge and the Oculus and the rock wall and then be like… buy our cookies! But that would be a gimmick. What we wouldn’t be doing is heightening the learner’s attention to something visceral that connects to what you actually want them to know, which is that these shoes feel different and more stable in difficult environments. 

When that’s the learning outcome, I need to heighten your attention in real time in a way that you won’t do naturally on your own. So you’ve had this experience, and once I’ve done that to you, you’re a new kind of consumer. Now the next time you go to try on shoes, you will compare how it feels to how this felt. Because I controlled your learning experience and I made you aware of a variable you didn’t pay attention to before.

So, experience as a medium to promote learning outcomes. 

Yeah. And especially when you’re trying to get people out of their heads and into the other aspects of learning, heightening their awareness of monitoring something they don’t otherwise monitor.

When all people want to do is network, how can you provide learning experiences that don’t interrupt the organic community connections?

I think the best teaching always follows the learner’s motivation and so there’s a tricky way where you could be creating space for people to do exactly what they want to do. Connect and network. But they’re looking for icebreakers, right? So if you could position yourself in a fun way to provide an icebreaker for people to have the conversations they want to have, you could create a really interesting space that wouldn’t be intrusive.

There is something you could use that in early childhood teaching we call menuing,” where you sort of say to people, when other people were in this space, here’s some ways that they enjoyed it. And then can I document something about how you use this space to pass onto the next person? 

If you were LinkedIn, that’s all you’d have to do because that ties with the philosophy of your brand, right? Like, we just want great connections to happen. If you were a thing, then you have to think about how that can serve the purpose of helping people who don’t know each other very well break the ice and tell a little joke and laugh it off and connect.

To sum up, why experiential learning works…

It starts with Gestalt Imagery, which is the act of supplying imagery and other immersive sensory experiences for you to easily create cognitive connections for richer, more activated learning. 

Another really important part of learning between people and brands is Pairing. Think Pavlov’s dogs. It’s how the brain associates shared experiences. 

And lastly, Cognitive Bias. When you appeal to people logically, you can’t overcome any of their cognitive biases. And so even if you say to somebody, here are 10 compelling reasons why you should buy our project, and even if logically they think, I should do that…I should floss, I should get enough sleep, I should make sure I’m registered to vote…” I should isn’t a great predictor of what people are actually going to do. It’s our habits that activate what we’re actually going to do and we have less control of our habits consciously than we do subconsciously. 

Placing somebody in an experience that facilitates them moving from a state of avoidance to proximity, and eventually to giving a subconscious physical yes once they’re ready to engage, that’s the power of experiential learning and how you can overcome cognitive bias.

To connect with Erica and learn more about Learning Seeds, visit Learn​ingSeeds​.org

Written by

Jonathan Ronzio

Experience Chaser, Writer, Speaker

Experiential Learning is part of our obsession with:


Cheerleaders. Spokespeople. Ambassadors for your brand.

Dig in

Story Why Experiential Learning Works

Stay in the loop

Sign up to receive the latest on what we are thinking, reading, and writing.

Want to learn more about our services?

Let's Talk

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »