Training Fact or Myth?

Are you making training decisions for the right reasons?

By Dan Cooper, CEO,

In doing research on the effectiveness of video-based e-learning media, I ran across some useful facts that are commonly quoted on the Internet:

  • Some 7 percent of what we communicate is words, 38 is tone of voice, and 55 is body language.
  • According to “The Learning Pyramid,” after two weeks we tend to remember 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we hear and see, 70 percent of what we say, and 90 percent of what we say and do.
  • Research from a major university in Canada found that the average continuous attention span for literate humans is 8 seconds with a maximum of 30 seconds, and the average general attention span is between 10 and 12 minutes.

This is all critical data for anyone trying to figure out what type of e-learning media to use, and how long to make courses. There’s just one problem. All of these facts are MYTHS. Yes, they’re simply not true.

What’s going on? In academia, you have to reference the original source. On the Internet, people quote people who quote people…who quote the first person. This is what’s called a circular attribution, where a “fact” takes on a life of its own without any identifiable source.

For example, the first myth is a misstatement of Albert Mehrabian’s classic study. The figures are correct, but they refer to the communication of attitudes, not content. That makes a lot more sense. There’s no way words can have such a low contribution otherwise.

The second myth has already been exposed—if you look hard enough. Search on “learning pyramid hoax,” and you’ll find that the source everyone references has no data to support the pyramid, and that it’s derived from the older “Cone of Experience,” which was never intended as anything more than a conceptual metaphor.

The third myth is simply a big question mark. While Google shows several references to the attention study, no original paper can be found. When I called the Psychology, Communication, and Education departments of the university, they had never heard of the supposed research.

So as a trainer, how do you make sure you’re using the right information for your organization?

  1. Develop a skeptical attitude. Just because you can find something on Wikipedia or in a Google search doesn’t mean it’s for real.
  2. Apply a “sniff test” to new information you find. Only 7 percent of what we communicate is carried by words? That doesn’t make sense. Learning Pyramid percentages go up by exact 10s? What research would generate results that even? And what is a “literate human,” and where did that weird terminology come from?
  3. Dig deep beyond the surface references. Find the source document. And look for any refuting research, which is common in academia. If data is important, the originals should be out there somewhere.
  4. Review the research. I know, it isn’t exactly fireside reading material. But you need to understand any assumptions behind the research to see if it’s applicable to your situation.

For example, a New York Timesarticle quoted research that workers average only 11.5 minutes between interruptions. That’s an important figure to know if you’re trying to determine how long to make your e-learning courses.

Do your homework and you’ll find the 2005 paper, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” from researchers at the School of Information and Computer Science of University of California, Irvine. Mark this one, TRUE.

That’s all it takes to separate myth from useful fact, and to make sure your organization is doing things for the right reasons when it comes to training.

Dan Cooper is CEO of Fast 4ward your learning—find out more at

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.