fountain pen on black lined paper

Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #2 – Writing By Hand Can Increase Commitment



Picture of a hand writing on a pad of paper

I remember, many many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in graduate school, my first draft was done by hand (ok, now I’ve admitted that I’m quite old!). Most writing these days is done by typing on a keyboard. I write these blogs directly into my laptop using a keyboard, same thing with the books that I write, and most of my communications with friends and family is done via emails that I, of course, compose at my keyboard. There are still a few things I write “by hand” — my most important daily “to do” lists are done by hand, as well as most of my business planning. It’s interesting, when you stop to think about it, which things you write by hand versus with a keyboard. But does it matter? And as a presenter should you care how people might be taking notes during your presentation?

Writing things down increases commitment — If people write something down (compared to, for example, thinking it or speaking it out loud), it increases their commitment to the idea and to taking action. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) asked people to estimate the length of some lines. They were looking at the effect that others might have on decision making. They had other people who were part of the experiment estimate the length of the line incorrectly. Would the subjects go along with the incorrect estimates they were hearing from others, or would they stick (commit) to the answer they felt was correct? If you have read my blog post about social validation,  you won’t be surprised to discover that the line length estimates were influenced by the what other people said.

Writing can over come the influence of social validation – But Deutsch and Gerard also looked at whether there were situations in which commitment to a decision would be stronger. Before hearing what others had to say on the length of the line:

  • Group 1 wrote their estimates on paper. They were told not to sign the paper, and that they would not be turning in the sheets of paper.
  • Group 2 wrote their estimates on a “magic pad,” and then lifted a sheet and the estimate was erased without anyone seeing it.
  • Group 3 was told to write their estimates on paper, to sign their papers, and they were told that their papers would be collected at the end of the experiment.

Did the groups vary in terms of how strongly they stuck to their commitment of the length of the line? Group 2 was most likely to change their decisions and to give incorrect estimates. Groups 1 and 3 reacted the same way. They were five times less likely to change their answers. They were more committed to their original estimates, regardless of what they heard others say.

Signing their names or being told they were going to hand in their estimates did not seem to make a difference. Just the act of writing it on something relatively permanent was enough to make them commit.

Writing changes brain processing — Research by Shadmehr and Holcomb (1997) looked at brain activity when people wrote with something longhand (for example, with a pen or pencil) instead of  typing on a keyboard. Writing involves different muscles than typing, and Shadmehr and Holcomb found that there was more memory consolidation when people were writing in longhand.

If you want people to commit to the call to action you have at the end of your presentation, and remember that commitment, consider having them write down their action step on a piece of paper before the presentation ends.

What do you think? Is your behavior different when you write things down “by hand”? Have you tried this in your presentations?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Deutsch, Morton, and Harold B. Gerard. 1955. A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol 51(3), 629-636.

Shadmehr, Reza and Holcomb, Henry H. 1997. “Neural Correlates of Memory Motor Consolidation.” Science 277.


10 responses to “Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #2 – Writing By Hand Can Increase Commitment”

  1. Daphne Gray-Grant Avatar

    This is so true. Writing by hand is different. Unfortunately, I can barely sign my own name any more. My wrist gets so sore if I try to write by hand. So I’m stuck with typing. Have actually thought about going to see a physio to see if that might help me re-learn how to write by hand.

  2. Nancy Smeltzer Avatar
    Nancy Smeltzer

    When I took my shamanic training in Lakota Sioux and Mohawk traditions, the instructor had no handouts…on purpose. These socities had no written languages, and any demonstrations were done by drawing with sticks in the dirt. My instructor would write on a board, but if we wanted to remember what was being said, we had to take notes by hand.

  3. Sara Brumfield Avatar

    When I was actively losing weight (using Weight Watchers), I found that logging my eating on paper was much more effective than logging it with an app on my phone. It “sunk in” better on paper than it did electronically, and became part of my thinking.

  4. Francis / 2Time Labs Avatar

    I think this may have something to do with muscle memory. We older folks are used to writing and learning as interchangeable, interconnected activities. However, younger learners probably don’t have that solid connection making me think that this research finding might not be as true with young learners who start out using a keyboard/joystick from an early age.

  5. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
    Susan Weinschenk

    Sara — This is touched on in the great book “the Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

    Francis — I, too, think it is related to the idea of “muscle memory”, and I also wonder about this as people grow up writing less and less.

  6. emma Avatar

    During my last evening class, i tried a number of different note taking methods. i found that if i tried to read the slides whilst listening to the speaker, i lost info – either i wouldn’t read the slide properly, or i wasn’t actually listening to the speaker.
    however, i found that if i wrote out the slide text, i could listen fully to the speaker but at the same time absorb the info on the slide. it felt like there was a direct route from eyes to hand that didn’t get in the way of the listening. but it wasn’t a straight mechanical action – i was absorbing the written stuff, so some part of my brain was intellectually processing it.
    this could be down to habit, as this was the same technique i’d used in college. but i wondered if the separation of tasks by different combinations of senses had allowed my brain the space process the 2 streams of info without getting overloaded: is my conscious brain dealing with the audio, & the subconscious processing data flowing from eyes to hand…?

  7. Les Posen Avatar
    Les Posen

    @emma: but what will you do with we who eschew the overuse of text on slides, preferring images or movies with minimal text, perhaps in the occasional header? It will take a long time before this happens in academia, but the next generation will expect much more than text filled slides to keep engaged.

  8. Clearmind Avatar

    Totally agreed. I remembered my friend used to write during his revision and I found that doing the same helped in recall the facts better.

    I wonder if there is data to prove this.

  9. chrisbean Avatar

    This is absolutely true for me. I warn my coworkers that if they don’t see me write something down, it’s in one ear and out the other. They think I’m joking, but I’m not sure I am. Even if I write something down and lose or toss the paper, the act of writing firms things in my head.

    Probably my best learning experiences are when a presenter makes their slides available in advance of a lecture, and I can take handwritten notes ON printouts of the slides.

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