Use Schema Learning to Be More Persuasive

The gist: To spread an important message, use “schema learning” to connect your idea to other ideas people already understand and accept so they’ll accept yours, too.

“When I go to a baseball game, I can eat six, maybe seven hot dogs. I love hot dogs more than anything on Earth.”

This is the opening line from Mr. Hourigan, my high school Economics teacher. We’re learning the law of diminishing returns.

He goes on to explain how, though his love for brats runs deeper than human understanding, he starts to get tired of them after a while. Sure, each of those first three dogs make him happier and happier. Eventually, though, the next one isn’t quite as tasty as the last. After about six hot dogs, Mr. Hourigan hardly cares about hot dogs at all.

Admittedly, a strange comparison. Also an effective way to share a complex idea with a bunch of apathetic high schoolers.

The law of diminishing returns, put simply, describes how you can’t achieve endless efficiency in any system. More workers on a construction project won’t always make it finish faster. Speeding up an assembly line won’t guarantee you more widgets in an hour.

As a 17-year-old student, I didn’t care about construction projects or assembly lines. I didn’t care about hot dogs either, but I was intimately familiar with them. I knew if I ate too many, I wouldn’t like them as much. And Mr. Hourigan knew that’s all I needed to understand to get the lesson.

He compared something I already understood to something I didn’t and, suddenly, I understood it, too. It’s called schema learning, and it’s a well-documented educational tool.

You’re (probably) not an economics teacher. What you are, though, is someone with important ideas that need to be communicated effectively. You want to educate people, and you want to lead them to make smart decisions.

So, it’s critical you understand how to communicate your ideas using schema learning because there is no better tool to not only educate someone quickly but also persuade them to make smart decisions and accept good advice.

The Simple Science Of Schemas

Let’s play a quick game. Say the word “cat” out loud. Now, say the next word that immediately comes to mind after cat. Do this two or three more times. Here’s what I came up with (strange it may be):

  1. Cat
  2. Cheetah
  3. Police
  4. Detention

What you’ve just done is an exercise in free association. Each word is, in some way, connected—at least in your brain—to the one before it.

I said “cheetah” because it’s a type of cat. I said “police” because cheetahs run fast and police are who I’ll deal with if I drive too fast. Police can put you in jail and that reminds me of my time in lock-up, aka “detention,” in high school.

Your brain builds all kinds of literal and abstract connections between the things you know and understand. There’s no single way from one part of your brain to another. The more distinct pieces of knowledge you have, the more opportunities you have to make connections to new ones.

Those connection opportunities are what allow you to learn new concepts faster and recall them easier. This is the basis of schema learning. It’s why making the comparison between eating hot dogs at a baseball game and factory workers on an assembly line makes perfect sense instead of sounding crazy.

When you’re sharing something new with someone, the more potential connections you can make to something they already know, the better shot they’ll have at retaining it.

For example, you could teach:

  • Geometry by relating it to how you’ll fit furniture in a living room
  • How to fix your smart phone by comparing it to troubleshooting a computer
  • Economics by eating hot dogs, naturally

If you want to teach people something complex, lead them through a difficult problem, or win them over to your way of thinking, there are some smart ways to implement schema learning to help you do just that.

Making Ideas Stick With Schemas

Harnessing schema learning isn’t just for the traditional teacher. It’s useful in many scenarios in your life. You can use it to:

  • Explain how something works to someone who doesn’t understand (peer teaching)
  • Convey an important message to people who need to hear it (public speaking / leadership)
  • Get someone to understand and accept your point of view (persuasion)

The uses for schema learning are many, and it’s been heavily studied. Here are the top four strategies I repeatedly bumped into when reviewing the research around how to best harness the power of schemas.

1. Make it personal.

I once tried to explain WordPress (the software that runs this website) to an older friend by comparing it to Microsoft Word “but for the Internet.”

It wasn’t a great comparison in the first place, but it really didn’t work when I learned the guy had never used Word before. I failed at teaching because I wrongly assumed what my student already knew.

Not everyone knows the same things, so finding schemas that work for most people is critical. When you tap into a concept they’re deeply familiar with, learning becomes nearly automatic.

How do you discover what someone already knows? A little sleuthing is in order.

When you have something important to share, be ready with several different schemas. Poll your audience to find what they’re already familiar with and build from there.

When I asked my friend, “What do you do when you want to write something you want others to read?” he said, “I type it out and have my son send it to the newspaper.” Whoa. I immediately adjusted my schema to fit that.

2. Activate prior knowledge.

Schema learning works best when you’re not the one doing the work.

For success, make the learner build the connection. To do that, ask lots of questions that activate their existing knowledge so they can build the mental bridge from one to the other.

This tactic is not just for teaching, though. It’s deadly effective for persuasion.

For years, there’s been debate raging about global warming and its effect on the planet. According to basically all established science, it’s real and it’s bad. Yet there’s a vocal minority who refuse to accept it and, instead, try to persuade others to accept their argument.

A good (albeit sad) example of this is when US Rep. Steve Stockman uses the schema of ice melting in water to explain why there’s no reason to worry about the sea level rising:

The problem, of course, is the schema is wrong. It doesn’t reflect reality. But people who follow Rep. Stockman and aren’t interested in physics probably won’t catch that.

How do you show someone who uses that argument that their science is wrong? Just explaining it probably won’t do the trick. Comedian Jon Stewart from The Daily Show found an effective way:

Stewart uses the same schema as Rep. Stockman, but he updates it with a critical addition to show how global warming actually works.

Everyone has drunk a glass of ice water before, so their existing knowledge is immediately activated and the demonstration forces you to accept it as the truth.

3. Ask for more examples.

When you were a kid, your teachers probably asked you to create your own explanations for how things work.

I remember a lesson from high school calculus about calculating the swing of a pendulum. Math has never been my strength, but I always grasped it when I could clearly connect it to a real world scenario I understood.

In this case, our teacher was using the swing of the pendulum on a grandfather clock to illustrate. But it wasn’t hitting home. We all knew what grandfather clocks were and that their time was kept by a pendulum. But we didn’t care. We were 17-year-olds and it was the 21st century. Grandfather clocks were irrelevant 100 years ago.

The teacher noticed we weren’t engaged and asked a smart question: “Where else does this apply?” Someone said construction cranes. Another said playground swings.

Not only were we showing our teacher we understood (and strengthening our connection to the lesson) by coming up with more schemas, we instantly became more engaged because she allowed us to find an application for it that we cared about. Not that swings are that special to me, but they were more interesting than a grandfather clock at the time.

If you’ve ever struggled to communicate something that feels like it should be important but no one seems to care, there’s a lesson here: You’re not connecting it to something that matters to your audience.

4. Check for mastery.

When I started my first real job in college, I’d taken a class on how to create a construction schedule—what contractors to schedule at what times and when to do which types of work. I thought I understood it. Then, I created a schedule for a real project.

Sitting down with the superintendent, we mapped out the plan to remodel part of a hospital. Everything was going great. Then, two weeks in, something went wrong and the project came to a grinding halt. I was unprepared and had no idea what to do—I didn’t plan for the plan not working!

Read next: Art Forgery And What It Takes To Master A Skill

When you’re trying to make a message stick, a schema will plant the seed. But what makes that seed grow is when the person it’s stuck in can build on it themselves to become a master.

Your job isn’t really done until you’ve left someone with the ability to take what you’ve showed them and turn it into something of their own. This is how ideas not only stick, but grow, and lessons aren’t just understood but embraced.

The question is, how do you know when you’ve reached that level? How to test to be sure? Put it to use in real life.

Everything is difficult until you find a practical application for it. You can tell someone has grasped your teaching when they’re able to put it to use because there are always complications that come from real-world use that you can’t account for on paper.

Mastery comes when you can solve problems you didn’t expect.

I couldn’t solve our scheduling dilemma because I’d never faced a problem like that before. But these kinds of problems are actually very common in the construction world and the superintendent knew exactly what to do.

You can teach almost anyone the basics of anything, but you’ll take your mission further when you give people real problems to solve. That’s when you see if everything they’ve learned can actually be applied. That’s when you know the knowledge you’ve transferred is no longer at risk of being lost.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

If you want to teach something, convey an important message, or persuade someone to believe what you believe, schema learning is one of the fastest and most effective ways to do it.

Here’s a recap of what you should focus on as you incorporate schemas into your own work:

  1. Make it personal. Don’t assume anyone knows anything. Cater your schemas to knowledge the person you’re teaching already has a good grasp on.
  2. Activate prior knowledge. Your message will sink in when it can be deeply connected to what’s already understood.
  3. Ask for more examples. Your message will stick when there are multiple paths to remembering it.
  4. Check for mastery. Your message will grow stronger when the people using it can adjust it to work in many real-world conditions.

Ask yourself these questions to clarify your message and make it stronger when you share it:

  • What is the overarching message I want to lead people to?
  • What are some common knowledge examples (schemas) I can compare it to?
  • What are the specific connections I can use to show the comparison?
  • How can I check for mastery?

Practice these principles and your message will spread far.1


  1. The lessons in this article are courtesy of these excellent academic works on on schema learning: