The power of emotional engagement in learning content

By Filtered & TED@Work

4 minute read

There are hundreds of content vendors and millions of sources of content. We have found that buyers often have difficulty discerning what’s truly unique about the content from different providers. It’s not until a lengthy buying process has been completed that a reliable opinion is formed.

This article is about considering the purpose of particular pieces or sources of content to differentiate and make better selections when buying and curating content.

Why L&D struggles with learner engagement

Many L&D functions struggle with learner engagement, excitement, and impact. Why is that?

There are many reasons, but the one we hear the most and seems most intuitive is: many learning experiences just aren’t engaging. They neither draw people in in the first place nor keep their attention when they have it.

Yet human beings have never been so drawn to content as we are now. We spend hours each day on social media content. We are also drawn and glued to on-demand streaming services like never before. We are unquestionably capable of being engaged. Yet, in general, we find traditional corporate learning much less compelling.

But not in all cases.

Creating engaging learning pathways

When clients are settled on their content, FIltered’s technology will help them make it more easily discovered. This usually means curating — building playlists and pathways. We specifically advocate flexibly structured pathways composed of learning assets that serve particular purposes. One crucial element of these is, as we describe in the HBR article, appetizers to grab the audience’s attention and potentially capture their imagination too. A pathway might then look something like this:

v2_Curating Learning Pathways Infographic

But how can you tell which content will best serve this purpose for your people?

TED’s story is interesting. They are a rare example of a content provider that successfully caters to consumers and businesses, striking a balance between entertainment and education. So we thought we could all learn a little from the TED@Work team.

The importance of emotional engagement in learning content

An often underused and overlooked principle in L&D is making the “what’s in it for me?” clear up-front to adult learners on the job. Without clear personal relevance, utility to one’s personal or professional success, or expected enjoyment, adults are less likely to attach personal meaning to new information – and are thus less likely to devote the attention required for learning to take place.

“Affective Learning Theory” (2010, Shackleton-Jones) is a recent addition to the adult learning conversation that builds on these ideas. It suggests that the emotional context of new information influences learning, and we more easily remember information that is imbued with “an emotional charge”. For example:

“a person who has seen someone fall whilst rock-climbing will probably prepare quite carefully for their own attempt.”

In an L&D context, this means the difference between telling the learner why something is important to learn and allowing them to feel the importance themselves. In the workplace, perceived personal impact (will I look unprepared in front of my colleagues?), steep consequences (will I lose my job if I don’t improve in this area?) and story (what are examples of results in other’s lives?) all dial up the emotional charge.

What makes the content we love so memorable? On some level, we all are familiar with this concept. If you watch TV, think of an episode you watched recently that is still fixed in your mind’s eye. What made it so sticky? Perhaps it was a deeply loveable character? A scary scene that shook you? A scene that reminded you of your childhood?

So if we know this, how can we take the memory-making qualities of great consumer-grade content – and infuse it into L&D content? TED Talks provide a great example to work from.

TED Talks and the importance of storytelling

While there is no “secret recipe” to a compelling TED Talk, there are a few key tools that TED coaches encourage speakers to include to appeal to a broad, global audience. These tools help the speaker build trust with their audience early on, establish credibility, explain concepts clearly, and build an emotional connection.

Many of the best and most memorable TED Talks are anchored in story to drive emotional connection. Story has the unique ability to help people imagine situations they’ve never been in and create empathy towards others. In fact, the best stories in TED Talks are those with a highly empathetic character, that include a level of intrigue, danger or risk, offer the right level of detail (not too much, not too little), and end with a funny, moving or revealing resolution¹.

It’s no wonder that story-rich talks like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story (and her raw story about her stereotyping college roommate), Drew Dudley’s Everyday leadership (and his heart-warming “lollipop story”), Shawn Achor’s The happy secret to better work (and hilarious story about a play fight with his sister) remain some of the most popularly-viewed and cited talks in L&D.

Powerful stories around real human struggle in the face of racism, sexism, ableism and beyond can open the door to more personal reflection, discussions, and deeper understanding between and among colleagues; deeply enjoyable stories can help learners immediately recall and think of concrete applications of the speakers’ ideas.

How to include more appealing content in your learning programs

1. Start from the data within your learning systems.

Look for patterns in the top-performing content such as:

  • Which elective content has been most engaged with?
  • Which formats retained more people?
  • Were the titles and descriptions written appealingly?

Draw insights from this data about which content captured its audience best.

2. Ask your users.

Supplement the data above by surveying your users on what elective topics and formats they want to see more of as part of your offering.

This step will be even more helpful if you include content categories that you have yet to include in your programs. We also recommend conducting an exercise to identify any gaps in your content to help with your decision-making.

3. Think creatively about what constitutes learning content.

We’ve written about the benefits of having emotionally engaging and story-rich content, so it makes sense to interleave titles that will leave an indelible mark in your user’s mind.

Consider a film, a song or a poem to reinforce what your users have spent some time absorbing.


Creating emotionally engaging and story-rich content enhances learner engagement and impact. The use of powerful stories around real human struggle, coupled with the emotional context of new information, can help learners attach personal meaning to new information, thus making learning content more memorable.

To make your learning programs more engaging, collect user data on content usage and their learning interests, and think creatively about what can be considered learning content.


¹ TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson

About TED@Work

TED is a global, nonprofit media company with one simple mission: to spread powerful ideas. TED@Work – part of TED’s L&D function – combines bold, mind-shifting TED Talks with group learning tools to promote new ways of working, learning, and collaborating.

Learn more >

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