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Anchoring learning

I just walked into a cloakroom at one of my clients and was struck by a smell of deodorant I have not smelt years. Immediately I was transported back in time to 13 years old, in front of my class at the beginning of a school day. I had just finished a sneaky cigarette before class (SO glad I don’t smoke anymore!). To avoid any trouble from the teacher, I had doused myself in Lynx spray-on deodorant (I think they call it “Axe” in Belgium). Even now, thinking about this moment, I can literally see the place of was standing in: Downstairs, just in the door, next to the office of the “head of lower school” surrounded by little uniformed people like myself. The same smell as today…

Proust would perhaps call this my “Madeleine” and the NLP folk would say I had “anchored” that moment in my memory via the smell. Whenever I smell that precise thing, I will remember that time, that place, those feelings. How powerful that sense of smell is!?!!


Can we use this for learning? Could we use anchoring to help people remember things they learnt?

In NLP, the idea of anchoring is well established and used in multiple applications. For example, if I were helping someone who gets stressed when presenting, I could use an anchoring technique to help them create a link between a calm successful good moment and a specific image (or holding two specific fingers together, or whatever….). Then, when they are preparing to present and getting stressed, they can just think of that image, or hold those two fingers together and they will get back that sense of calm and success.


How else can we apply this idea for learning?

Could we introduce specific images or key sounds (or smells?) or words during training, so that people can later remember what they learnt on cue? Or help reinforce all those good promises made at 4.30pm at the end of a training day? (Promises that are normally forgotten the minute they walk out of the door…). Would this work? How? Would it be ethical or would it be brainwashing?

For example, at 4.30pm on the last day of Presentation Skills training, I would ask participants to tel me what 1 key thing they will do differently next time they create or deliver a presentation. Perhaps someone answers: “I will be sure to repeat my money message at least 3 times during the next presentation” and another replies “I will use the diamond structure when I develop my presentation.” I might then ask them to spend a moment drawing a little image (whatever) which they might then even spray with a specific perfume. I ask them to spend time thinking about what they learnt and what they want to do next time, whilst smelling or looking at this image. The anchor is made.

Maybe the next day, they will go to the office and create a PowerPoint template with a first slide with their image on it. That way, the next time they open PowerPoint to make a presentation, they will see the Inge and remember all they promised themselves. In the other example (repeating message) just before they go to present, they might smell and look their image in order to remember to repeat at least 3 times the key message. Or maybe a colleague sits in the back of the room occasionally flashing a picture of the image to stimulate them.


As I’m sitting in the cafe having a quick lunch, I can’t take the time to think of other applications in, for example, communication training or leadership. I’ll let you do that…

What do you think? Worth pursuing?



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