A phenomenal amount of information is pouring out of research labs about how the brain works, how its processes change as time goes on, and how to stimulate learning at any age. Some of the key implications for advisors:
o Take advantage of the differences in men's and women's learning styles. (See "Gender Matters," September 2005 Investment Advisor.) A planner I know makes sure she has charts and numbers to show male clients. She rarely takes this approach with women, who are more likely to feel stressed when information is presented this way.
Women tend to learn better in a slightly warmer, quieter environment, sitting across from you with good eye contact. Men generally learn better at somewhat cooler temperatures, either on the move (walking and talking) or sitting beside you with information in front of them. Find out your clients' most comfortable learning style, and cultivate that way of informing and educating them.
o Minimize distractions. To help older clients be as fully present and focused as possible, meet in a quiet room without phones ringing or keyboards chattering. Ask them to turn off cell phones so they can give you their full attention.
o Repeat key information. To reinforce connections in the brain, be sure to summarize the key decisions and conclusions at the end of a client meeting. You might also ask clients to tell you what they got out of the discussion, to help them mentally record what they learned as well as to show you what they may have missed.
o Write down the important points. This suggests that clients may learn better from an active "chalk talk" than from passively watching a bunch of PowerPoint slides. Watching another person write down an important thought helps viewers "write it" in their own memory banks. Seeing this written information again after the meeting fixes it more firmly in their minds. (You do send follow-up memos reiterating what was decided, don't you?)
o Encourage visualization. This gives the brain another way to access the information. You can add humor and life to your session by encouraging clients to visualize something about the material that will help them retain it. For example, when you're discussing how adding income-producing investments can reduce risk to their portfolio in a stock market downturn, you might suggest that they visualize a bear at the controls of an elevator.
o Build on what they already know. Associating new information with familiar ideas allows people to expand existing synaptic connections. A home equity credit line is like a mortgage with a checkbook. Long-term care insurance is like a lifeguard on the retirement beach.
o Help them stay organized. Encourage your clients to keep important papers in a specific place, and always return them to that place. This is particularly important for messy clutterbug clients. If they fail, gently nudge them back toward the goal by helping them choose some simple categories that they can organize and locate when needed.
o Stick to priorities. When multitasking becomes difficult, work with your clients to create a prioritized list of tasks they can achieve in a realistic time period. Help them accept that they can't do everything, and urge them not to beat themselves up because they're imperfect. After all, growing older is still better than the alternative.