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Teach Clients the Way They Learn Best

One of the most valuable moments I had in high school occurred when a classmate asked our English teacher to repeat the directions for an essay assignment. The teacher repeated what she had already said to the class, just a little bit louder.

My classmate’s response was illuminating, even to a 16-year-old. He said, “I heard you, Mrs. Palmer. I just don’t understand what you said.”


Like any class of students, advisors’ clients consist of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. If our goal is to motivate our clients to engage in financial planning, we need to find the best way to facilitate their learning. Proponents of the use of learning styles in education recommend that teachers assess their students’ learning styles and adapt their teaching accordingly.

Advisors can do the same for their clients. I have used What’s Your Learning Style? 20 Questions with some of my clients. This online quiz takes just minutes to complete and the results really get clients thinking. Some will land clearly in the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic boxes. Others have a strong secondary learning style.

Any information I can gather helps me tailor my message along these lines:

Visual learners benefit from graphics. Therefore, I provide educational materials rich in charts and tables. As we talk, I encourage these clients to look at the visual elements on any handouts first and to draw in the margins as we speak.

Auditory learners obviously prefer a presentation they can listen to. I still hand out printed materials, but we talk it through to a greater degree. Later, if they review additional materials on their own, I encourage them to read it aloud or discuss new information to help cement concepts.

Kinesthetic learners need to engage in more active way. When I hand out educational materials, I encourage them to use a highlighter to mark meaningful passages and note questions. Often, transferring the information from my handouts onto their computer enhances their learning. It also can help these learners to hold materials in their hands instead of placing them on a table. Finally, the truly kinesthetic learner should get up and move around in a meeting or take a break at the midpoint.


So, should advisors have three different versions of each presentation so they can match each client’s learning style?

Not so fast, argues Nick Morgan in a Forbes article titled “Are You a Visual Learner?” While studies show more than 65% of people are solidly in visual learner camp, he insists everyone is a visual learner to some degree.

The advice he offers to speakers on managing their audience is elevant for advisors: “Interacting with them visually is important — but that doesn’t necessarily mean a slide. And it especially doesn’t mean a slide with words on it. What it does mean is that anything you can offer to increase the visual richness of the experience you provide the audience is both welcome and likely to increase retention and power.”

Recently, I’ve come across some visual resources that are particularly effective with clients. Take a look at the “back of the napkin” drawing below by Carl Richards, a financial planner in Park City, Utah, who is the director of investor education at the BAM Alliance and author of The One-Page Financial Plan. (You can find additional sketches by Richards on his website or on the Your Money page in The New York Times.)

I like Richards’ drawings because they illustrate complex behavioral issues with just a few lines, like the drawing above.

When we talk about the folly of having an emotional attachment to an investment that keeps us hanging on for too long, it’s easy for advisors to get overly involved in quoting historic returns and discussing market bubbles.

However, if clients are truly emotional about the subject, the return numbers we toss around are likely to mean next to nothing. Because their strong emotions overshadow their reasoning, they figure that historic market trends simply do not apply to them.



In Richards’ drawing, however, it’s easy to see that the more emotional investors are, the greater likelihood they will make a mistake. The power of a simple chart illustrates what would likely take a paragraph of text to convey — and not as effectively. 

The same is true of a new book based on research done at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It is the work of by Alicia Munnell, the Peter F. Drucker Professor of Management Sciences at the Carroll School of Management and CRR’s director; Andrew Eschtruth, CRR’s associate director for external relations; and Charles Ellis, who for 30 years was managing partner of Greenwich Associates, a research-based consultancy. In 128 pages of text and charts, the authors sound an alarm that they describe as “a little like Paul Revere’s famous ride.” They insist that Americans who have not saved enough for retirement have three options: “Accept that we are going to be poor in retirement, save more, or work longer.”

The chart above clearly illustrates the root of the problem: retirements have gotten longer. Of course, that’s a positive. And, as the chart below shows, there are strategies that can help. Just glance at that chart and it’s easy to see the impact that waiting to collect Social Security or working longer could have on your retirement.

For most clients, the most effective learning aids are visual. The trick is finding resources like Richards’ drawings and the CRR charts that are more effective than a hastily prepared PowerPoint presentation.


Of course, my focus on visual aids doesn’t mean I ignore the power of audio aids, such as podcasts. If you are interested in recording podcasts, check out the Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts to Follow for ideas.

The Dimensional Fund Advisors site also offers plenty of resources. On the landing page alone, you find links to Chairman and Co-CEO David Booth and others talking about the firm’s founding and its close ties to the academic community, along with a tutorial by Eugene Fama on modern finance. I’ve posted a particularly relevant video on my website of Booth discussing the importance of balancing volatility risk and purchasing power risk when investing for retirement.

I also regularly use the hands-on exercises that appeal to kinesthetic learners when covering topics from risk tolerance to budgeting.

Richards describes a wonderfully simple risk-tolerance exercise: “Take out a blank piece of paper. Grab two Sharpies, one red, one black. Write $250,000 in black in the upper left corner. Then, write $225,000 in the lower right corner. Use the red Sharpie to draw a down arrow from left to right to represent a market drop of 10%. How do you feel? For the second drill, pull out another piece of paper. Write $250,000 in the left corner and $200,000 in the right corner. Draw a scarier red arrow because now we’re talking about a loss of 20%.”


However you approach client education, the trick is first to discover how your clients learn. Next, experiment with a range of learning resources and approaches and keep track of what works.

Your efforts will be well-rewarded, just as Mrs. Palmer’s were back in my high school classroom. When she finally sat down next to my friend and drew an inverted pyramid to convey how the first paragraph of our essay on The Catcher in the Rye should begin with a broad statement and then, quite literally, conclude with the point of our paper, my friend experienced that “aha!” moment that for teachers must never grow old.

Delivering great client service is crucial to your success as an advisor. But ask yourself this: Are you delivering an experience that delights your existing clients and practically ensures that they’ll introduce you to the right new prospects? 

Kimberly Foss, CFP, CPWA, is a Financial Planning columnist and the founder and president of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif., and New York. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyFossCFP.

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