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Book Summary: Brilliance by Design – Creating Learning Experiences That Connect, Inspire, and Engage

Brilliance by Design (2011) is all about creating learning experiences that bring out the brilliance in every student. Targeted at coaches, teachers, mentors, and anyone who spends time in a classroom, it provides a handy and helpful model for high-impact instructional design that will inspire and motivate learners.

Who is it for?

  • Teachers looking to add tools to their repertoire
  • Mentors having a hard time energizing their mentees
  • Anyone who spends time at the front of a classroom

What’s in it for me? A handy guide to inspiring, invigorating, and empowering your learners.

In college, Vicki Halsey had her modus operandi down to a science. She sat in a quiet corner of the classroom, always did the assigned readings, and, when asked a question, regurgitated everything she thought her professors wanted to hear.

Book Summary: Brilliance by Design - Creating Learning Experiences That Connect, Inspire, and Engage

One day, in Professor Wilson’s class, Vicki stayed behind with some other students to ask about an upcoming assignment. As usual, she hung back and let her classmates do the talking while she listened. They were smarter and more capable of asking questions than she was – at least, that’s what she thought. But before she could leave, Professor Wilson suddenly called her name and asked if he could speak with her for a few minutes. Approaching panic, Vicki quickly replied, “Yes, sir.”

When the other students cleared out, the professor asked her a profound question: “How are we going to bring out the brilliance in you?”

Vicki was taken aback. She muttered a safe answer –⁠ the one she thought he wanted to hear. But he slapped the desk with his hand and said, “I’m not interested in hearing what you think I want to hear; I want to know what you think. You.”

Vicki suddenly began to choke up, and tears welled in her eyes. Professor Wilson handed her a tissue and explained his vision of her. He saw one Vicki who showed up to class –⁠ the one who hid her genius and played it safe. But he also saw a second Vicki –⁠ the one who allowed her genius to shine through in the papers she wrote. It was time for Vicki to fully unleash her brilliance.

Professor Wilson’s simple yet profound intervention helped Vicki see herself in a new light and completely shifted her attitude in his classroom. In that moment, her life changed.

Now it’s time for you to do the same – to bring out the brilliance in all of your students. In these summaries, you’ll discover how to ignite their passion and show them how smart they can be. After all, how many thousands of Vickis might be hiding in the shadows, waiting for someone to help them realize their potential?

The Brilliance Learning System

Meet the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. He is renowned for his beautiful, bold, creative pieces. But the sculptures themselves are perhaps not his greatest innovation. Instead, it was his idea of assembling teams of skilled glassblowers to create the amazing, large-scale artworks. By capitalizing on the synergy of their collective skills, Chihuly and the other artists produce unique pieces that they would never have been able to create on their own.

When it comes to the classroom, a similar synergy is at play between teachers and learners. At the end of the day, it doesn’t result in intricate sculptures in the shapes of sea creatures or cacti. But this synergy does result in a different kind of masterpiece: the beauty of shared knowledge, empowerment, and new crystallized skills in the minds of your students.

When there is synergy in the classroom, teachers and learners work together to reach greater and greater heights. As the teacher, it’s your job to create and foster that synergy –⁠ just as Dale Chihuly does with his teams of glassblowers.

This is where Vicki’s Brilliance Learning System comes into play. It’s made up of three components, all of which we’re going to cover. The first component is people –⁠ more specifically, people who create synergistic relationships that bring out the best in both themselves and others.

Vicki’s Brilliance Learning System

How can you become such a teacher?

A great way to start is by adopting the 70/30 principle. This is the idea that you, as the teacher, should be talking only 30 percent of the time, while your learners should be talking 70 percent of the time. This will make your learners feel like they are the focus of the session. Remember this important axiom: whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning. Learners should spend 70 percent of their time practicing and building skills, and 30 percent of their time learning from you.

Put effort into getting to know your learners. What are their goals, passions, and areas of expertise? Could it be that you’re subconsciously stifling their learning through your tone, demeanor, facial expressions, or body language? Is your classroom a safe space?

Assume that every learner comes to your session wanting to learn, and that those with pessimistic attitudes may feel closed off to learning because of negative experiences from the past – not necessarily because of your class. So instead of getting annoyed, be curious about their experiences and feelings.

While your focus should be on the learners in the classroom, it’s also important that you invest in yourself. This will help you to bring out the best in others. One way to do this is by practicing self-care. Busy instructors often let self-care slip by the wayside. But if you aren’t feeling good and restored on a regular basis –⁠ if you aren’t, in other words, bringing out the brilliance in you –⁠ you’re going to have a hard time bringing out your learners’ brilliance.

Self-care might mean more sleep, more time to eat, walks in nature, mini-vacations, or quiet time with family. Whatever it is, make sure you’re staying fresh, healthy, and inspired!

Crafting Content

The first time Vicki taught a full lesson, she wanted to knock her students’ socks off. So she decided to wow them with a lesson she knew would be meaningful. And that’s what we’re going to talk about in this chapter.

First, she printed copies of the poem “On Giving” by Kahlil Gibran on parchment paper. Then, she hand-wrapped each one in a unique and beautiful package, and placed them all in a basket. When the class began, she walked through the aisles and handed each student one of the packages. Every time she extended her hand to a student, she made eye contact, smiled, and said, “I have a gift for you.”

Next, she asked the students to write about how it felt to receive her gift. Then, she put the students into groups of four or five to share their experiences of giving and receiving gifts in the past. The students opened their packages and read the poem out loud. In small groups, they discussed the ideas in the piece before all coming together to exchange their thoughts.

In this lesson, Vicki was actively involving her learners, connecting to their experiences, creating new activities, and giving them space to learn on their own. She obeyed the 70/30 principle and trusted that the learning design would allow the students to generate the important concepts in the lesson. As a result, she didn’t actually have to teach them anything directly.

Lots of care went into Vicki’s content design. Content is the key word here – it’s the second component of the Brilliance Learning System. Just as with Vicki’s lesson, your job is to create a context that will inspire your learners to discover insights for themselves. Had Vicki not made such an effort to connect with her students on a personal level or to solidify the learning through physical gifts and a variety of activities, her lesson would have fallen flat.

So, the question is, how can you apply these lessons? How can you make your own content sing? Vicki’s got a few pointers. First, make sure the content is concise, accessible, and that it addresses your learners’ needs. Next, explicitly state your desired learning outcome. Finally, design a model that gives learners plenty of time to discover the lesson’s objectives on their own terms; incorporate a range of meaningful activities that will offer your students the time and space to connect with your topic.

We’re now moving on to the third component of the Brilliance Learning System. It’s called the ENGAGE model, and each letter stands for a tool that will help you bring out the brilliance in your students. Let’s start with the first letter: E.


Picture this: You walk into your office one day and find a small chocolate bar on your desk. It’s attached to a letter from your manager. In it, she invites you to a leadership seminar in two weeks, expresses her gratitude for your work, and writes that she’s excited for you to participate in the upcoming learning session.

Two days later, you receive an email linking you to an online tutorial that introduces the topics you’ll cover in the seminar. The tutorial asks you to make a list of all the projects you think the class will benefit. You’re told to show your manager your list within two days and see what she thinks.

This is an example of an instructor making good use of pre-event engagement. (And chocolate.) She’s getting learners to think about the content and how they might eventually utilize it, all before the class has even started. In other words, she’s energizing them. Energize represents the first letter in Vicki’s ENGAGE model, and it indicates the need for the instructor to get learners excited and ensure that they’ll remain engaged during the lesson.

Personalizing the learners’ invitation to the class is just one way of creating the necessary excitement. Another way is to send participants a book, article, or study guide. By reading about the subject of your lesson beforehand, learners are reminded of what they already know about the topic. This pre-thinking helps them connect to the new content they’re going to learn and helps them get warmed up. Be careful not to send out too much material before the session: you don’t want to overwhelm your learners.

But readying the learners before they show up to class is just one piece of the puzzle. The next thing to consider is what happens when your students actually step foot in the classroom.

There are plenty of ways you can prepare the room in advance. To stimulate learners, put up some posters on the wall, play music when people start walking into the classroom, or lay out healthy snacks in colorful bowls. Greet every participant you can as they walk in, and get to know them a little bit. Even just saying “hi” and asking them to introduce themselves can go a long way toward making them feel engaged and important.

Once the session has started, get your learners talking. Most instructors tend to spend the first 10 to 15 minutes of a session lecturing or talking at their learners. But by letting the learners talk first, you activate their interest right away.

One way to do this is by kicking off with a provocative question. In a leadership course, you might ask, “Who was your best coach, boss, or leader?” This question can help learners connect with one another through shared experiences, which in turn helps them build relationships and foster a sense of community. And what’s more energizing than a vibrant, close-knit community?

ENGAGE - Energize Learners

In this chapter we’re going to look at a time when Vicki was faced with a steep learning curve in her career. She was teaching a life-skills program at a middle school, and the kids in her class were particularly challenging. The only way she could get them to focus on the “important” part of the lesson was by promising them a Jeopardy-style quiz during the second half of class. In the game, she asked questions about a variety of topics; she offered all the students an opportunity to show off their particular area of expertise –⁠ be it geography, chemistry, or engineering.

One of the kids –⁠ who we’ll call Randy –⁠ was skinny, wore glasses, and spoke with a lot of foul language. He was often picked on by other kids and sometimes didn’t pay attention in class. But during one of the quiz games, Vicki asked, “What’s the common name for aspirin?” Randy immediately smacked the buzzer and responded with the correct answer: “Acetylsalicylic acid.” Later in the same quiz, Vicki asked, “What does DNA stand for?” Once again, Randy slammed the buzzer and answered correctly: “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” A long pause stretched across the room. Then, his team began to cheer and clap, and give him big slaps on the back. From then on, the other kids stopped making fun of him and embraced him as their friend. For Randy, this was his opportunity to be brilliant –⁠ to be a hero. (And to pronounce really big words!)

What was Vicki’s role in Randy’s transformation? It was as simple as facilitating a quiz game –⁠ an active learning exercise –⁠ and asking questions about a variety of topics so that everyone had the chance to be smart. Because of that, Randy had the opportunity to show off his own unique brilliance.

Vicki designed her content for exactly that purpose. In doing so, she was navigating content – the letter N in our ENGAGE model. Navigating content means presenting it in varied, interactive ways so that learners can understand concepts, as well as practice and assess their learning.

You can put your own personal spin on navigating content. But it’s helpful to follow a few key rules. The first is to focus your learners on the target. If you say, for instance, “I’m going to teach you three keys to leadership,” you’re creating a kind of challenge that learners’ brains will work to complete.

After you’ve created that framework in their minds, you should find a way to help learners experience the content directly or connect it to an experience they’ve already had. Say you’re teaching customer service. You might walk learners through a negative and a positive customer service experience, or ask them about their own experiences with customer service.

Next, you want to follow up with an activity in which learners practice or teach key concepts to one another. If participants have read an article, done an assessment, or answered study guide questions, this is a good opportunity to have them quiz each other. Or try organizing a jigsaw activity. This is when learners are each assigned an individual topic to read about –⁠ say, one part of an article or story. Then, they come together in groups of three to share and teach the information they’ve learned –⁠ their part of the puzzle.

After you’ve explained your topic or model and had learners interact with it, take some time to share the research, statistics, or other concrete information that backs up what you’ve been teaching. This will help the more analytical learners –⁠ who typically comprise 50 percent of a class –⁠ feel more confident in the models you’ve provided. To spice up your lecture, use handouts, clear descriptions, stories, visuals, or videos.

The next part of teaching your new content will help learners check and deepen their understanding. It should demonstrate that someone “gets” the information. During this part, participants should be teaching their new knowledge to their fellow learners in a way that feels natural to them. Someone might like to demonstrate her learning by sketching them out on a flip chart, while another person might like to find information in a text, answer questions about it, and discuss the answers.

Ultimately, your goal is to make your learners feel brilliant. Why? Because brilliant people do everything in their power to obtain the information you want to give them. They sit on the edge of their seat, waiting to give answers; they ask insightful questions; and they tell you when they don’t understand something. You want to, and you can, bring out that brilliance in every learner.

ENGAGE - Navigate Content

Generate and Apply

How many times have you learned something in a course or class, been excited about the material at first, and then totally failed to apply it to your real life? If this has happened to you, you’re far from alone. There’s a strong neuroscientific basis behind the phrase “Old habits die hard.” The human brain is an expert at sticking to familiar routines and patterns, and it takes a strong, concerted effort to commit to new ones.

That’s why, as an instructor, part of your job is to help learners generate meaning –⁠ the G in the ENGAGE model. This step helps learners understand and confirm the relevance of the information they’ve received so they’re motivated to apply it to their real lives. se to act on their learning and transform it into long-term behavioral change. You want them to drill down on the question, “What is the meaning of this learning in my life?”

So, how do you facilitate learners generating meaning for themselves? It’s simple: take them back to the objectives that drove them to start the course in the first place. Ask questions like, “What was the most important concept you wanted to learn in this session? Why did you want to learn it? Why was it important to you?” You could also have learners engage in discussions in small groups, with everyone going around the table and expressing the most important lesson they learned from the session. Exercises like these will prompt learners to consider the content in the context of their lives, which will increase their likelihood of then applying it.

ENGAGE - Generate Meaning

Applying knowledge to the real world just so happens to be the next letter in the ENGAGE model – the A. This is a step many teachers skimp on because they expect students to do it themselves after the lesson or course has already been taught. In truth, you should be helping your learners understand how to apply their knowledge while you’re still in the classroom together.

Before this step, learners will probably have already done some out-of-context practice. They may have read a case study about effective negotiation, for instance. But they may not have thought about how they might actually apply their knowledge in their next sales meeting.

To get learners in that frame of mind, try facilitating learning labs. These are structured activities that ask learners to jot down some thoughts about how they want to apply their new knowledge. Then, they sketch out a clear, step-by-step plan for how exactly to do that. You should give them very clear worksheet templates to make this part easy. Once the learners have created their plans, they should discuss them with partners. Finally, after they’ve actually done the real-world practice, there should be a follow-up session in which they debrief their partners about what worked within their plan and what didn’t.

Whatever activity or method you choose, ensure that learners realize the value of the knowledge they’ve gained and see how it can benefit them in their real life. Your goal is to cement their commitment and help them transform their learning from theory to practice.

ENGAGE - Apply to Real World


Vicki is a big fan of using songs as mnemonic devices. When she taught science at a high school, she put her students into groups and assigned each of them a family of the periodic table of elements. Then, they were asked to come up with a song to remember that family. Many years later, Vicki was at the mall with her sons when she ran into three of her former students. They huddled together and began singing the song they’d created back in high school –⁠ the tune to Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls” – but with lyrics about alkaline metals.

In this chapter we’re looking at how music is a powerful tool for learning –⁠ and how it can help you assess how well your learning model is working. This is the second G in the ENGAGE model –⁠ gauging how much your students have learned through some form of assessment. If you can see heads bopping during an exam, for instance, it’s a safe bet that students are using your songs to remember the answers to the questions.

Don’t let that word “assessment” throw you into a panic! This doesn’t have to be a scary test that makes your learners break out in a cold sweat. It’s merely another opportunity for them to feel confident in what they’ve learned.

To that end, your exam should include a wide variety of questions that challenge your learners and give them the opportunity to reflect on their learning. Some questions should be at the easy level and test learners’ knowledge of facts, information, or data. Other questions should be harder and test application –⁠ learners’ ability to concretely demonstrate knowledge of their skills. And even harder questions should test synthesis –⁠ students’ ability to create or envision new possibilities using their knowledge.

The questions don’t necessarily need to appear in the form of a traditional test. For example, to assess students’ application abilities, you could have them role-play their new skills or use their knowledge to solve a real-world situation. To test their synthesis skills, you could have them write their own case study that illustrates the concepts they’ve learned. And, of course, you can have the students create a song using their new knowledge.

As a way to cap off your lesson, you can go around the room and ask your learners to share one key learning from the session. This is a way for them to review important concepts, transfer them into their long-term memory, and help them realize how much they’ve learned. When learners leave your classroom, they’ll be feeling brilliant and thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know this even an hour ago!”

ENGAGE - Gauge and Celebrate


We’ve now covered almost all of the ENGAGE model. Take a moment to appreciate the work you’ve put into understanding this learning model and how it will positively impact your learners. You’re going to give them the tools they need to learn and succeed with the information you give them. That’s cause for celebration!

Now it’s time for the final E in the ENGAGE model: extending learning to action so that learners get the results they want after walking out the classroom door. You’ve armed them with knowledge, but they still need tools to convert their intentions into actions.

Fortunately, there are some simple but effective strategies you can use to help learners do just that. One is to set up a buddy system. First, ask your learners to stop and think of a clear goal. Then, assign everyone in the class a buddy or have them choose their own buddy. Have them exchange contact information and choose a date when they’ll call each other for a check-in. They should write down questions they’ll ask during the check-in, such as “What was your goal? How have you been doing on that goal? When do you want to have it accomplished? What’s getting in your way of achieving it?” They should make a commitment to schedule regular follow-ups.

Timing is a critical factor when it comes to retention. You want learners to be using and thinking about their learning within 24 to 48 hours of the end of the class. Send learners an email within a day asking how they’re doing and if they’ve been acting on their intentions. Attach a one-page worksheet for them to fill in and send back to you. If a learner has a success story to share, you can include that story in your next follow-up email to create an incentive and capitalize on the power of community. Or you can take it even further and send a $5 gift card or other small gift to learners who successfully enacted a behavioral change. (Remember how well that chocolate bar worked earlier . . .)

Good teachers can truly change the lives of their learners. Who knows whose life you’ll change for the better by imparting your knowledge in a way that sticks, triggers an epiphany, and unlocks learners’ brilliance?

ENGAGE - Extend Learning to Action

Final Summary

Teaching is all about transforming people’s lives through learning –⁠ unlocking the inner brilliance that lies within everyone. Through the Brilliance Learning System, you create synergy between yourself –⁠ the teacher –⁠ and your learners using the content you create. That content should follow the principles of the ENGAGE model, with which you can immerse learners actively in the information you’re teaching and unleash their brilliance over time.

And here’s some actionable advice: Take care of learners in the virtual classroom.

All the principles of the Brilliance Learning System and the ENGAGE model apply equally as well to the virtual classroom as they do to physical classrooms. But, of course, there are some special considerations you should take into account when teaching online. For one, it’s more difficult to engage learners online than in a physical classroom. Excite them by mailing them a learning packet ahead of time, a workbook, and a little rubber ball that learners can fiddle with during class. Use the chat function to ask interesting and provocative questions for your learners to discuss, and have one-on-one conversations as they filter into the room to get to know them. Oh, and sending them a chocolate bar wouldn’t hurt either!

About the author

Vicki Halsey is an instructional designer, speaker, and author with experience as a teacher, counselor, and school administrator. Currently, she serves as the Vice President of Applied Learning for the Ken Blanchard Companies, which specialize in workplace learning, productivity, and leadership training. She is the coauthor of Leading at a Higher Level, The Hamster Revolution, and The Hamster Revolution for Meetings.

Dr. Vicki Halsey is vice president of applied learning for The Ken Blanchard Companies and coauthor of Blanchard’s Legendary Customer Service Training and their award-winning blended e-learning Situational Leadership II program. She also is the coauthor, with Ken Blanchard and others, of Leading at a Higher Level, as well as The Hamster Revolution and The Hamster Revolution for Meetings (with Mike Song and Tim Burress).


Reference, Writing, Research, Publishing Guides, Business, Learning

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Time for Brilliance Has Come
Chapter One: Fire Up the Synergy between Learners and Teachers
Chapter Two: Craft Content That Sings
Chapter Three: The ENGAGE Model: An Overview
Chapter Four: Energize Learners
Chapter Five: Navigate Content
Chapter Six: Generate Meaning
Chapter Seven: Apply to Real Work
Chapter Eight: Gauge and Celebrate
Chapter Nine: Extend Learning to Action
Chapter Ten: Bringing Out Brilliance in the Virtual Classroom
Conclusion: A Legacy of Learning
A: Free Assessment–The Building Excellence Survey
B: Getting Started Creating Brilliance by Design
Running a Meeting
Designing a Workshop
C: Do-It-Yourself Templates
About the Author


“Learning,” Vicki Halsey writes, “is the gateway to optimal life experiences. Learning transforms people’s lives, and teaching, in any forum, is the art and science of bringing out the brilliance that drives those transformations.”

Or it should be. But what often happens is that people who teach—in classrooms, meetings, workshops, coaching sessions, or any other setting where learning happens—don’t know how to transfer their great content to others effectively. They spend 70 percent of their time on what they are teaching and only 30 percent on how to teach it, when it should be the other way around.

Halsey is here to reverse that equation, laying out a comprehensive instructional design model that deeply engages and energizes learners because it focuses not on how smart they are but on how they are smart. She shows how to create content that is clear, relevant, easily absorbed, and readily retained because it is tailored to each participant’s specific needs, abilities, and inclinations.

Halsey’s six-step ENGAGE Model replaces the old “sit ’n’ get” model with “woo ’n’ do”—learners are actively drawn in and perform activities that reinforce the learning. She presents hundreds of proven ideas, strategies, and practices that will enable you to Energize learners at the beginning of any learning session; help them Navigate the new content and Generate personal meaning and relevance from it; Apply their learning to the real world; Gauge and celebrate their progress; and Extend their learning to action.

Brilliance by Design offers a systematic way to reach joyfully into the soul of learners and facilitate their brilliance so they can make a positive difference in the world.

  • Shows how to dramatically improve learning by making learners, not teachers, the focus of instructional design and delivery
  • Offers a model that can be adapted to any setting
  • Filled with tips, practices and tools — including a free online assessment of personal learning style

Read an Excerpt

The Time for Brilliance Has Come

Stand and Deliver is the story of Jaime Escalante, a mathematics teacher in an East Los Angeles high school who challenged his students to achieve greatness. He dared to teach with the intention of ensuring that not only would all his students graduate from high school, but also any who aspired to go to college could go. He dedicated himself to teaching his pupils how to strive and inspiring them to learn in order to reach their fullest potential.

Escalante employed innovative teaching methods that attracted the students’ attention, sparked their intelligence, and, most importantly, transformed their lives by changing their beliefs about their own talents and capabilities. Despite a wall of disapproval and disbelief, Escalante worked tirelessly to create a safe, respectful environment that constantly challenged the students to work harder, dig deeper, and reach higher plateaus of learning. Ultimately, they proved their worth to themselves and to others by passing their Advanced Placement Calculus exams in record numbers, which helped them break through the ceiling of limitations in their lives. How did Escalante do it? How did one teacher defy all odds, facilitate learning potential, and help his students transform their lives?

Be a Vision of Hope

Escalante created a mindset and a vision of hope that clearly valued learning in his classroom by consciously structuring his lessons and believing in the brilliance of his students. His deliberate learning design and genuine belief in their capabilities reframed their thinking, ignited their self-esteem, connected them to meaningful learning, and engaged them in rigorous practice to make newly acquired knowledge their own. Escalante envisioned them as hardworking students, aspiring learners, and high achievers. Then he held up the mirror so his students could see in themselves what he saw in them.

Brilliance Is a Relationship

As I read about Jaime Escalante’s students claiming their brilliance and the rewards of their hard-earned success, I felt a welling of emotions—triumph, pride, inspiration, and renewed hope—that came from a core conviction we all know: Brilliance happens when someone—a teacher, mentor, speaker, leader, coach, colleague, manager, or teammate—facilitates the talents and capabilities inside us that are waiting to emerge, helps us rise to seemingly impossible heights, and challenges us at a deep level so that we, as Learners (with a capital L), demonstrate that we can reach the summit, conquer all barriers, and unleash our brilliance over and over again. Escalante was that teacher, that leader, for his students and his community.

Who was yours? Who was your Jaime Escalante, your teacher or inspiration—the person whose influence awakened you to reframe your thinking about yourself and your life, to see yourself and to reimagine your future with new eyes?

For me, it was David Wilson, American Studies professor at the University of California-Davis. Despite my well-practiced modus operandi—doing assigned readings, discerning what the professor wanted me to learn and regurgitating it, hanging in the background and not standing out in any way, and giving most learning endeavors only a fraction of my energy—David Wilson got to me. One day, I stayed after class with a few other students to ask about an upcoming project. True to form, I let the others take charge and do the talking while I hid behind them, assuming they were smarter and more capable of speaking up and taking the lead. Truth be told, I barely listened, knowing that one of my friends would fill me in. As we were leaving, suddenly, I heard my name. “Vicki, I’d like to talk with you for a few minutes if you have time.” Red-faced and feeling the uncomfortable instantaneous presence of a cold sweat, I realized that I was no longer under the radar. Wishing I could shrink like Alice in Wonderland and slip through a rabbit hole, I mustered courage and said, “Yes, sir.”

Are You Bringing Out Brilliance?

Professor Wilson asked me a question I’ll never forget—a question that changed my world and helped me to see myself through his eyes: “How are we going to bring out the brilliance in you?” I was stumped. Brilliant? Me? But there he was, looking at me as if I were brilliant and expecting an answer. I tried what always had worked for me in the past—staying safe and muttering what I figured he wanted me to say. Suddenly, he slammed his hand on his desk and said, “I’m not interested in hearing what you think I want to hear; I want to know what you think. You.” Long, strained moments passed while he sat there staring at me, waiting for a reply. It was painful. I started to cry, knowing he had touched something inside me that I had suppressed for a long time. He gave me a tissue and really looked at me, still waiting, still expecting an answer. Finally, this wise, masterful teacher shared his vision of two different Vickis: one in class who withheld genius, and one outside of class who revealed her genius through the powerful insights she wrote in her papers. It was time, he said—time to bring out my brilliance.

And now it’s time for you to bring out the brilliance in the thousands of others who are hiding, hoping to stay under the radar, not realizing how much they have been limiting their potential by diffusing their vision. Ask yourself: What percentage of people’s brilliance am I unleashing in meetings, seminars, workshops, and keynotes? Think about it. What percentage of their full capability are people generating in your learning experiences? Are people sitting up, speaking out, asking great questions, and applying their learning as fast as they can? Or are they lying low, physically present and seemingly alert but content to listen as you do all the hard work?

Ask yourself: What percentage of people’s brilliance am I unleashing in meetings, seminars, workshops, and keynotes?

Exercise: Inspiring Brilliance

It’s time to pick up your pen and unleash inspiration. Let’s get started right now.

Writing is a great way to get your energy flowing, to explore, and to see things in a new way. Take notes right in this book or in a separate notebook. Scribble away! Feel free to use your computer and let your fingers fly as you ponder and respond to the following revealing questions. Jot down some notes for each one, or read them a few times and write a short personal story. The writing doesn’t have to be perfect; just meaningful for you. If writing feels like a barrier, talk out loud. Record your ideas with any recording device. What’s important is that you do the hard work of being totally present with your thoughts and emotions by recording or writing them down. This is the first step in connecting the intellectual rigor with the emotional engagement that unlocks brilliance in yourself and others.



  • Who has seen the brilliant you? Who helped you see yourself in a different light?
  • Who gave you the opening you needed to become who you are?
  • Who lives in your mind as a great teacher?
  • What did this person do to inspire you?
  • What did this person do to help you see yourself in a new way, accept a challenge, and be all you could be?
  • What stand out in your mind as key strategies that triggered your drive?
  • How has this influence or learning shown up and endured in your life?
  • Why is this important to you today—right now?

Awaken the Purpose

Professor Wilson’s poignant question woke me up. I was going through the motions, disconnected from myself and what was important to me. He was the spark that fired me up to do the focused work of figuring out who I am, what matters to me, and how I wanted those things to show up in my life. The resulting self-awareness connected me to my passion for learning and teaching. Without him, I might have spent my whole life playing it safe.

Each individual is a unique combination of talents and life experiences. It’s easy for gifts or talents to become temporarily or even permanently lost in the litany of perceived expectations and obligations on any given day. David Wilson forced me to connect more authentically to myself; every day since, I’ve realized a little more of my talent and skill in teaching and that designing high-impact learning initiatives is my passion. We all thrive on watching others come alive through learning and moving their learning into action. The skill of teaching is not innate in everyone, but bringing out the best in others can be learned. As teachers, our core purpose is to unleash brilliance—to facilitate greatness in others directly in every learning situation we lead and indirectly by training others in the art and science of teaching.

Together we can help people claim their greatness, and we can create stimulating, safe environments that facilitate the gifts of a multitude of learners so that each of them can discover and feel what it is like to make a unique contribution while moving through his or her daily life.

Help people claim their greatness.

Design a Structure That Supports Optimal Learning

Now is the time to leverage optimal learning practices. People who have a hint of curiosity await the opportunity to challenge themselves to greater meaning in their lives through new learning. Tired of sitting mindlessly in virtual or physical classrooms, meetings, or trainings, many learners are rebelling. They are finding their own ways to stimulate their brains through multitasking or going on vacations of the mind; in other words, they are showing up physically but checking out mentally. Successful people in all aspects of life and in all levels of organizations seek new learning to be current and competitive and to thrive as high performers.

A 2006 article in Training Journal reported results from a study in the United Kingdom that showed 80 percent of workers “believe training is the key to developing their careers despite many being unhappy with the quality of sessions provided.” The same study of 500 businesses and 1,300 staff also found “more than three-quarters of workers see training as a key benefit when looking for a job.” This research, which was part of a broader study in Europe of more than 1,000 businesses and 4,000 workers from Britain, France, and Germany, found similar results in all three countries.1

Your challenge: Capture the attention of these learners. Make a sacred pact. Teach and help them learn new content in a way that fully engages them and makes it possible for them to use this knowledge, do their best work, and build lasting results. At the same time, you will be creating empowered communities and organizations of strong individuals armed with new, life-changing knowledge. Like Jaime Escalante, are you determined and ready to seize the moment, to rebalance the learning equation in order to unlock brilliance in your learners and teach them so that they learn at a higher level? Your learners are. They are waiting for you.

Brilliance Learning System: How It Works

The Brilliance Learning System, represented in Figure I.1, is an educational system that will help you structure your teaching so that you maximize every learning opportunity for yourself and your learners. The system is based on three essential components that work together:

  • The WHO: People (Learners and Teachers)
  • The WHAT: Content (Ideas and Information)
  • The HOW: ENGAGE Learning Design Model (Strategies and Tools)

Each of these components is distinct and important. However, their true strength and effectiveness are in their relationship with each other. As learners and teachers, we can do a lot to be our best and bring out the best in others. We can prepare our content so that it is accessible, interesting, and meaningful. And we can ENGAGE learners and immerse them in the content by means of a learning design that includes strategies and tools that support their absorption of knowledge and extend to successful application.


Figure I.1 The Brilliance Learning System

Energy Drives Learning

Let’s look at Figure I.1 again. Notice the words in the intersecting triangles that form where the circles overlap: Connect, Inspire, and Engage. These core elements emerge with the intersection of the WHO, the WHAT, and the HOW. They set in motion and sustain the all-important flow of energy that produces vital relationships, fires up the brilliance zone in learners, and results in optimal learning experiences. You and your learners connect with each other and the content in many ways and on many levels. You continuously inspire and then engage your learners. This cycle is an unending process throughout the ENGAGE Model, and it is vital to the Brilliance Learning System.

Just as our blood circulates through our bodies in an intentional, continuous flow that sustains our life, the Brilliance Learning System sets in motion a learning energy that cycles in a constant stream and builds enthusiasm, openness, active involvement, meaning, and knowledge. It maximizes our openness to learning. This openness and engagement moves us to greater depths of understanding so that ultimately learners embody the knowledge and make it their own. The powerful language and practice will free innate knowledge to connect to the new learning and release more clarity about how to move forward with this new understanding.

The ENGAGE Model

At the heart of the effectiveness of the Brilliance Learning System is the ENGAGE Model, the Learning Design component. The most salient principle of the model is what I think of as a radical shift or revolution in how we think of most classroom models: Whoever is teaching is doing the learning. Therefore, the ENGAGE Model is rich with abundant opportunities for learners to practice through teaching, actively building their own knowledge. Your role is to facilitate learning. You start as the “master teacher,” but your main role is to give enough information to enable the learner to work with and practice the new content. As you take a step back into the role of coach or guide, the learners themselves begin to teach the new content, garnering a deeper understanding, building confidence, releasing their brilliance, and making the new knowledge their own. Through this highly interactive process, you catalyze your learners to master the content you present so they can take their newly attained knowledge out into the world, generate enthusiasm for it, apply it, practice it, and avidly teach and share it—thereby maximizing your content and extending your reach.

Whoever is teaching is doing the learning.

Learning Fuels Life

Learning is a constant in our lives—a continuous journey. It requires self-discipline, dedication, hard work, and practice. Be forewarned. As with any evolution that involves change, this endeavor will not be easy. It is hard work. Like Jaime Escalante, it will require you to be relentless and mindful, positive and joyful. People will come to you eager and impatient for more—because once they experience being their best and bringing out brilliance in others, they will not settle for less.


“This is the book I have been waiting half my life for. Now millions of leaders, educators, coaches, therapists—all of us in the business of growing people—have an opportunity to read and apply it. It’s that essential, that important.” – Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, University of Southern California, and author of Still Surprised

“Vicki Halsey is Blanchard’s master learning conductor. This book is a treasure for all of us who want to ‘borrow’ Vicki’s thirty years of innovative design and delivery experience!” – Ken and Margie Blanchard, bestselling authors and cofounders, The Ken Blanchard Companies

“Vicki’s Brilliance Learning System plays a fundamental role in the creation of all our training. Her ENGAGE Model has enabled us to revolutionize the learner’s experience.” – Marcus Buckingham, New York Times bestselling author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work andCEO, TMBC

“Brilliance by Design is a contagious and disruptive book. Vicki’s deeply personal, passionate, and reality-based approach, complemented by emerging neurosciences, calls for a radical departure from traditional learning methods. It is an inspiration.” – Bruce H. Price, MD, Chief, Department of Neurology, McLean Hospital, and Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School

“Fresh, engaging, and spirited…connects us all to our innate brilliance and shows us how to bring out the best in ourselves and in others.” – Lisa Dokos, Director, Leadership and Organization Development, GlaxoSmithKline

“You will never teach the same way again!” – Keith Ferrazzi, CEO, Ferrazzi Greenlight, and author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone

“Start a learning and performance revolution. Teach, learn, and lead so people release their brilliance with Vicki’s models, stories, and insights.” – Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned executive coach and author of the New York Times bestsellers Mojo and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

“Dr. Halsey reminds us that what is learned is more important than what is taught and that learning takes place in the heart and mind of the student, not the teacher.” – Sheldon Harris, former President, Cold Stone Creamery

“This powerful book reminds us that every business, political, or nonprofit leader is a teacher while providing the necessary tools to unleash brilliance in way that excites, inspires, and empowers our people. Brilliance by Design could truly be the difference between success and failure. “ – Betsy Myers, former Executive Director, Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership

“This is not a book about just training or teaching. It’s about touching lives, creating lasting confidence, and igniting people’s innate curiosity. If you are an educator, a consultant, a counselor, or a parent, or if you simply care about the personal and professional development of another, this is a must-read.” – Christopher Granger, Senior Vice President, Team Marketing and Business Operations, National Basketball Association

“Teach anyone anything with Vicki’s Brilliance Learning System. I LUV it!” – Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus, Southwest Airlines, and coauthor of Lead with LUV

“No fluff, no fantasy! If you want to expand your influence as a leader, learn from a rock star in the training community how to ENGAGE people. Vicki Halsey delivers a powerful model that works. That’s why companies from all over the world are using her approach. If your desire is to increase your ROI on training and creating a culture where learning changes lives, Brilliance by Design is your blueprint.” – Kevin and Jackie Freiberg, coauthors of Nuts! and Boom!

“This book, filled with aha moments, is impossible to put down.” – Jan Baldwin, Co-CEO, Nth Generation Computing

“I’ve had the good fortune to experience Vicki’s Brilliance Learning System directly, and I have brought it to WD-40 Company. When given a window into their own brilliance, your people will develop faster, learn more, and innovate at the highest level.” – Garry Ridge, President and CEO, WD-40 Company, and coauthor of Helping People Win at Work

“Vicki leads us to the summit of true enlightenment and expertly shows us how to uncork the brilliance that lies in every person.” – Simon T. Bailey, author of Release Your Brilliance

“Brilliantly written, easily understood, and a model for life-changing impact. Vicki’s work with us at the San Diego Padres Guest Service Training to a staff of 2,000 employees and follow-up implementation evolved into one of the most talked-about fan experiences anywhere in the world.” – Richard L. Andersen, CFE, President and CEO, Northlands

“Brilliance by Design presents a proven and powerful educational design strategy. The concepts are simple and the rewards are infinite.” – Jim Irvine, Manager, Talent Management and Organizational Learning, Nissan North America

“This book will inspire every educator to engage every learner.” – Marc Muchnick, author of No More Regrets!

“Unmatched in the arena of adult learning, Brilliance by Design is the culmination of best practices in one easy, juicy, digestible resource. Like Vicki herself, this book is a gift.” – Victoria Cabot, Director of Field Operations, Vistage International

“This book should be required reading for all school administrators and teachers! Vicki blows traditional teaching methods out of the water by exposing a new generation of educational strategies that focus on delivery to ensure content mastery.” – Melissa Holdaway, CEO and President, Arizona Charter Academy

“If every instructional designer, trainer, and teacher followed Vicki’s principles, we’d all be leading richer lives filled with many more brilliant moments of our own.” – Steve Farber, author of The Radical Leap and Greater Than Yourself

“Vicki’s ‘secret sauce’ is in how her ENGAGE process validates the uniqueness of each participant, liberating people to discover their native brilliance and to help others do the same.” – Larry Ackerman, author of Identity Is Destiny and The Identity Code

“A must-have for leaders, teachers, and learning departments committed to bringing out the best in people development, learning transfer, and application.” – Bill Dickinson, Vice President for Sales Training and Development, CareFusion

“Whether you are a university professor, kindergarten teacher, motivational speaker, or corporate trainer, the multidimensional ENGAGE Model provides powerful insights on how to craft meaningful and life-changing learning experiences.” – R. Joseph Childs, DBA, Dean, College of Business and Legal Studies, Southeastern University

“Vicki’s passion is clear and contagious—the opening chapters read like a wonderful manifesto for the power of learning.” – Kevin Eikenberry, author of Remarkable Leadership

“To see Vicki facilitate a workshop is to see a master in her element—it’s a thing of high energy, optimism, and possibilities. I witnessed the transformative effect her approach had on participants at Save the Children. One of her simple truths, ‘The one who is doing the talking is doing the learning,’ is a brilliant and real contribution to the learning industry.” – Justin Birtwell, Director, Global Workforce Learning and Development, Save the Children

“It’s not only being an expert in what you teach but also understanding the impact of how you teach that can help you change the lives of those you serve. Brilliant, engaging, and powerful.” – Peter Winick, CEO,

“Fractal in nature, comprehensive in content, and truly brilliant in design!” – Shutopa Das, Learning and Performance Coach, Welk Resorts

“Vicki’s zest for teaching and bringing out the brilliance in others is absolutely addictive. I know I will have to read this book at least twice and maybe three times to make sure I’ve dog-eared all the right pages and captured everything I can out of it.” – Brian Hennessy, Learning and Organizational Development Consultant, Sentry Insurance

“As an academic scientist, I know that making discoveries requires that I bring out the brilliance in my students. This book will help me to more effectively teach and lead, whether in one-on-one situations or in large lecture halls.” – Sandra L. Schmid, Professor and Chair, Department of Cell Biology, The Scripps Research Institute

“Amazing, useful, and so needed—this is the book the training world has been waiting for! Vicki’s passion for creating supremely effective training comes through in every word.” – Mike Song, CEO,, and coauthor of The Hamster Revolution

“When embraced, the concepts, models, and tools in this bookwill create a learning environment that will serve employees, drive change, and improve results in any organization.” – Terry McCune, President, K-Tube Corporation

“Vicki’s book puts theory into practice and is the most important book you will read as a teacher and learner—period!” – Bob Lorber, coauthor of Who Are You? What Do You Want? and Putting The One Minute Manager to Work

“How many boring lectures have we all attended, pretending to watch the speaker but completely tuned out? This never has to happen again. Astutely written, insightful, and utterly practical, Brilliance by Design reveals the secrets to optimizing adult learning processes. Vicki writes using the very principles she is explaining. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put it down.” – Jesse Stoner, coauthor of Full Steam Ahead!

“At Grand Canyon University, students rave about Vicki’s sessions. In this book she translates and explains what she does, making it accessible to all who teach.” – Taylor Carr, former Director, Ken Blanchard Executive MBA Program, Grand Canyon University

“Brilliance by Design is a must for anyone who is responsible for helping others excel and can be used to impact small groups or hundreds of participants.” – Mike Nation, Senior Vice President, Colorado State Bank and Trust

“Despite my numerous years of teaching, I find that Dr. Halsey’s book brings a fresh perspective to my craft and a renewed enthusiasm to my students.” – Lisa Smedley, biology teacher, Rancho Bernardo High School

“This book has enabled me to foster and develop a culture of learning within my organization. The brilliance is in the design.” – Jeff Lindeman, SPHR, MSEL, Director of Human Resources, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

“I was able to employ immediately many of the strategies in my sessions. This book will definitely be my primary training guide.” – Michael L. Jury, Training and Development Specialist, General Dynamics NASSCO

“Having had the privilege of learning from Vicki in the classroom, I am excited to bring her formula for successful teaching to our agency. Brilliant!” – Robert Finn, MBA, Chief of Police, City of Southlake, Texas

“This book will maximize your training investment!” – Marty Draude, Director, Learning and Development, Avnet, Inc.

“Vicki’s models are powerful and can be useful tools to anchor and shape your total experience of life.” – Novalena J. Betancourt, author of The Total Female Package

“As a result of reading Brilliance by Design, I improved my ability to learn, teach, and lead in the workplace. Most importantly, I was able to transfer the lessons enforced in the text to improve my role as parent to my two pre-adolescent children.” – Curtis F. Manriquez, President, CFM Real Estate Services, Inc.

“Brilliance by Design is about knowing my own brilliance and caring for myself so that I can bring out the brilliance in others. Vicki lives what she has written.” – Kevin Bullard, board member, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro

“The nuggets from this book have caused me to see my unique opportunity to be brilliant, and its truths have caused me to see this in others.” – David Burk, Ken Blanchard Executive MBA Program, Cohort 7, Grand Canyon University

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