Connecting The Dots Critical To Brain-Friendly Conference Learning

Do you remember the children’s activity connect the dots?

This paper and pencil puzzle contained a sequence of numbered or lettered dots. Your task was to draw a line connecting dots in the right series so that the outline of an object was revealed.

As we got older, the dot to dot activities became more complex. Sometimes we had to solve math problems or interpret symbols to identify the next dot in the chain.

Your Brain’s Web Of Connected Dots

Your memories are like large dot to dot webs of data connecting information in your brain.

Think of your memories as huge fishing nets made of connecting points of data from different parts of your brain. The more you are able to connect new information with past information, the thicker that part of the fishing net. The more connections that you can make, the more likely you will be able to retrieve that information in the future.

Whenever you mentally start connecting the dots, you trigger your brain’s hippocampus, the traffic cop for learning. The hippocampus then sets into motion the transfer of the new information into long-term memory.

Learning Starts With Connecting Dots In The Brain

In order for us to learn something, we must be able to connect the dots. We must associate new information with our past experiences and previous knowledge in our brains.

If we don’t, the information is not moved from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. If we don’t get the opportunity to think about the information and associate it with memories we already have, the new information is quickly forgotten. (So, factor that into your meeting ROI equations!)

Lectures Are Life-Threatening To Learning And Destroy The Ability To Connect Dots

The precarious challenge that every conference organizer must face is that our conferences need less teaching, less presenting, less speaking and more time dedicated to connecting the dots. Our conference participants need more time to think about the information and generate associations with existing knowledge.

Listening passively to lectures is life-threatening to learning. You brain is not hardwired to listen and think at the same time. It cannot connect new information to past knowledge if it is still listening.

To create more connecting of the dots, we simply need to get people talking to each other about ideas. When you start associating new information with old, your brain’s hippocampus ignites. Then it transforms new information into long-term memory, connecting the dots.

Practical Conference Steps To Encourage Connecting The Dots

It’s time for conference organizers to evaluate how much time attendees spend listening versus generating (connecting the dots). We need dedicated time for both. Currently, the majority of our conference schedules are dedicated to listening, which by itself slays learning.

  1. Ask presenters to cut their content in half. Encourage them to allow their listeners time to discuss salient points.
  2. Give participants time to create ownership of the new content. Ask listeners to associate or contextualize the new information with their own experiences.

In short, conference participants will gain greater value if they are presented with an idea and then asked to frame it and express how it affects them. Asking the listener to consider situations where they could apply the new information or to make decisions about future actions based on the new data incites and excites the brain.

For more information:
Using AGES To Design Brain Friendly Conferences
Creating A Brain-Friendly Not Brain-Adverse Event
Learning That Lasts Through The AGES, white paper by Neuroscientists Dr. Lila Davachi, Dr. Tobias Keifer and Dr. David Rock

What are some practical steps you can do to create conference experiences that create more connecting of the dots? What implications do brain association and generation have on the average conference schedule?


  1. says

    Connecting the dots has always been one of my mantras in multiple businesses.

    When you are successful at being able to give that experience, then you are on your way to being more profitable.

    What is your favorite way to recognize when it is time to stop and help your audience connect some dots?

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Great question! I build into all my presentations places to stop and allow the audience to connect the dots. I typically present for 10-20 minutes and then stop to allow them to discuss how the information applies to them. If I do this on a regular basis, I don’t have to wait for cues from my audience that they have reached saturation.

      What are some of the tips you use to know when it’s time to stop and allow your audience to connect the dots?

  2. Kathy Sierra says

    This is excellent advice for events where the primary focus *is* learning. For many conferences, though, the kinds of presentations are more about “briefings” or even lessons learned by the presenters, where the goal is to provide pointers (and perhaps the spark of motivation) to follow-up if the person wants more info. In a classroom, I could not agree more with your notion of cut the content in half and allow for discussion and dot-connections. That is precisely how I would run a conference workshop.

    But in normal “sessions”, there are many reasons why this approach could limit what the attendees are getting. Everything I do NOT like in a class scenario (e.g. where the material is “covered” and participants are “exposed”) is often exactly what makes sense for everyone in a conference session. They get one chance to be “exposed” to people and ideas they might not otherwise see or hear from, and get a quick look at a wide range of ideas and things so they can then make a plan for what they want to follow-up on later (including, sometimes, vendor offerings).

    I think Glory Gery wrote some kind of typology of the different kinds of “sessions” people might be in, and the first two were better served by plain old presentations, though the trend now is to often have conference sessions be even shorter. A 15 or 20 minute session is a reflection of accepting that a conference presentation is generally not meant to help you really *learn* new things, so it does not try.

    In my conference talks that are keynotes, I do usually try for very brief interactions, but that is for a different brain-friendly purpose, not to facilitate better learning. But as I said, if I am doing a workshop, then everything you said applies perfectly. My worst mistakes are when I run a workshop more like a really long keynote. Nobody benefits from this!

    • Jeff Hurt says


      Thanks for reading and providing feedback.

      You said that in normal conference sessions, the approach of connecting the dots could limit what attendees receive. What is being limited? And how so?


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