Busted: Ten Conference Adult Learning Myths

In conference and meeting environments, attendees receive more messages and content from attending six to eight hours of presentations than a typical day of being bombarded by advertising, direct mail, radio and TV. Duplicate that day two or three times, and you have a mind that is flooded with messages and information on excessive conference overload. 

But how many of those messages are remembered? How many are actually learned and retained? 

Here are ten conference adult learning myths – busted.


Myth 1: In order to learn, some portion of the attendee’s anatomy must be in contact with a chair at all times.
Fact: Attendee’s ability to learn diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend sitting.

Myth 2: The attendee that does the most listening does the most learning.
Fact: The person doing the most talking–or moving, writing–is doing the most learning. 

Myth 3: The best way to teach and present is to be the “sage on stage” and give information in a well-planned lecture.
Fact: If conference presenters want someone to “hear” something, they lecture. If conference presenters want someone to “learn it,” they should be the “guide on the side” and involve attendees in discussion and activity. 

Myth 4: If conference attendees would only listen, they would remember more.
Fact: Vision trumps listening in learning. Repeating the information out loud increases the chances of retention. In order to learn anything well, attendees need to talk about it with each other and “do” it a number of times.

 Myth 5: The more serious the conference topic is, the more the attendee will remember.
Fact: Attendees learn–and remember–the best when there is an emotional connection.  Storytelling and laughter help make conference sessions memorable. 

Myth 6: Fun is only marginal to learning during a conference.
Fact: Not only do conference attendees learn best and remember more when they are having fun, they will also be more willing to seek other challenging learning experiences when fun and humor is involved 

Myth 7: The only person who should be a presenter or “sage on stage” is the expert in the field.
Fact:  The gap between the presenter and attendee has shrunk. Often the attendees know more than the presenters. And, not all experts make good presenters. Actually, most experts have poor facilitation skills and make lousy presenters. 

Myth 8: The more times an attendee hears an exhibitor or sponsor’s message broadcast at a conference, the more likely they’ll remember it and buy from that vendor.
Fact: A Harvard study stays that people can only remember 8-12 messages a day. The messages attendees remember are emotional, enthusiastic and entertaining, interesting and relevant.  You’ll get further by being humble and authentic, than showing off that video marketing is so proud of. 

Myth 9: The focus during conference sessions should be on how people present and teach.
Fact: The focus should be on the attendee, how they learn, how they retain information and sessions should be designed with the attendee’s learning in mind, not the speaker’s presentation. 

Myth 10: There is only one best way to teach (lecturing) or learn (listening) in all conferences and meetings.
Fact: Every adult has a different way they prefer to learn. Lecturing and listening have the least amount of ROI of all the different learning strategies. 

What conference attendee adult learning myth would you bust? What adult learning facts do you wish more conference organizers used?

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  3. Amen to all 10 – “Guide on the side” – love that!

    A masterful facilitator taps the wealth of knowledge in the room, sparks peer-to-peer sharing, and makes it stick!

    MYTH: With the right prompts & tools, almost anyone can facilitate a session.

    REALITY: Facilitation is an art that takes years of study, practice and tweaking to master.

  4. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    There are a number of these that are .. well, myths in their corrections.
    For example – myth #2: It depends on one’s learning preferences and styles. I use inventories with groups that help them discern their styles. It would be great if sessions could be planned and delivered based on content & learning needs. For some people, just listening or just writing will work. Me? An aural learner who needs to talk it out.

    Myth #3 — again, it depends. For some people and, generalizing broadly, some professions where this has been the delivery method and is considered the norm, there is a need for this kind of session. What can bust the paradigm (did I really just say that?!) is to have facilitated follow up sessions to the “sage” to discuss and for those who want to, figure out applications for what was learned.

    Myth #4 — Not sure where you got your stats. The ones I have say that seeing trumps hearing and seeing AND hearing trumps just one, and the best is to teach and we learn best! So we need to train everyone to facilitate, eh?

    Myth #5 — it’s even written in this one about the emotional connection. *I* need laughter .. and I can also connect to serious and heartfelt.

    Some of the others seem to repeat some of what’s above.. and maybe that was the idea! LOL — reinforcement?!

    Good stuff. Thanks.

  5. How about the one that says people should retain what they learn at a one-time event with no reinforcements?

    I remember reading somewhere that it takes about seven “touches” for a message to sink in for the average person, yet we expect people to retain huge chunks of information thrown at them quickly, one time, in teeny tiny PowerPoint type, with no time to digest or discuss it. If you really want it to stick, send reminders, give people checklists or other take-homes, provide further info a week later, etc.

  6. Timothy Arnold says:

    How about the myth that a dark room with a Power Point presentation is condusive for learning anything? Take any conference you have ever been to and think of the opening general session. Chances are good you remember nothing about it, because they are almost all the same. Dark room, speakers introducing other speakers who introduce still more, some loud music playing, and screens on either side of the stage looping the same tired Powerpoint.
    Yawn, please put me out of my misery.
    Now think of the sessions where you learned the most, chances are VERY good that there was tons of interaction and talking from all parts of the room. Ideas were flowing from all over. Many times, this never even happened in a conference room, but at a table over food, or in a courtyard at a conference hotel, or in many cases for me, in the seating area directly outside of the general session while it is going on.

  7. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Timothy — I concur. I also know that interaction is not the way everyone learns regardless of research! I purchased the rights to use the V(isual)R(ead-write)A(ural)K(inesthetic) inventory. It is pretty remarkable and helps people understand more. I recommend it.

    Re dark rooms — I avoid almost all general sessions bec. they are almost always in large dark rooms w/ chairs set in rows!

    Timothy — what you talked about is “open space technology’, a term and method coined by Harrison Owen in the ’80s. That and World Cafe and “UnConference” are terms and methods many are using.

    JEFF: do add others!

    Great discussion -thanks!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Love the comment about a master facilitator tapping the wealth of knowledge in the room, sparks peer to peer shaing and makes it stick. So true! Thanks for adding that.

      Thanks for the reinforcement and adding to the discussion. So true, so true.

      Yep, there’s that reinforcement issue again. Seven touches before it sinks in yes. Teeny tiny PowerPoint type = fail for sure!

      What, we don’t have to be in dark rooms? But how will I sleep with the boring presenter? Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  8. […] Last, but of course not least, Jeff Hurt busted 10 conference adult learning myths in a great post this week. Did you know that fun and laughter are keys to helping attendees […]

  9. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    ‘@Jeff – thanks for the kind comments.

    About “master facilitators” a few random thoughts:
    – few people who “facilitate” or moderate sessions — or who even speak in/at sessions – really facilitate the learning that goes on. It requires having a different mind set than the “sage on the stage” and asking questions and helping those in the audience clarify their thoughts and statements.
    – few facilities (sometimes for fire safety or other policies) really understand how to set rooms that provide max. learning environments AND many people do not know how to use diff. learning environments, so used to what they are .. well, used to! (Example: for the ethics session Kelly Bagnall & I facilitated at PCMA, our room was set in the round. Most people sat facing only one of the screens — on the wall they perceived as the ‘back’ wall!)
    – For those who want to learn more, read Harrison Owen on open space; attend and participate in the annual meeting of the Intl. Assn .of Facilitators (www.iaf-world.org), this year in Chi. in April. (It’s not a fancy conf.; it is a conf. at which I always learn new techniques to use in my work and meet amazing people w/ whom to share ideas.)

  10. Justin Locke says:

    Once upon a time, far far away, in the great land of Conventionalia, there lived a small group of elf-like creatures that were known simply as “The Planners.”

    They lived simply, giving much to all who came to them, asking for little in return, and were loved by all.

    All, of course, except the dreaded Clientulas.

    The Clientulas were very frightening and ferocious creatures. They were constantly hungry, and they would eat a Planner all up if they caught one. Fortunately, this almost never happened, as the Planners were much too clever for them.

    One day, a little Planner was walking about when he accidentally walked into clearing in the forest, and he found himself surrounded by a dozen of the dreaded Clientulas. There were no holes to jump into, no trees to run up into. It looked very bad.

    “Ho, ho, ho,” said the Clientulas,” We have you trapped with no where to run, and now we are going to eat you all up.”

    “Well can I just say one thing before you eat me?” asked the little Planner.

    “Sure, but make it snappy, we’re hungry,” said the Clientulas.

    And so the little planner began to tell them the story of the first Clientula. Of course, the Clientulas were fascinated to hear a story about themselves. Soon they were all talking amongst themselves and telling the little planner other stories about ancient Clientulas. They were so excited they forgot about how hungry they were, and the little planner was able to slip away.

    The end.

    The moral of the story is, you can best grab an audience’s attention by telling stories. – jl

  11. Howard says:

    Oh some meetings and conferences can be just soul destroying and often a waste of good participants time and money. One way we overcame such meetings was to involve a facilitator to guide and lead our team to a more productive status. Interesting we learned loads more about each others professional approaches and working styles during these sessions that the ten years we had been working and meeting together.

  12. […] found at Midcourse Corrections and entitled: Busted: 10 Conference Adult Learning Myths I love the following because it sums up quite nicely everything about the way I was always taught […]

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