The Conference Session Is Dead

The conference session is not the appropriate shell for most learning experiences.

The sixty- or ninety-minute presentation was created for the convenience of the institution, not the learner.

The conference session is a triumph of standardization and it is so ingrained in our thinking we still buy and sell seat time rather than performance improvement. It’s the industrial revolution model, which puts a higher value of efficiency than on effectiveness. It clearly was not designed for the brain to be active and engaged. Instead it was designed to fit nicely into a session track grid and for the brain to be passive.

Let’s face it; most employers don’t care about learning. They care about results. We all win when our conference delivers education that leads to improved results.

Their bottom line is organizational performance, not individual enlightenment.

They may talk about and support professional development with their employees. Yet in the boardroom results always trump learning.

So why haven’t we blown up the traditional conference model and updated it for a knowledge workforce and digital age? Why haven’t we added elements borrowed from successful unconferences and interactive unique learning formats?

Most conference sessions by their very nature are face-to-face talking head lectures. Conference organizers seek everything possible to support their high-grade face-to-face experience which falls flat if the presenter is not dynamic. Or it does not offer relevant takeaways.

Most conferences provide a broadcast mode all the way, with one-way monologues and panelist dialoguing with each other. Telling the audience how it is or why last year was so crappy. It’s undynamic and the attempt to take questions from the audience does not equate a discussion. The audience is creative, bright, thoughtful and their brains are being numbed to death by one-way talk. (Read more on Scott Gould’s thoughts about The Social-Broadcast Matrix.)

Conferences should provide a variety of blended learning experiences for attendees. Not just the sixty- or ninety-minute conference session. It may include storytelling, lectures, table discussions, group process, a site tour, OpenSpace, content broken into chunks and dispersed throughout several days, hands-on exercises, simulations and more. It will include a balance of formal and informal formats. The conference sophistication comes in concocting the appropriate blend to fit the conference audience.

The key ingredient is interaction. Interaction is the glue that holds all the pieces together. It comes in many forms–not just instructor to learner. It may be content-to-learner, learner-to-learner or learner-to-infrastructure. In today’s digital, social world, you’ll see audience gravitas if you intentionally facilitate and become the conduit to more person-to person interaction that you have in the past.

Interaction can create an experience so compelling that it makes attendees hungry to learn and drives otherwise sane people to pay $4 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

I say, “Conference sessions are dead,” for shock value. They have a role to play. But I hope conference organizers cease using traditional lecture-based presentations or panels as the knee-jerk solution whenever we think of conference learning.

We need to crush the old paradigm of workshop leader spoon-feeding participants in every conference session. We need to provide a blend of learning opportunities and let the attendees choose the type of learning experience they want. We need to let them roll up their sleeves, participate and get involved.

Don’t you think? Or do you still want to attend a conference full of sessions with monologue lectures from talking heads?

What’s your take? And please do share some examples of great conference interaction that you’ve experienced lately.

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  2. Don’t you think?

    I’ll leave aside that you might mean ‘Don’t you agree?’

    Don’t you think?

    As in ‘Don’t you matter?’ or Don’t you have something to add? or ‘Don’t you deserve to get more in exchange for your time?’

    Cogito ergo, I want more!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your comment. I sometimes forget that colloquialisms don’t always translate well. I like all of questions you added and think they have great relevance.

      That’s a great stat, right? Adding the discussion small group format following a thought leader is a sure way to get people enegage, increase interaction and amazingly increase retention. I like your model too!

      Thanks for the great comment. I’m diggin’ your thoughts that “…it’s a shock that some organizations need today to make sure they are here tomorrow.” Appreciate it.

  3. Scott Gould says:

    Hi Jeff

    Thanks for the link!

    The stat that I keep repeating to myself is that if you discuss what you’ve just heard from a keynote, you increase retention to what, 90%?

    I think we let our ego get in the way – as speakers and as conference organisers – and we try to push “world class content”

    But when we realise that people remember less of what was said and more of how they felt, this really does dent our ego values!

    I certainly don’t want to attend a conference of talking heads. I know my insights are valuable and should be heard too!

    With this is mind, I’m thinking about a model where there is a keynote (person-to-people), followed by a unconference mode of sorts (people-to-people) that is limited in time, in order to let people discuss and share their thoughts.

  4. Chris Bonney says:

    What a fantastic post. Things that I have thought but could never articulate the way you do. While you say you wrote “dead” for shock value, it’s a shock that some organizations need today to make sure they are here tomorrow. UnTech10 was a shining example of an alternative to the traditional. Thanks for raising this important point.

  5. Mati says:

    No Talking Heads! While they may have fantastic information to share and some may even be dynamic the take away is not as valuable as an engaging,interactive experience.
    A strange example but it makes it’s point: I had a teacher in elementary school that taught us about the gold rush, but unlike all the other teachers he had us go through a simulation. 1. it was fun 2. we all passed the test 3.we learnt more than just facts we experienced them, including emotional side 4. I still remember the event, details and even the teachers name (and it was a really really long time ago
    Not every “session” has to be a simulation, but you get the idea. Bonus points if your “session” helps attendees connect with each other and extend the benefits.

  6. ‘@Scott
    Interesting that you should pin this on ego. It may come across that way sometimes, but maybe it’s more than that.

    I know that I personally have felt that pressure of having to cram two days worth of learning into 90 minutes. And I commit so much time to letting the audience interact with each other and with me that I seem to come up short on time, every time.

    I would love it if my sessions were deemed “Knowledge Sharings”, rather than an educational or classroom session. This moniker creates a source of stress as I feel a burden of being the “teacher” rather than just a leader in helping all of us share knowledge. I suppose that I then feel I must get everything in my head into the heads of my participants.

    If that makes any sense?

    @Jeff Another funny thought I just had is that the old model of conference sessions you describe are more like watching daytime talk shows – and isn’t afternoon TV at least partly to blame for lazy minds and big behinds? (omg, I cannot believe I just typed that)

    You just made me think about how much I detest passively squirming in uncomfortable chairs, watching a panel discuss their issues and/or brilliance as we munch on bon bons in solitude because it is verboten that we should chat with a neighbor to our left! Especially bad is when you feel like you might possibly have more to add than one of the panelists, haha!

    Scott, in this case you definitely have the ego situation right 🙂

    As usual, interesting and thought-provoking post.
    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl

  7. Brian Slawin says:

    I was all ready to put up a “no he didn’t” response to your post, until I read your thoughts, Jeff. Once again, your writing is clear and searingly right on.

    Much like what we see on eventprofs, times and thinking are changing. New tools, new ideas and at some level an evangelists passion for making the march forward.

    So, how long until it changes? How long until we see the creep of progress? Will we eventually see a sea change in thinking (like the explosion of Twitter) or will it be the slow progress of people like you making the case for what should be all too obvious.

    As a recovering college professor, I recall way too many days of lecture and notes followed by, luckily, lab work where the student got hands on ‘learning’. No matter how good a teacher I was in front of a class, I was an even better teacher helping, watching, mentoring and encouraging, in the lab.

    Ideally, conference sessions could last an entire semester – unfortunately, when we present we only have 90 minutes. So, how to make those 90 minutes the engaging learning experience we all want, and of which you so eloquently write, is the challenge.

    “The emperor has no clothes!” and it becomes more obvious that in order to provide the value the events business model needs, things must change.

    Thanks, again!!!

  8. Justin Locke says:

    well full disclosure, as one of those talking heads . . .

    one example of fab class / learner interaction that i see all the time is dance workshops. famous names offer the workshops, and they are very much the “draw,” but then everyone gets in 2 concentric circles and each “move” is done with a partner in the class. Then every 2 min or so “followers rotate,” i.e. you are then paired with a different person. sometimes you get paired with someone way below you, sometimes way above. Of course it’s such a visual/physical activity that the instructor can see and comment on what folks are doing.

    Of course there is always a problem in that you have a few people who think they know how to do things and they start coaching others when they really have no idea what they are talking about. And not everyone feels safe, or is willing to be terribly open, with strangers. These are the kinds of dangers that a good workshop leader must anticipate and overcome. The default for a crowd of strangers is to be passive, to react and not act. at the other end, getting lots of crowd interaction going without losing all control is tricky.

    i absolutely agree that the top-down hierarchy-is-the-message teaching model is obsolete as a tool for teaching content, but it still appeals to those who are at the top of the hierarchy! So it shall remain for a while. That said, it doesn’t mean that a simple stand-up lecture format can’t be used to get fab results. We just have to accept the fact that some presenters are more equal than others, and part of the fix is that presenters should be held to a much higher standard, of both content and performance ability.

  9. Oh, dear, Justin. If I was a participant in that session I would wither and crawl under the nearest table. That sounds like hell. I do NOT like having to do this type of thing in front of other people (of course, if you asked me to do the same thing on the dance floor after a stout pint of my favorite lager, wellllll, that’s another story). I guess dancing just isn’t my thing in a room of learning 🙂

    However, I do agree that there are absolutely those who are at the top of the hierarchy and have so much knowledge and wisdom to share that there is nothing wrong with them talking for a while. I also agree that the stand-up lecture format still is a potent tool in the right hands. There is no match for a true orator – or even a lecturer who has passion and energy and cares about the results for their audience. I loved those courses in college, even if the professor did stand and talk for a full two hours three times a week…

  10. Sylvia says:

    Amen, still struggling with getting those trying to impart technical material to think this way. content type should not matter though right? It is all about the experience!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for commenting. It’s amazing that many of our elementary teachers understood that learning was more than passive listening. For some reason, when we became adults, we discount the ways we learned in elementary school as just that…elementary. Yet, there is great truth still there on how we learn. I love your Gold Rush story. Drives the point home.

      Oh yes I did! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and adding your input. Greatly appreciate it.

      I always enjoy seeing your perspective.

      So here’s my question for you. In the scenario that Justin provided regarding dancing, hands-on learning (even though it would push you out of your comfort zone) or a lecture about how to make the moved, which would you remember more? The lecture or the hands-on activity? Research shows, the best learning is when you can do it. Lectures are ok and have their place. Unfortunately, listening is low on the list of the best ways to learn. The brain recalls the least from passive listening, regardless how entertained we are or how much we enjoy listening. It’s too bad that listening is not the best way to learn because the ROI of most conferences and workshops would then shoot through the roof!

      Your dancing story is a great example of interaction and learning for high recall. Love it.

      That’s so true about technical material still being provided through lecture based model only. Ususally, that’s just a example of trying to cover too much informatin in a compressed amount of time. Thanks for sharing.

  11. This is such an interesting discussion! Jeff, while I absolutely agree that we need to try different models of learning (not least of which because plenty of people don’t learn best by sitting & listening), I think there’s also a major “setting expectations” component. I’ve seen attempts to try alternate presentation/learning styles fall totally flat (hell, I’ve been the one who tried to experiment and found out later that a significant percentage of attendees hated it) precisely because some attendees don’t want to be pushed out of their comfortable “I’ll sit here for 60 minutes and half listen to you and half catch up with email and I don’t want to be asked to do or try anything else” zones.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding you view and I’m right there with you. People don’t like change and we are conditioned to do it the same way we always have in the past…even in the name of learning. “I learn better by listening.”

      I agree that the change can be challenging. Every where I’ve worked I’ve received the exact same feedback and resistance.

      For me, it was just as important to begin to advertise and teach why the changes were occurring as marketing the conference itself. When we started educating on good adult learning models and how people only retain 20% of what they hear 14 days later versus 70% when they are allowed to discuss what they’ve heard, people got it. See John Medina’s Brain Rules for more data: When people understand the why they often will accept the how. That why helped people ease into new models and unpredictable learning moments…at least where I’ve worked.

      I also provided options. For example, I provided similar concurrent breakout topics with one that was straight lecture-based and one that was part lecture followed by small group discussions. As the conference organizer, my highest rated sessions, even for audiences of 20,000+ attendees, have always my Peer2Peer roundtable discussions. People want to interact.

      IMO, it’s worth swimming against the tide for a while in the name of better retention, learning and ROI. It’s always for the benefit of the attendee.

  12. Justin Locke says:

    This discussion has such a parallel to my own events work– for 25 years I have been involved in events known as “kiddie concerts.” I have the exact same problem: many people feel that a dry monotone lecture is good enough. In response, I created some programs that use a few actors and get the audience involved in various ways. As successful as they are, many people resist them. One example: a friend at a major orchestra pitched my shows to the education department. Sadly, he learned that they did not care about the audience’s “fun,” or even if the kids actually learned something. Their sole concern was meeting all the “curriculum content requirements.” Very much of a one-way communication, a la “we’ll just send this info out in big clumps and hope that it sticks.” Sending it out was the end of their task, whether anyone learned anything was not their department.

    It’s a systemic issue– it’s caused partly by individual stage fright, partly by ego (“my big chance to stand up and show what I know”), bureaucratic obedience, cultural inertia, fear of risk/ doing something untried or different, etc. etc.

    At the same time I keep finding people who see the problem and understand that it needs to be better. But consistently it is individuals, not committees, that go for the improvement.

    Just an afterthought, performance standards in general for educational concerts are much higher in europe and south america than they are in the USA. The food is better too. Coincidence? -jl

    @midori well clearly we need to get you out on the floor someday 🙂

  13. ‘@Jeff Hmmm, interesting. Maybe the reason why I can handle the lecture formats is that I’m so actively microblogging, blogging, chatting on a backchannel and taking copious notes (often crafting a full page of counterarguments or feedback to the speaker) that I become a participant no matter the event format. I suppose it’s just the dancing thing that makes me cringe, but I would 100% agree with all of you that adding some kinetic experience to learning formats improves retention.

    @Justin Kiddie Concerts? Now I really feel like I need to see this concept of dancing to learn. Awesome! 🙂

  14. Bill Walker says:

    Jeff, you’ve chosen a topic that deserves much thought, exploration, examples, and sharing. Thanks for kicking it off.

    One point I would argue against: “… today’s digital, social world …”

    Rather: digital is not the cause or the effect (it only precipitates feedback), and the world has always been social (we just have a relatively new outlet for it nowadays).

    A few years ago, pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter, I organized two conference sessions that were both big hits. One consisted of facilitated roundtables targeted to specific types of attendees, so they knew whether it was relevant to them and what format to expect. The other was slightly more traditional in format, but was extremely topical, breathing urgency and reality.

    Both sessions benefited from feedback, carefully selected resources (including people), and word of mouth. The roundtable session lived on for years, with continued success, and without the aid of modern devices of the digital variety. Digital is not the panacea, but another tool in our war chest.

    Point two: expectations. As Elizabeth mentioned, expectations played critical roles in the success of both of these sessions. I also encouraged and relied upon the experts to engage with attendees at a relatively personal level. There were no talking heads. And everyone knew that up front. They came with the expectation to be engaged, to be active participants, and they left satisfied — if not clamoring for more.

    Problem: time is not on our side. One aspect of content preparation that besieges the success of sessions is having to prepare so far in advance. Another is that conference organizers are trying to fill spots with diverse content, which sometimes forces them to select content of less quality or presenters of less experience. These are hurdles that can be overcome with learning and practice and observation, but like any other subject, they are constant, because the field of participants is always changing. Sometimes, we hit a hurdle rather than leaping over it.

    Too, there is the paradox that expertise does not equal engagement.

    Solution: more setting expectations — and establishing guidance. Organizers can serve their attendees better by guiding stoic or novice presenters, challenging them to break down their own fears and boundaries for the sake of the content and the attendees, and establishing some expectations themselves as to what they want their conference to look and feel like.

    End result: on some level, we’re all in this together. Organizers, presenters, and attendees all have to step up and take charge to define — and then create — success.

  15. Scott Gould says:

    Awesome discussion. I do feel we need to move forward into putting this into some kind of set of models (thats how my mind works – it means I can repeat it!)

    @Midori – I agree it isn’t always ego. It can be wanting to impart lots of knowledge and value. It can be wanting to meet expectations about the content. It can be bc the audience is so varied.

    But what I have found is that often we have these things that we think the audience wants and needs, but often they want something else.

    Example: we hold an event at our church, and rather than “preaching” (which is the typical church mode – one person speaking to many people), we decide to have people discuss the content between themselves. What happens?

    1. People actually teach each other – rather than the same old “preacher” saying the same thing
    2. People teach themselves by teaching others
    3. People increase retention by talking the content through

    Resulting in:

    4. People leave feeling they’ve helped others (bonus)
    5. People feel that they’ve learnt and refined their thoughts
    6. People feel valuable.

    I’m totally leaning more and more towards this. People dont’ remember what was said – they remember how they felt.

    More at

    What say you?

  16. […] by Ellen on March 27, 2010 Didn’t think your conference sessions need life support? In Jeff Hurt’s Midcourse Corrections post, “The Conference Session is Dead,”  he writes, “The conference session is a triumph of standardization and it is so ingrained […]

  17. Ellen says:

    Jeff — Another great post and comments! If only some of the star shooters on my favorite NCAA teams were hitting the basket as well as you have lately, Jeff 🙂

    Haven’t seen any comments here pointing to some of the factors I’ve seen in play — the twisted relationship between “meetings” and “educational events” and finances among them.

    My response was too long for a comment — you can see my post on this at:

    We’re all on life support at this point, don’t you think? (Oh, yes, we all think.)

  18. Midcourse Corrections » The Conference Session Is Dead…

    Traditional lecture-based conference sessions aren’t made for active learning, Jeff Hurt points out, but to fit neatly into the session track grid: “So why haven’t we blown up the traditional conference model and updated it for a knowledge workforce …

  19. Provocative Jeff: have you ever considered the context of sessions as part of a storyboarded meeting – creating continuing threads to the multi-sensory cue-based storyline of the overall experience?
    With your extensive experience in conferences I’d be curious about what you thought of this approach:

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding those comments to help expand our thoughts, perspectives and discussion. I’m with you…we’re all (conference organizers, presenters & attendees) in this togethere. Time to step up!

      BINGO! You’ve hit the true nail on the head. The traditional conference model is seen as a revenue generator for most associations and organizations. Until attendees stop paying for mediocre and demand better experiences, we’ll continue to get conference sessions on life-support. Thanks for continuing the discussion and adding more on your blog.

      What a wonderful suggestion of seeing conference sessions within the context of a storyboarded meeting! I so agree that conference organizers must intentionally use methods like this to be successful. I think there are some great examples of these type models like Scott Gould’s Like Minds conference and Liz Straus’ SOBcon. Both involve continuing threads through out the entire conference experience providing emotional and senory based experiences. Great suggestion.

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