We Are The Problem: We Are Selling Conference Snake Oil

80 percent of what we learn comes from informal learning.*

Ironically, 60% to 80% of a conference attendee’s time is spent in formal learning, passively listening to a presenter. Unfortunately, 14 days later we only recall 20% of what we hear in those presentations. (John Medina, Brain Rules; E. Dale, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching). 30 days later, attendees have forgotten 90% of what they learned in the session (German psychologist and memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus). Most of what we hear in the lecture is forgotten within a matter of minutes.

So why do conference and event organizers continue to develop conference schedules that promote formal learning models that offer the least amount of learning and retention?

Are we selling conference snake oil that attendees can improve their professional lives by attending our conference education sessions when they can only remember 10%-20% percent of what they heard?

Today’s Traditional Conference
Conference organizers, speakers and attendees often have the same mental image of how conference educational sessions work. Speakers lecture while attendees listen and occasionally take notes.

This process is repeated several times for a six- to eight-hour day of learning. Duplicate Day One for two, three or even five more days. Add a dash of tradeshow hours, mix in a couple of evening receptions or parties and sprinkle a networking session or two and you’ve got the Betty Crocker mix for the ultimate, conference experience. Just add attendees and you’re done.

The conference organizers and attendees think that the more content that can be poured into an attendee’s head in this conference mix, the more learning that occurs and the higher the attendee’s ROI.

We think adding more content is like adding butter to our Betty Crocker Conference mix. As Julia Childs said, “With enough butter anything is good.” She often exclaimed with glee that butter worked very well as a flavor carrier for spices, vanilla and other fat soluble ingredients.

In the conference world, we mistakenly think that adding more content acts as an ROI carrier, increasing the retention and learning at an event. We’ve just added more butter.

Yet that isn’t true.

The Challenge With Conference Lectures
The “information transfer model” of the traditional lecture does not match what current cognitive science research tells us of how humans learn. Research shows that the brain does not record information like a digital video camera. Turn your digital video camera on, click record and hit play. Boom, you’ve just recorded everything for replay whenever you want.

It’s a much more complicated process to get that knowledge passed from the speaker’s mouth, through the listener’s ears to the brain and move it from short term to long term memory. Our image of the brain as a recorder is incorrect. How the information is originally obtained through the five senses and whether there is some type of participation such as discussion or simulation have a tremendous impact on the learning and retention.

So how does formal and informal learning play into the conference mix? Why is it important to provide both?

Defining Formal And Informal Learning
Informal Learning author Jay Cross says, “Formal and informal learning are ranges along a continuum of learning.”

Cross states, “Formal learning is accomplished in school, classrooms, courses, conference sessions and workshops. It’s official, scheduled and taught. Most of the time it’s top down with learners evaluated on mastering material someone else has deemed important.” Sometimes scores are applied and successful mastery of the information results in diplomas, degrees and certifications.

“Informal learning often flies under the radar. It can happen intentionally or inadvertently…No one graduates because the learning never ends,” he adds. It is accomplished in the conference hallway, over a meal, through observation, trial-and-error, asking friends for their opinion, conversing with others, participating in a group, composing blog comments, reflecting on the day’s events, raising a child, chatting over coffee, pursuing a hobby and more.

The most successful conferences intentionally include a blend of both formal and informal learning. Those organizers purposely craft informal learning opportunities by providing small group discussions and peer-to-peer learning. Social researcher and author Etienne Wenger says, “Learning is best understood as an interaction among practitioners, rather than a process in which a producer provides knowledge to a consumer.”

Changing Our Conference Learning Models
Our definition of a successful conference learning experience must change. It must include informal learning opportunities. It must embrace each attendee’s connections onsite and that the real learning comes from their interactions with one another. Nurturing attendees’ informal learning is an implicit part of every conference organizer’s job.

So how do you do that? How do you design informal learning opportunities for attendees?

One way is to encourage all presenters to allow attendees the time to practice thinking in terms of the new concepts being taught. Right during their lecture, they should stop and ask attendees to generate their own examples of how to apply the concept they’ve just heard. Then ask them to turn to the neighbor seated on their left or right and share how they will apply it. This approach works with the mind’s natural processes for brain learning and retention, and thus improves learning.

This simple yet profound activity, allowing attendees to participate in discussion with one another, increases the retention of the content. Attendees recall 70% of what they discussed 14 days later. (John Medina, Brain Rules; E. Dale, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching).

Now that’s some great conference and meeting ROI. And it’s not magic conference snake oil.

What are some ways you’ve successfully nurtured informal learning in conference formats? What have you seen done successfully at conferences that helped you increased your learning?

*From research from Institute of Research on Learning, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, The Education Development Center of Massachusetts, Capitalworks, the eLearning Guild and Canada’s National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning.

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  1. Sam Smith says:

    Hi Jeff – As I was reading this – I virtually whooped and hollered as I read this post. (I am in a coffee shop)

    I think by now that you know that I am “likeminded” on this topic. Also, I know that we try to solve this problem in different ways. (I have a technology bias.)

    From my point of view, I think that we are baking the cake in the wrong way. I think that we need to look at how much time we allocate to attendee activities like listening, interacting in a session and social time. Then, I think we need to look at how much time is being allocated to those attendee activities at an event. In most cases, most of the time is allocated to listening and social time. Little or no time is allocated to interacting or engaging.

    If I could recommend one quick fix for meetings and conferences that would change the way people work, learn and engage – it would be to “fix” speaker Q&A. I would start by allocating more time for Q&A. We often under allocate time to Q&A. Then, I would look at different ways to productively use that time.

    In addition, I would recommend that people consider using alternative learning and engagement formats/environments for the content delivery. These could be environmental – like using round table discussions or bouncy balls as chairs. Or, it could be format related like using Brainstorming, World Cafe, or Fishbowl formats instead of the speaker-listener model.

    Thanks again for being likeminded and writing a great post that got me to virtually cheer!

    – Sam Smith

  2. Scott Gould says:

    Jeff, Sam

    Great post first of all, and a call to action – namely, to lay down our egos and obsession with content, and get real about action.

    Today I was talking about Church and asking why we base our entire servies around a “preach”. What if it was based around discussion and debate – like the synagogue actually was!

    Jeff you are a continual source of challenge for me, because unless we break the mould, we get nothing new.

    Sam in the same vein, I would challenge your comment about Q+A. I think that Q+A is often very poor. Only a few pipe up, and it still means we are listening, not discussing.

    What I think is better is what Jeff has said about speaking for 20 minutes, and then allowing people to discuss amongst themselves what they’ve learned. If we use twitter to track those discussions (20 minutes of discussion? 10?), we can then adapt a follow up to the discussion where the speaker addresses the main points again.

    I think this is SOCIAL as opposed to BROADCAST

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Wish I could have been a secret shopper in that coffee shop to hear you whoop it up! Yes, we are like minds on this. I like your thoughts about reconsidering how we allocate time in meetings and events. More time for engagement, digestion, deconstructing with each other. Less time for talking heads. Thanks for adding your feedback.

      As always, thanks for the comments. Those that know me know I’m a “both and” kind of guy. How about doing both what you and Sam said. What if we deconstructed the Q & A so that it was peer-to-peer Q & A instead of content expert to peer. That way we are providing both the opportunity to ask those burning questions and the ability to provide more peer, person-to-person interaction that you’ve written about. In my opinion, learning is fundamentally social.

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  4. Justin Locke says:

    well i agree with you guys completely and i am wondering why you limit yourselves to conference learning and not the educational industrial complex in general . . . BUT . . .

    just to be slightly contrarian I will put on my historian cap and remind all that formal education was never really intended to teach much of anything except dogma and maintenance of hierarchy. Much of what is called education is actually its own generic form of religion. This is not an accident– compulsory schooling was invented by a church in Europe to teach religious beliefs (I forget whether catholic or protestant) about 1600. In any event, it has always been very strong on ritual, and for good reason– it sells. I think it’s fair to state that most human beings seem to have a need for continuity and ritual, no matter how pointless to the casual observer. If you offer something outside the usual litany, this rattles the cages of the hierarchy and so it goes. It took the pope 500 years to apologize to Galileo.

    Also if everyone is suffering and bored there is a common presumption that more learning is going on than if everyone is “just having a good time.” not true, i know, but . . .

    I think you have to provide SOME structure, even if it’s just a pretense. Why, I don’t know, but if you don’t, it’s seen as Summerhill.

    Just entre-nous, there’s a whole lot more of them than there are of us, and they are thinking a whole lot less than we are, so there is a very good chance that we will get tired out before they will!

    Keep up the good work – jl

  5. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Jeff, you took me back to the time I was a schoolboy in England watching a series of BBC TV programs by Tony Buzan. Nowadays he’s mainly known for his invention of Mind Mapping (described in his classic book Use Both Sides Of Your Brain, still in print) but he also applied early research on memory and recall to make radical suggestions about the best ways to learn things (short learning periods, review schedules etc.) Despite his being right in my experience, given the teaching models still in common use today, I sometimes wonder whether anyone paid attention to what he said.

    So it’s exhilarating and heartening to hear your plea and evidence for learning formats that work much better than the long session presentations we all (secretly?) know don’t work very well. Why don’t we ever rise up and demand something different? My theory is that we are ultimately afraid that we’re stupid; that if we were “smart” we’d be able to understand and remember everything the speaker said for ninety minutes non-stop.

    There’s another quote of Etienne Wenger’s that I included in my book. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” His last two words are the key.

    Love the Betty Crocker metaphor!

  6. Dave Lutz says:

    Usually I have the benefit of seeing these posts and adding my 2 cents before the rest of you get to enjoy them. I’ve been off-grid the past few days making the cash register ring so we can keep initiating discussions like this one.

    Yesterday Jeff told me about the informal/formal learning concept and the snake oil analogy. It immediately resonated with me as a clear way of communicating what association annual meetings need to do to move the needle!

    Associations don’t necessarily need to blow things up and go all informal, but they do need to take a couple quantum leaps improving the formal to informal content ratio. In addition to sprinkling peer discussion and interaction into each session, associations should consider programming 1 – 2 innovative and highly participatory sessions per track/day. We’re onto something here that will better resonate with the logistics planner and non-educational C-level types.

    Thanks for your comments and contributions!

  7. I love the “group study/debate” approach to learning and use it a lot as an educator, but I wanted to point out that not everyone in your audience may be comfortable with being actively engaged in learning.

    Baby Boomers in particular tend to be very resistant to these kind of sessions. I worked with a woman who was on an education selection committee for a local industry association, and I remember her complaining bitterly that the chapter had paid $800 for a speaker who had them “talk amongst themselves,” as she called it, to discover solutions. Had he droned on and on, she felt like they would have gotten their money’s worth, because his non-traditional approach made her feel as if he wasn’t “learned” enough on his topic. And there are a lot of people who feel that way. They don’t want to be engaged. They want to be talked at. It makes them feel comfortable and safe.

    As more and more of the people at events are of the short-attention-span-theater generation and younger, we’ll have to adjust more sessions to non-traditional models because, quite honestly, we have a hard time sitting still without chiming in for a full hour, and who needs a full hour for every topic anyway? In the meantime, the challenge will be to find a way to make lovers of institutionalized broadcasts and crusty old models feel safe and engaged while providing killer new ways to educate, inform and — yes — entertain our audiences.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great provacative thought. I like your history of the lecture. You can be the contrarian anytime!

      That’s a great Wegner quote for sure. Thanks for adding it to the discussion.

      Thanks for identifying a challenge with any type of interactive, engagement education model. I believe it’s about managing expectations. Typically when I present, I start by discussing the method of presentation I’m going to use and explan why. I use it as part of the Attendee-Speaker agreement that I introduce. Once I’ve framed how the session will occur, why it will occur that way, I then invite anyone to use the Law of Two Feet. If my delivery model is not what they expected or they are uncomfrtable with it, I encourage them to attend another breakout that meets their needs.

      As for the woman on your education selection committee, that’s the prime example of the wrong job for that volunteer. If she doesn’t understand basic education 101 theory, she should have never been on that committee. Unless she was willing to learn how people learn and why certain types of presentations work that way. That had to be a tough position for an education advocate like yourself.

  8. Ellen says:

    Jeff — See that head bobbing in agreement? It’s mine 🙂

    But… I have to say that I’ve heard comments similar to the example Kristi offers. In my case, it came from a member in her late 20s. I’ve come to believe these aren’t learning preferences, but rather evidence that those feeling this way are experiencing some level of discomfort. In our case, we’d created a workshop environment (this was a one-topic institute held over several days with the same group of 18 attendees) with lots of small group activities. By design, the groups spanned all functional hierarchies, and this woman was feeling a little intimidated by those who were at levels she reported to. She worked her way through it (with much encouragement from many directions) and it became one of her most powerful learning experiences.

    So here’s the thing: conferences are not structured for this type of learning. They just aren’t. Educational sessions are like the tacked-on family room that doesn’t match the original house design, but was built on when the family expanded and they needed more space and a place where the kids could get out of the way while dinner gets made in the kitchen.

    The problem isn’t how to make large sessions more interactive — it’s about throwing out a structure that isn’t designed to work this way in the first place, and doing something else instead. Something that will work.

    Unfortunately, I recognize that most associations need the $$$ that conferences haul in; that members need to justify attending the confererences and the educational sessions (rather than the meals or accompanying parties or maybe even the trade show) are the primary way they get approved to attend.

    Smaller breakout sessions are well and good, but they’re keenly expensive and logistically challenging: more rooms , more AV, more power access, more wifi, more refreshments, more facilitators are all needed….

    And besides, how many of our volunteer leaders are really prepared (trained? experienced in?) facilitating rather than preaching with the Powerpoint?

    PS to Justin — Have you read Stanley Aronowitz’s “False Promises”? Published back in 1992, it’s getting dated, but discusses quite thoroughly the ways US schools work were designed to create the factory worker mindset (understand who’s in control, why rules must be followed, that you have to do what the teacher/boss says, even during recess/break time…etc.).

  9. Scott Gould says:

    ‘@Ellen – thank you for your honest and open comment! Very powerful!

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