April 12, 2010 by Jeff Hurt
Walk into most annual conference sessions and what do you see? What do you hear?
You’ll probably hear and see the same thing in each room. One voice talking at a time. A speaker or panelist at the front of the room talking to a group of attendees. The attendees are sitting theater style facing the stage looking at the back of the heads in front of them. Inactivity and passivity reign.
Rarely will you walk into a conference session and find the room buzzing with activity as attendees participate in their own learning.
Why is that?
Most conferences are stuck in a rut, repeating the same session processes and procedures of their first events without little change. The content changes yet the format or presenter strategies don’t.
The lecture or panel is the primary format used with the majority of the conference sessions. It is designed for efficiency of the planner and presenter, not for the effectiveness of the attendee’s learning.
Traits Of The Homogenized Conference Experience
Many conference organizers and presenters demonstrate similar fundamental beliefs that all attendees:
With nearly three decades of research and science on how the mind works, learns and retains information, there is still a great gulf between the research and education practices, especially within the conference format. Unfortunately, there is not one educational prescription approach that best serves all conference attendees. At the practical level, any uniform educational approach is likely only to serve a minority of the attendees.
Traits Of The Personalized Conference Experience
Conference organizers and presenters have to yet to embrace human differences seriously.
When a topic has been approached from a number of different perspectives using a variety of learning strategies, more attendees are reached with the information. When a presenter uses an assortment of presentation techniques such as case studies, discussion groups, lectures, role plays and simulations, the presenter has provided multiple windows leading into the same room. The presenter has acknowledged that each attendee learns differently.
How can conference organizers provide personalized and customized conference experiences for mass audiences? Is allowing attendees to self-select the presentations they attend enough to customize their experience? Why do you think it’s important to involve attendees in their own learning?
Filed Under: Conference Education, Experience Design
great questions. I think part of the problem is that many presenters, especially at conferences, have no particular incentive to “work” beyond preparing a basic Powerpoint presentation that they can even work prepare the day before the event if they know the content pretty well.
often there is nothing asked of presenters (much less attendees) other than come up with a title, write an abstract of some kind that might be relevant months later when you actually present, prepare a presentation and give it and then you’re done.
for attendees, there is not much asked of them other than registering for an event, sign up for sessions, go to the session and sit there passively while taking in either marketing messages or just being talked at, go away, maybe fill out a session evaluation and then you’re done.
there needs to be a fundamental re-think of these relationships and the criteria for what is expected of presenters and attendees alike. and, it starts with conference organizers and program or content committees.
presenters should be required to help develop learning objectives and outcomes for their sessions, engage with potential and registered attendees ahead of time (either by video, blog or some kind of online community, or even a wiki for the session), work with conference organizers on understanding both audience segments and demographics as well as learning styles (based on profile information or survey information gathered in advance), and be available for post event questions and ongoing topic conversation.
attendees should be required to provide more than their name, company and email in the registration process and should be given some pre-work for sessions that they are attending whether it is just reading the presenters blog or some other related content and maybe submitting a question they would like answered during the session.
this would then prepare everyone with some context as they walk in the room and some level of expectations about what they will learn and what they can take away from the session. they should also be made aware that there will be opportunities for interactive discussion as a part of the session and to be prepared to participate and share their own knowledge.
this won’t be easy. we’ve essentially trained our audiences to be passive and just absorb whatever is presented, and our presenters that they can get away with doing very little to actually provide a learning experience as opposed to a presentation experience.
look forward to others wieighing in on this and participating in the discussion.
[…] approach such as a lecture or panel discussion that best serves all conference attendees. Reality: Homogenized conference presentations only serve a minority of […]
Adult learners bring a LOT to the table. Learning activities that invite them to bring their experiences in the process and to share with others (hopefully with leadership that keeps the non-stop talkers from dominating and gives everyrone a chance) will yield greater applicability to REAL problems.
Many instructors accustomed to the old homogenized delivery mode fail to mine the wealth that IN the learners. In their defense, it IS very threatening to yield the control and to hope the learners are willing to participate.
Thanks for providing your thoughts. I think the changes you mention can take place and often it begins with educating everyone involved in good adult learning techniques and strategies. In my experience, it took a constant communication and education plan on why as conference organizers we were looking for a balance of active and passive learning sessions before we started seeing major changes within the conference education. Intentionality is key and your suggestions are right on target.
I like what you say that “Adult learners bring a lot to the table. Learning activities invite them to bring their experiences in the process and share them with others.” Good stuff.
From David Goldsmith:
I agree completely…there’s a sea of vanilla in the conference industry. For those that think they are not vanilla, they are vanilla with a topping. Just because one adds a back channel, a game show, or an survivor challenge, or a webinar, does not mean the conference is best serving the individual or the organization’s full potential.
Here’s a tactic, during the next conference have hidden cameras on the audience, in the hall ways, near the exits. Watch how engaged the individual are post conference. Then review the video feeds but do so with non meeting personnel. (You need a balance perspective…your income and your future are to tied to the event to be objective.)
Are your attendees this engaged…Yesterday I removed a complex electrical circuit in my home and then installed 6 new canister lights on two new circuits. My mind was racing, I was engaged so much so that it was 11:21 PM on the clock when I realized I had been working for 6 hours without a break.
I’m not alone in this, my son’s will get a new Xbox game and spend days trying to beat the system while working with friends and others they’ve never met.
An Uber Conference would be this engaging. This means tossing schedules out the window at times, making changes on the fly, being engaged as the planner AND as a participant. Some thoughts:
1) Large group (general sessions) would take 10X the amount of effort to coordinate properly. Those presenting and the staff, must preplan options for creating the experience based upon the audience reactions and feedback.
If the audience is not engaged, the plan switches to option two…who ever said you can’t pull a speaker off stage or stop a presentation in the middle when the material sucks or is not meeting your needs.
Meeting planners beware, what you don’t like is often liked by the audience AND just because people are not smiling, asking questions, or giving a standing ovation does not mean what was accomplished was not positive and useful.
2) The future of education will ultimately be individualized so meetings must account for culture, position, skill, religion, gender, etc. At NYU, on my first class I spend 3 hours of the class in a get to know session, (Yes Jeff, I’m touchy feely. Go figure). The students get to share with the reset of the group what country they are from, their job, at least one unique experience, etc. (My last two classes had only 4 Americans and the balance represented over 16 countries) The desired outcome is to create an understanding of someone’s point of view so that we can accelerate the learning experience collaboratively. It works.
Do most people at a conference know the people they work with beyond the walls of work?
3) We need a technology that not only allows people to act individually but to act individually while going in the same direction together. Again, not unlike the Xbox games my kids play. They get online with a group of people they don’t know, create teams, then work and learn together to achieve the “kills” they need to win.
It’s my belief that smaller groups, 50 or less, would be the a reasonable number. Why 50? 200 is a lot of people, 100 seems possible but you’d ultimately find 20 leading the pack. 50 Because the 20 will have tentacles that draw in those around them.
4) When those in the meeting space forget about smiley faces and instead focus on the desired outcomes of the organization will the industry really change. A sort of get paid on outcomes not on the conference. A sales person can work hard and do everything right but if there is not sale…not $
An example: An organization is putting on a safety meeting. If the safety improves post event, that’s a win. If the organization is an association , then the return should be that members of the association see a marked improvement in safety that is measurable.
It’s not about registration numbers, it is about what people do with that what they’ve experienced.
My two cents
Provocative thoughts there and I like them. Thanks for taking the time to write that and share it with us. Appreciate it. ~ Jeff
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