Eight Conference Presentation Myths That Hamstring Attendees’ Learning

Most conference organizers see attendees as consumers of the conference’s content and experience.

Little thought is given to seeing attendees as active participants in their own learning and experience.

Here are eight conference presentation myths that hamstring most attendees’ learning that conference organizers should avoid.

Myth 1: There is one single educational approach such as a lecture or panel discussion that best serves all conference attendees.
Reality: Homogenized conference presentations only serve a minority of attendees.

All attendees learn differently. Conference organizers must embrace different presentation techniques and active participation to reach the maximum number of attendees as possible.

Myth 2: Speaker skills are of primary importance.
Reality: Adult learner skills are of primary importance.

So often when planning conferences and events, the annual conference and education committees are focused on finding the right speaker with the right content for the right time. Little attention, if any, is given to how the audience learns, their preferences and what we know about how the brain recalls information. The conference organizers and committee members should make a subtle shift of focusing on how the attendees’ learn instead of on the presenters’ skills. Then secure speakers that provide a variety of presentation strategies including active attendee participation.

Myth 3: The focus of the conference presentation should be on how to present.
Reality: The focus of the conference presentation should be on how attendees’ learn.

Conference organizers should require potential presenters to identify in the speaker call for proposal the type of learning strategies they plan to use. Then meeting professionals can secure speakers that use a variety of instructional techniques in addition to lectures and panels.

Myth 4: Active attendee participation is not successful for technical fields (science, medical, technology).
Reality: Active participation in any presentation has been proven to increase attendees’ learning and retention, regardless of the subject matter or industry.

Spending time explaining to adults why active participation is being used and setting the stage managing attendees’ expectations will build success and buy-in. Research by Drs. Barb Licklider and Howard Shapiro at Iowa State University showed that active participation in engineering education increased learning, retention and cognitive thinking at a higher level.

Myth 5: Baby Boomers and other generations learn best with lectures and passive listening.
Reality: Research shows that adults learn best when they are actively involved regardless of their generation.

Generational differences are evident in culture and the workplace and do not translate to adult learning. Instead of worrying about whether Boomers, GenXers or Millennials will learn more from lectures or active participation, conference organizers should focus on designing the best learning environments and securing presenters that use a variety of instructional techniques.

Myth 6: Presenters are unlikely to make major changes to their presentations.
Reality: Educating industry presenters on why and how to make changes as well as giving preference to speakers that use a variety of presentation strategies influence all future presenters.

Myth 7: There isn’t enough time for active participation.
Reality: Covering material or content through lecture does not equate to attendee learning.

Many presenters try to cover too much material in a normal sixty- to ninety-minute presentation. Focusing on two to three core learning objectives help presenters remove unnecessary information that leads to kitchen sinking the presentation. Providing activities that link back to the core learning objectives help attendees learn.

Myth 8: Attendees don’t want to engage in participation.
Reality: To increase audience participation, presenters have to encourage interaction and make them rewarding and fun.

Asking specific “right answer” content questions put attendees on the spot. Asking questions that help attendees focus on common experiences, like “How many of you have had this happen?” creates a bridge between the presenter and the attendee. When attendees understand the benefits of active participation, they are more likely to participate. Creating an emotionally safe environment that excludes random death by embarrassment and emotionally threatening situations will increase interaction and trust.

In Conclusion
Most conference audiences of the past were satisfied with a good show and a few useful tips. Today’s audiences are more sophisticated. They want practical, relevant, immediately-useful information, customized to their needs, presented in a compelling and memorable way and time for discussion of implementation. And they still want to feel like they’ve been entertained.

How are you busting your conference myth’s using the realities of today’s learner?

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  1. Hey Jeff…

    Myth 9: There are no boring topics, only boring speakers.

    Having participated/run/presented at and facilitated at many hundreds of conferences, it has become clear to me that when speaker excellence meets relevant and well-timed topics – the best results are obtained.

    I’ve seen many outstanding presenters fail because they were trying to artificially resuscitate a topic with tricks, techniques and Zen-like slides that had long since passed its use-by date or was totally irrelevant to the audience.

    Best to you,


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Love your addition and I totally agree. A great presenter can bring a so-called boring topic alive and aim it directly at the learning needs of their audience. It’s a homerun partnership that’s a winner every time. Thanks for adding it!

  2. Myth 8 stands out for me – Creating a session that seamlessly weaves in audience participation is no easy feat. And when well-intentioned presenters “force” audience participation, it can get hokey and audiences shut down.

    I just read “Give Your Speech, Change the World” by Nick Morgan and came away with a few good ideas… Does anyone have other recommendations as far as books/tools/resources to help speakers do a better job of engaging audiences?

  3. […] Ask presenters to use interactive learning experiences. You can read more about that here, here and […]

  4. […] from the post Eight Conference Presentation Myths That Hamstring Attendees’ Learning originally published April 13, […]

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