Stomaching Long Conference Lectures Is Out! Active Attendee Participation is In!

14 Presentation Techniques That Encourage Maximum Learning, Participation And Memory Retention

Today, many conference attendees will no longer tolerate the same old lectures, the conference committee’s poorly-planned-everything-for-everyone-panel or sessions that have no real meaning to their work.

Younger generations will not endure classes that could have been learned at their desks in 30 minutes and other wasteful conference presentations that older generations have stomached in the name of courtesy and manners.

Attendees want engagement. They want to engage with the presenter, with each other and with the content. They want to be actively involved in their learning.

Active learning in conference sessions is a necessity that conference organizers can’t afford to exclude.

What is active learning?
Active learning occurs when the learner is involved in more than just listening to a lecture. It involves discussion with others (not just the presenter), structured note taking, problem solving and participation in some form.

Active learning also stimulates cognitive learning and the use of higher level thinking skills like analysis, evaluation and synthesis. It does not include participation for participation’s sake. Active learning does not mean just moving a part of the body so retention increases. It means instructional activities where attendees do something and are involved in critical thinking while doing it. It does not mean punching a button on an audience response system. It means transforming traditional conference session practices like lectures into problem-based learning, collaborative, and activity based approaches with guidance from the presenter.

While active learning strategies may require more up-front work by the presenter, ulimately, research shows that these strategies increase attendee’s learning and retention of knowledge and skills.

So practically speaking, what does active learning look like in today’s conferences and workshops?

Here are 14 presentation techniques that encourage maximum learning, participation and retention.

1. Body Voting
This simple activity is great as an ice-breaker or intro to a subject. It helps the presenter and attendees quickly gauge the experience or knowledge level of a group. Body voting is simply the process of asking the audience to take an action based on a series of questions. Example: Have everyone stand. Then ask the following questions: If you’ve been in this industry for more than one year, stay standing. Those that haven’t please take a seat. If you’ve been in this industry for more than five years, stay standing. Those that haven’t please sit. Repeat the process until only a few are standing. Use this process with industry or content specific questions.Why use this over audience response systems? Because people need the chance to move around around, especially if they’ve been sitting for several hours at a conference. You also don’t have to incur the costs of ARS or projection for this type of activity.

2. Case Studies
Case studies are written accounts of real or fictitious situations or problems. Some case studies are left unsolved so that participants can analyze job-related situations and arrive at their own conclusions. They are designed to develop critical thinking and decision making skills. They are not intended to be prescriptive or to prove a point. Case studies may be from two to ten pages in length. For small groups, ask participants to discuss possible solutions and outcomes. Or provide a list of questions to help facilitate a conversation.

3. Critical Incidents
Similar in design to case studies, critical incidents are much shorter, usually a paragraph in length.

4. Fishbowls
Fishbowl activities have garnered a lot of attention since Samuel Smith’s use of it at EventCamp 2010. One variation of Smith’s procedure is forming a circle within a circle. The inner circle discusses an issue while the outer circle listens and takes notes on group dynamics, process or content. After a set time, the outer circle shares their observations. Then the groups switch and the process is repeated.

5. Human Spectagram
The presenter starts by making a statement. Attendees then stand along one wall where one corner represents strongly agree and the opposite corner represents strongly disagree. Attendees are asked to stand along the wall where they rate their level of agreement with the statement. Some may choose to stand in the middle. Some may stand closer to one corner. The presenter can pose a variety of statements with different variables to see how the majority of the audience feels about specific issues.

6. Jigsaw Grouping Brainstorming
The attendees are divided into separate groups each with a pre-established topic, facilitator and flip chart. The participants brainstorm the topic of their group while someone keeps notes on a flip chart. After a prearranged time, members of the group separate and go to other tables where that table’s topic is discussed and the flip chart shared. The facilitator at each table helps start the brainstorming where the previous group ended. At the end, all charts are shared with the attendees.

7. Lecturette
Short ten to fifteen minute lectures spoken or distributed via handouts that frame a conversation, situation or theory. Lecturettes are intended to establish some common language between presenters and attendees about a model, principle or process. They are a perfect fit before an activity or to segue into a different topic.

8. Mind Maps (sometimes referred to Mind Webs)
Often used to help individuals and groups to think globally and creatively, mind maps help attendees analyze, classify, evaluate, generate, list, structure and visualize important ideas. Attendees draw diagrams representing words, ideas, issues, tasks, etc., around a central idea.

9. Open Space Session
Modeled on author Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, open space is an umbrella term describing a variety of meeting formats where participants define the agenda with a rigorous process. All attendees contribute to the scope of the session, the agenda, the groupings and the topics. Often used as problem solving tool or peer-engagement process.

10. Pair-Squared
Attendees are asked to form a pair, turn to a neighbor on their right or left and discuss a specific issue, question or topic. Each attendee is given a specific time period to speak while the other attendee listens. Then roles change and the process is repeated. After both attendees have played listener and talker, they find another pair. Then attendee A tells the other pair what attendee B said while the three listen. Then attendee B tells the other pair what attendee A stated while the three listen. The process repeats for the other pair.

11. Peer -To-Peer Round Table Discussions
A structured system to provide peer engagement around specific topics. Attendees enter a room and each table has an established topic and facilitator. The facilitator follows a set of instructions to allow each table participant to help guide frame the discussion on three important ideas.

12. Role Plays
Role plays allow participants to create manageable versions of situations in which they can practice new behaviors and try on new forms of communication. Participants can make and correct mistakes in a safe environment while preparing them to be more effective in real world situations.

13. Structured Note Taking
Structure note taking is providing some type of graphical representation that frames the lecture, discussion or reading. Some presenters intentionally omit important words or phrases from handouts to allow attendee to write them in the spaces provided. For most people, learning and retention trumps going green and omitting handouts, especially structured note taking. To stay environmental-friendly, close the recycling loop and used recycled paper. 

14. World Cafe Model
The World Cafe is a conversational process about questions and issues that matter. Using a specific method of integrated design principles to guide conversations for business and social issues. Conversations build and link with each other as participants move from group to group creating a collaborative, cross-pollinated approach to problem solving.

What other presentation techniques have you used or enjoyed? What tips do you have for getting attendees involved in active participation?

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  1. […] third example is what Jeff Hurt’s been blogging about over at Midcourse Corrections. Nixing the tried (and no longer true) lectures that plague our […]

  2. Ellen says:

    Jeff — Once again you’ve inspired me to think more deeply! I agree we we need to push our presenters (and those who select our presenters) beyond their comfort zones…

    … but we have plenty of work to do ourselves, starting with clarifying (yes, here I go again) the differences between meetings and educational events and recognizing how “presenting” and “facilitating” each have their place.

    I blogged about those distinctions here, with examples…

    What do you think? Are conferences odd morphs of meetings and educational events? Is it time we disentangled them?

    Are we doing battle with a Frankenstein of our own making?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I’m liking your thinking here. I’m a “both, and” kind of guy and in my association roles as Director of Meetings, Events & Education, I often took the long term approach. It’s so true that often industry professionals don’t know how to deliver a good presentation, much less facilitate learning. I would start by investing in my industry professionals and giving them training in how to deliver good presentations. From there, we transition to focusing on how the audience learns and retains information. Having both the knowledge and skills of presenting and facilitating helped improve our conferences and events.

      I agree with you that our conferences and conventions have become educational meetings and events. Why? The top two reasons people attended conferences and events is education and networking. In ofder to meet our attendees’ needs, we need to morph some of the traditional meeting environments and setups as well as start requesting speakers that can facilitate.

  3. Sam Smith says:

    Hi Jeff – This is a great list of innovative formats or exercises. Thanks for thinking of me while you were putting this post together! I am honored to be included!

    I would like to add the “What would you do here?” session to your list.

    >>Here’s how it works:
    In this session, participants are given a scenario and a series of choices at key decision points during the presentation. Using Voting Keypads the individuals make a choice in private, then discuss their thoughts with the people around them (at round tables or their neighbor). Then the speaker reveals the audience’s answers AND the “best” answer. Then they discuss the differences and why one answer might be better than another. Trainers have been using formats like this for a long time. Today’s ARS and Social Media tools allow us to scale this type of session to hundreds or thousands of attendees. (Of course, you can vary the structure of the dialogue and where the voting and discussion occur.)

    Equally important, I think you can change the attitudes and outcomes of a session by changing the environment. For example, at MPI Malaga – I had a room where the chairs were bouncy balls, sofa chairs and carpet. The new room format helped put attendees into a different frame of mind for the session. People ended up sitting in the front of the room and they were very active, talkative and creative in the discussion portion of the session. It was a blast.

    Thanks again for the honor of being mentioned in your blog!

    – Sam

  4. […] I’ve been following their recent blog posts about conference presentation myths and techniques.  Great tips on how to engage attendees and encourage learning and retention. Two words: Active Participation. […]

  5. […] 2. Make content and connections tops No matter how tough the economy, if your industry’s movers and shakers are at your event, I’m going to be there, too. If you deliver an educational program that is better than I can get anywhere else, I won’t pass it up. Don’t cut back on your budget for keynote speakers. Coach your speakers to write the most compelling session descriptions, deliver top-notch presentations, and ensure audience engagement. […]

  6. Simon Bryan says:

    Hi Jeff, having been in the meetings and events game for many years, I’ve too often seen wasted opportunities at meetings. You have your best people there, or you’ve paid for your best clients to be there… And what do we do? We talk at them for 3 days, slide after slide after slide…..

    The learning opportunities of conferences, both for you to impart knowledge on your audience, but perhaps more importantly for you to learn from them and them from each other, are huge. We see the likes of suggest an approach in the education world to learn from one another, as opposed to a single ‘teacher’. The same can be applied to Meetings; think ‘presenter’ instead of ‘teacher’, and ‘audience’ instead of ’students’. You do require tools to do this of course, in a controlled and focused manner associated with a business meeting – but why not harness that collective knowledge, or as James Surowiecki puts it in his bestseller: ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’. Conferences are lost opportunities if you only communicate a strategy TO your constituents – let them contribute to the execution of that strategy….

    I chuckled when I read of a new Swiss Political Party, the APPP (Anti-PowerPoint Party)… Said one commentator “there will always be meaningless drivel on PowerPoint slides, but it is by far the easiest way to prepare meaningless drivel”.

    Lets look at the tools which allow participants to contribute, be empowered, speak up and have their say – ultimately giving both sides of the podium more to take away from the event…

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I like what you said, “Let’s look at the tools which allow participants to contribute, be empowered, speak up and have their say – ultimately giving both sides of the podium more to take away from the event.” Great addition to this post. Thanks for adding it here!

  7. […] Wondering where to start with involving learners during a lecture? Try these activities or perhaps these formats. […]

  8. […] For more on active learning techniques, check out Jeff Hurt’s article, Stomaching Long Conference Lectures Is Out! Active Attendee Participation Is In! […]

  9. […] an important role in some cases, but they can also be annoying time wasters if not used properly. Out of all the games available for you to use, look for those that match your attendee personas and your event goals. Don’t […]

  10. […] 2. Make content and connections tops No matter how tough the economy, if your industry’s movers and shakers are at your event, I’m going to be there, too. If you deliver an educational program that is better than I can get anywhere else, I won’t pass it up. Don’t cut back on your budget for keynote speakers. Coach your speakers to write the most compelling session descriptions, deliver top-notch presentations, and ensure audience engagement. […]

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