Killing Me Softly With Your Lecture

I heard he spoke a good speech
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him
To listen for a while
And there he was a young man
A stranger to my eyes

Tickling my ears with his statements
Speaking my world with his words
Killing me softly with his lecture
Killing me softly with his lecture
Uttering my daily work with his words
Killing me softly with his lecture

With apologies to Killing Me Softly With His Song composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and singer Roberta Flack.

The Traditional Conference
We’ve all been there: the traditional four-day annual conference.

On day one, we attend the opening general session, three ninety-minute breakouts and a luncheon. Or some variation of that format. We may drop in on an evening reception to mix it up.

On day two, we realize that it feels like déjà vu. We suddenly begin to dread days three and four which are just repeats of Groundhog Day. Can we really attend more sessions that are killing us softly with their lectures?

The convention center’s rooms all look the same. Bland earth tones, obnoxious designs on the carpet so we can’t see the dirt, chairs set theatre facing a screen often locked together to encourage sitting in every other chair. Rarely do any of the conference rooms have windows or natural light.

Most of the sessions are lectures with text-heavy, boring PowerPoint slides magnified on the screen. After the two breakouts, each presenter starts to sound the same. Killing me softly with her lecture.

So how do we make these more engaging? More exciting? More memorable? Different than other conference experiences?

First, Why We Need To Provide A Better Way
Some interesting research about how we learn and our brains comes from the field of neuroscience. Brain researchers Dr. Marian Diamond and Dr. William Greenough have researched the importance of enriched environments on learning.

An enriched environment is one that provides plenty of sensory stimulation. A non-enriched environment is one that is typically barren of any other stimulus, bland, boring and void of any type of sensory input–much like most of our conference venues, hotel meeting spaces and convention centers.

Diamond’s 1988 research showed that when she put rats in cages filled with games, puzzles, mirrors, colors, and textures, they grew more brain tissue. Their learning increased. When she put the rats into barren cages, their brains shrank.

Similarly Greenough discovered that rats in enriched environments had 25% more connections between brain neurons. Their learning increased and they performed better on tests.

Science writers Judith Hoper and Dick Teresi have documented additional researchers that have discovered that four days spent in enriched environments can lead to brain growth and increased learning. And four days spent in barren, non-enriched environments can lead to dendrite death. (Dendrites are the part of the neuron located in the brain that transfers information in the process of learning). Killing me softly with his lecture.

So what type of environments does your conference venue provide? Brain growth or dendrite death? Presentations that kill softly with lectures?

How To Provide The Conference Enriched Environment
Our minds learn from both traditional focused attention and from surrounding elements. Researchers have discovered that colors, decor, smells, sounds and other stimuli are process by the brain as well as the attention given to a specific activity. And they do influence the learner.

Conference organizers should take some cues from art installations and museum exhibits. They often use immersion environments rich in sensory cues.

Don’t know what an immersion environment is? Take a walk down the hall to your teenager’s bedroom. It typically resembles a whole new world, unrelated to the decor of the rest of the house. Or ask your child to show you their favorite video game. Most video games immerse players into other worlds often suspending natural rules and beliefs. Or think back to your childhood and how you used to immerse yourself into imaginary worlds.

Optimal enriched conference learning environment include:

1. Rich Social Interactions
Encouraging presenters to use a variety of attendee engagement techniques including individual structured note taking, discussions, and partnership, team and group activities. We learn better when we can interact in real-life contexts. 

2. Engaging Emotions
Environments and presentations that engage and motivate the emotions, creating connections to people’s hearts and souls.

3. Visually Energizing
Charts, graphs, posters and signs on the walls with concrete vivid images. Venues could support this by providing a horizontal cork rail on some of the walls so presenters could hang information and signs. Uplighting with different bold colors sometimes helps the bland color palette.

4. Lush Sensory Inputs
Engaging as many of the attendees’ senses as possible evokes new reactions of novelty and curiosity. Providing walk in and out music to set the tone and state for the presentation. Providing unique smells such as peppermint, light florals, cinnamon and citrus which have been noted to increase the ability to learn, create and think. Bring in tactile games and puzzles for each table to allow attendees to play with during presentations.

5. A variety of seating options.
Some attendees are significantly affected positively or negatively, just based on the seating options. They need to have a choice from couches, beanbags, standing or sitting at cocktail tables, lounge chairs to traditional conference chairs. Providing small clusters of seating to allow attendees to connect and engage is best.

Providing enriched, optimal learning environments will increase your attendees learning, brain growth and decrease dendrite death. The activation of the brain through social engagement during learning and the positive environmental stimulation produce dramatic results.

What changes can you make to your conference environment that will create enriched atmospheres?

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  2. Sylvia says:

    You put this so well and you are right on……….I will share this with my team and sigh becuase working with a bunch of accountants I know that despite the evidence they are never go to go with the informal and they would not know how to sit on a bean bag!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commeting. And for passing on the information.

      I can appreciate your position and am right there with you. Is there a middle ground? I think so. And, as an attendee, you can always take the education back into your own hands and own it. Perhaps have a meetup with like-minded colleagues immediately following a general session and discuss the presentation. Tell some friends in advance and find a common location to meet. I’ve seen this happening at other events where the attendees tweet and text colleagues – discussion in front of room XX about opening general session speaker. Meet with us. Create your own paths and if it catches on, the conference organizers may take the hint!

  3. Traci Browne says:

    Love this Jeff and love what you are doing to change the boring conference world one post at a time…I’m right there with you and am being a huge advocate myself.

    Yesterday I automatically signed up for one of my association’s annual conference. I thought well, I’m a member and president of the local chapter, better go and network…get something out of my membership. Even with a free conference pass I will be spending close to $1500 in hotel and flight and meals. I was looking over the schedule and found a couple 30 minute blocks of networking time squeezed into the typical keynotes and panel discussions…jam packed with those “killing me softly” type of sessions. And of course the obligatory cocktail reception…

    Today I am really questioning the value I will receive for that $1500. I found myself e-mailing people I know in the town where the conference is to be held arranging times to meet up, skipping the sessions and choosing to have a more productive one-on-one time. It’s crazy to think that I am going to make any meaningful connections while passing other attendees in the hall jumping from panel discussion to keynote to panel discussion to keynote.

    Am I just being cynical or is there a way to make a traditional conference work for the individual or do we have to just sit there while they are “killing us softly” or not attend at all. Is there a middle ground?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      From Adrian Segar

      The most recent conference I facilitated was held at Westwind on the Oregon coast. No windowless rooms, sea air (there’s a smell that wakes you up!), and a stunning beach kept the energy high at the four-day event. Hikes & sea kayaking were woven into the program, and attendee families were welcome too (we had a kids program set up).
      I have always looked for eye-catching nontraditional conference venues. In my experience, attendees’ increased enjoyment and engagement at a beautiful venue is well worth the extra work involved in creatively handling the limitations of spaces not specifically designed for “efficient” events.

  4. Paul Salinger says:

    As usual, right on target Jeff. I’m forwarding this post to our event marketing team.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Paul. Hope it generates some discussion for you!

      Always appreciate your insight and thoughts. And thank you very much for the resource. That’s a gem for sure. Love it.

  5. Ellen says:

    Jeff — Love the adapted lyrics to a long-time fave tune!

    And you know I’m with you on changing up the dry lecture-style presentations that are supposed to educate our members.

    I’ll add another resource — Dr. Will Thalheimer has done fabulous research into how transference of what’s learned occurs. In his report (currently free from his Web site), “Aligning the Learning and Performance Contexts,” he describes how essential it is to make sure the learning environment emulates the working enviornment as much as possible. Doing so doesn’t just help with practice, but with triggering the brain with sensory cues that help it to *retrieve* what was learned.

    This valuable report — and many others — are now available free of charge from Will’s Work-Learning Web site:

    Well worth a look!

  6. […] I’m a huge pop culture junkie, so Jeff Hurt’s “Killing Me Softly with Your Lecture” was spot on for me. Jeff goes through reasons why the traditional conference speech doesn’t […]

  7. Mati says:

    Homerun post! Exciting to think of the possibilities for change.

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