Four Steps To Overcome Conference Attendee Resistance To Active Participation

“I’m going to divide you into small groups.”

That statement strikes fear in hearts and raises blood pressure in many conference attendees.

Heads turn. Eyes dart. Dread increases. Frantic thoughts appear.

Something from deep within the bowels of the unconscious mind rises and takes hold of the body. Sweat breaks on brows. The mind is flooded with memories of fourth graders picking teams. Participation can come to a standstill.

“What if I’m the last one picked? What will people think? I don’t like this. Why are we doing it? Where are my friends? Yuck.”

The presenter’s intention for active learning has already failed. When a speaker starts with “I’m going to divide you into small groups,” people immediately start looking for others to join in safety or commensuration.

Some speakers know that active, focused, relevant experiences like case studies, games, role playing and small group discussion foster learning. Structured activities and attendee participation enhances brain activity, deeper understanding, insight, memory and retention, and skill building.

Yet, some conference presenters abandon the use of structured activities because of attendee resistance to anything beyond passive listening. They take the path of least resistance. As Sue Pelletier said in a recent blog comment, “… People tend not like the presenters who make them uncomfortable, versus those who keep them entertained and happy.”

Here’s the amazing thing: attendee resistance to active engagement may not be the group stuff. It is usually with the way the activity is presented or designed.

Attendees naturally react to an abrupt introduction to a group activity with a barrage of negative thoughts and feelings. Sometimes a poor introduction results in overt rejection or superficial acceptance in the form of “playing along” with the presenter.

Ultimately, attendees’ expectations need to be managed. Their fear of the unknown needs to be acknowledged and relieved.

Presenters should introduce attendee participation in a way that encourages rather than directs, that motivates rather than disheartens, that creates clarity instead of confusion. Fashioning a truly effective introduction to audience participation demands intention, thought and precision.

Here are four steps to help overcome attendee resistance to active participation and set the stage for learning success.

Step 1: Give the rationale.
Give participants a rationale for participating in the task or activity. This helps attendees answer a fundamental question, “Why should I participate in this?” Answering “What’s in it for me?” and “Why I should allow you to make me uncomfortable?” is imperative for success. When an attendee sees the personal benefit of participation, why it is valuable and appropriate, they are usually ready to take part.

Note: Giving valid reasoning for audience engagement should always be from the attendee’s point of view, not the presenter’s or the organization’s. The rationale should communicate both a personal and professional reason to participate. And it must make emotional and logical sense. Modeling how to deal with uncomfortable feelings also helps.

Step 2: Clearly explain the task.
Immediately following opening statement of rationale, explain the task. The explanation should include two things:

  1. A description of the individual or group product that will be created.
    Examples of products: a list of most important factors, four alternative options, a ranking from most important to least important.
  2. Any requirement that describes or defines the expected quantity or quality of the product.

Step 3: Define the context.
Defining the context helps attendees understand how to accomplish the task. The definition of the context involves three things:

  1. Individuals or groups.
    If a group activity, the number of participants per groups is identified.
  2. The composition of the group
    Is it a group of people who know each other or are meeting each other for the first time? Are they alike or different? Do they have similar years of experience or not? One note: state the criteria for the group composition and let attendees self-organize. Avoid forming the groups yourself to overcome attendees’ suspicion of your motives or resentment.
  3. The amount of time attendees have to complete the task

Step 4: Explain what is to be shared.
In your instructions, you might say, “Appoint a spokesperson in your small group that should be ready to share.” The report can be the product, part of the product, reflections on how the group interacted, or the responses and feelings from the group. Also explain to attendees that reporting or sharing after an activity helps extend and amplify the learning beyond what was gained individually or in small groups.

Using these four steps, in this order, helps attendees see that small group work and structured activities as useful tools for their learning and retention. Applying this four-step process can help attendees dodge feelings of irritation and irrelevancy.

How do you feel when a speaker announces that you’re going to role play or break into small groups? What have you seen some experienced speakers use to overcome attendee resistance to participation? What tips would you add to those listed in this post?

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  1. Barbara Palmer says:

    Jeff, I thought it was just me! I usually like the interaction and connection of a small group, but sometimes feel uncomfortable at the way the group is divided up. And I really dislike it when there’s not enough time to complete the task(s) or exercises. You fail before you even begin.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Barbara – I’m with you on how activities or small group work is presented. I always feel dread when I hear, “Let’s Role Play!” A-r-g-h-h-h! 🙂

      @Midori – Thanks for the great tip about introductions in small group activity. It helps for sure.

      @Scott – Thanks for being a faithful reader and commenter. And, you have every right to get on my case if I ever end a blog post with just “What do you think?” 😉 (See I’m a faithful reader of your stuff too!)

      @Dave – Great question: “Do you think any of this could be applied to driving more good questions at the end of more traditional presentations and webinars?” Short answer – YES! Longer version, I actually think helping people have clarity about the why, how and what is always a good thing. Typically when I do presentations or webinars, I take questions through out the entire presentation. Sometimes those questions lead to great discussions and are signals that many people need me to explain again with a different approach or adjust my presentation to meet the attendees’ needs. Afterall, the presentation is for the attendee.

  2. Solid, Jeff, really solid!
    I think something tiny that can make a giant difference is giving people a really simply ice-breaker for their group – make sure they share one fun fact about themselves. It really sets the tone for easing conversation. for example, besides talking about their name and business, I’ve had people share their snowfall levels at home (during February this was really fun for people to talk about).

    I’ve also found that when I design group activities, if I can frame the activity with guided questions, it sometimes initiates creativity or at least a comfort zone.

    I really love this idea of “managing expectations.” Very helpful information!!

  3. Scott Gould says:

    Hey Jeff

    Love this. This mirrors a lot of the basics of good communication and also good change management.

    I have to say, I hate the being “split into groups” – I always feel like it hasn’t been thought through and is a quick way to get people talking. But when the above steps are taken, I feel like I have been prepared for and that someone has thought through how I will get the most out of participating.

    I am listening to you!!!

    Best, Scott

  4. Dave Will says:

    Love this, Jeff. Never really gave any thought to HOW we would encourage participation. I always thought it was just a matter of creating the right environment and forcing them to talk. I like your methodology.

    Do you think any of this could be applied to driving more good questions at the end of more traditional presentations and webinars?

  5. Midcourse Corrections » Four Steps To Overcome Conference Attendee Resistance To Active Participation…

    When a conference speaker starts with “I’m going to divide you into small groups,” people immediately start looking for others to join in safety – and the presenter’s intention for active learning has already failed, says Jeff Hurt. “Ultimately, att…

  6. Scott Gould says:

    ‘@Jeff – lol – you got me 🙂

  7. Many people like what you call passive learning experiences. They may be shy or introverted and don’t want to call attention to themselves.

    Instead of deciding that passive is bad, you should respond to the desires of a passive audience and offer learning opportunities they will welcome.

    Just because you like to participate doesn’t mean that everybody else does, too.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Passive has its place for those that want to be entertained, motivated, inspired or just “check out.” I agree that you should offer a mix of both passive and participatory learning experiences and allow pepole to make a choice, especially in breakout sessions.

      Creating active, participatory learning experiences is about creating safe places where even shy and introverted people want to engage. Participatory experiences can be as easy as “Talk to your neighbor.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is going to be put on stage and everyone else watches. And bottom line, the research and science is clear, if people really want to learn, they must be active, involved and participate not just listen. Sitting and listening to a talking head has the lowest form of ROI for learning possible.

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