Improving Your Conference Education: Begin With The End In Mind

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When securing speakers for you next conference or meeting, here are two things that you can do that will have an immediate positive effect on your conference education:  

  1. Tell your speakers that you want them to build their presentations backwards.
    They should begin by identifying the learning outcomes. What is it that they want their attendees to learn and remember after attending their presentation? Then build their presentations around those objectives.
  2. Ask them to identify the top three things they want their attendees to remember when they leave the presentation.
    Three to five things is the maximum needed for a sixty- or ninety-minute presentation. No more! If your speakers have more than that, the audience won’t recall them and the presentation becomes an information dump. If the presenter can’t tell you the top three things that they want their participants to recall, succinctly, don’t hire them! Seriously! Run! 

    Here’s the speaker litmus test. Ask you potential presenters this question, “What three things do you want your audience to remember when they leave your presentation?” If you get a rambling answer that doesn’t clearly articulate the top three things, you’ve got a bigger problem. Your potential presenter does not know how to effectively communicate. They will do the same thing during the presentation…ramble and take rabbit trails. 

Content-Driven Vs. Learning Outcome-Driven Presentations 

Many presenters, especially industry speakers, often create their presentations by identifying all the stuff that goes into their session. They start with the content. Their presentation often becomes a smorgasbord, all-you-can eat, all-the-research-that exists, information dump that overwhelms the listener. Unfortunately, starting that way is heading down the wrong path. It’s building a content-driven speech.  

Let’s imagine that you are taking a business trip to Washington DC. You land at Ronald Regan Washington National Airport. You rent a car and need to get to your hotel. How would you go about getting there?  

An Outcome-Driven Presentation 

More than likely, you started with the hotel in mind. You may ask for a map or directions at the car rental counter and look up the hotel’s address. Or you may use the Internet on your smart phone and type in the hotel’s name and address in Google maps.  

The common factor in each of these approaches is that you start with the hotel, the destination, your outcome. Then you work back from the hotel to the starting point–the airport. Tada, you’ve just created a learning outcome-driven solution.  

A Content-Driven Presentation 

In this situation, you start at Ronald Regan Washington National Airport. You decide to pick one of the streets leaving the airport and start driving. You may pick up a couple maps at the airport before you leave. And you click on some links about Washington DC on your mobile device too. You also stop at several convenience stores along the way and buy some more maps of DC. And Virginia while you’re at it. Oh, and you need a Maryland map too, just in case.  

While at the convenience store, you pick up pamphlets on sites to see and talk to the clerk about their favorite venues and best streets to take (most famous, most appealing, etc.). You want to add those streets and venues to your to do list. Who knows, you may come across those sights on your journey. As you’re driving down the street, you randomly turn on other streets. You hope that eventually you come across your hotel.  

Sound crazy? It is! Very few people would use this process to get to their hotel on a trip. Most would take a shuttle or call a cab. But the process I described is exactly how many speakers plan their conference education sessions. It’s scattered, random and content-driven. The focus is on the speaker and the information to share. The presentation becomes a bottomless pit of information.  

Encouraging Speakers To Begin With The End In Mind

If the DC hotel location is the outcome of the problem I proposed, then all the streets in DC are the content. How should your speakers narrow down their content and decide which street to take?  

You decide which street to take based on those that will get you to the location. You use your objectives as the guide: get to the hotel. Streets that will get you there serve your purpose. Other streets are eliminated and avoided.  

This is how you should encourage your speakers to prepare their presentations. Begin with the end in mind. Identify three things they want their attendees to remember. Build their presentation around those three points.  

Starting with the end in mind may seem contrary to your goal yet it actually serves you. Having your speakers start with learning objectives first and then build content around those objectives will help them succeed.  

What’s been your experience with speakers that use a content-driven approach? Why do you think a content-driven approach is ineffective? Why do speakers avoid learning objectives?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Hurt. Jeff Hurt said: Improving Your Conference Education: Begin With The End In Mind #eventprofs #pcma […]

  2. Jeff
    to fully leverage the impact of the speakers’ beginning with the end in mind (learning outcomes) or what I dub Reverse Engineering, meeting planners could also
    1. require us speakers to submit our learning outcomes to them+ 3 related tips they will offer.
    2. Send an email to speakers listing all speakers’ outcomes + tips and
    3. Require us to make reference to at least two tips from other speakers, woven into our presentation.

    In so doing the attendees benefit from some continuing threads to the conference presentations.
    Reinforcement builds memorability.

    This is another way to storyboard the conference

    outcomes other speaker’s out

  3. Scott Briscoe says:

    Jeff, I love your blog because it challenges me to think and you challenge the status quo. You realize old, stodgy professional development kinda sucks and while you may not have all the answers, you point in directions that might help us get there.

    And then there’s this post, which made me look at the calendar and wonder if it was April 1. This seems pretty status quo. A speaker, speaking to 3 to 5 specific learning outcomes. I’m not saying it’s not a useful method, it is and will continue to be. But it’s done (done badly a whole bunch as you point out, but done).

    Your own analogy about the hotel is perfect. What if we got in the rental car in search of our hotel? Not a specific hotel, but our hotel? We look around and make judgments about where to turn. This street looks fun, lets go down there. Stop at a bar, have a drink and talk to some folks. Maybe it’s the right scene and feel and we want to stay close by. If not, drive on until you find the right place.

    I think education sessions planned like that will probably have about the same fail rate as the 3- to 5-point ones. But the successes–when you find a session like that and it makes you think, you meet new people and have real, stimulating conversations, and you didn’t know where you’d end up when you got there — those sessions are walk-off home runs compared to a two-out ground-ball single when the type of session described in this post hits the mark.

  4. Love this post Jeff. It goes along with what I just learned at a recent improv workshop. If you know where you’re going, you are SO much more effective at interesting and educating people. Also, following some basic structure as far as storytelling will help to keep your audience engaged. People really crave meaty stories ala Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”.

    I think this also applies to the basic structure of the event or conference itself. People come to a conference seeking something, hopefully they find it and return home changed for the better. Honoring this process can only help.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I really like your title of Reverse Engineering. I also like how you ask speakers to tie the presentation to two tips from other conference speakers. Great strategy. Thanks for adding.

      Education session learning objectives (LOs) as status quo? Would you call good spelling and good grammar status quo? I’d call it basic, foundational practices for education. And I would submit to you that most of what passes for learning objectives are in fact not learning objectives. Even further, I seriously doubt that many conference organizers allow attendees to evaluate each individual education session in detail including if the presenter meet the learning objectives.

      I’ve attended eight face-to-face conferences and events in the past six months and I hate to say it, but the majority of the presentations were severely lacking, poorly designed and did not focus on learning objectives. Did LOs automatically equate with good presentations? No. Are LOs signs of a bad presentation? No. There is so much more to a presentation but if you don’t have LOs you’re probably going to fail at your attendees learning the information and retaining it. Maybe not fail at entertaining, inspiring or motivating. But you will fail at education.

      While LOs may seem status quo to you, I would submit that the majority of conference presenters, outside of professional speakers, still do not know how to design an effective presentation. And, just because a presenter has good content, does not mean that they have good presentation delivery skills.

      LOs are as important as foundations. People still build houses by starting with a foundation, even if it seems status quo or passé. Without it, the house can’t stand.

      I agree that the analogy that you described about a spontaneous trip could be fun. The objective there is a meandering, let’s see the city and find out what happens. It’s not about getting to a hotel. Try to get approval to attend that type of educational session from CEO or ED and watch their eyes roll. That type of presentation is missing goals and its more about being entertained than specific learning. I’m all for informal learning and it’s usually “problem-centric” not “enjoyment-driven.”

      Here’s the final thought I would leave you with…Would you allow your children to go to school where the teachers just took impromptu informational adventures without any learning objectives? Doubtful. Although we all could use the break from routine sometimes.

      I like the way you described it, “honoring the process.” That really applies to education sessions. If you honor the learning process, you’ll ensure that learning objectives are included.

  5. Ellen says:

    Jeff — I’m with you on your post, but you lost me with some of your comments to Scott’s response….

    First, semantics are important (or the pen wouldn’t be mightier than the sword): let’s stop calling those who attend our educational and conference sessions “attendees” and start calling them “learners.” Attendees show up. Learners want to leave a session with something more than what they arrived with: a new skill, deeper understanding, or something else.

    “Presenters” also suggests static presentations, the very thing you don’t want from your session leaders. Try calling them “facilitators” or “session leaders” so they’ll always be reminded that they aren’t there to “present.”

    Try “learning outcomes” rather than learning objectives. If you can’t define the outcome of the session — what it is the learners will leave with that they didn’t have when they came through the door — then you don’t have a session worth giving. To you and me, “learning outcomes” and “learning objectives” might serve the same purpose — to serve as the foundation of the instructional design for a session. But to others, thinking in terms of “outcomes” shifts the focus from something static to something active.

    And for all these reasons, we should vow to sever the word “presentation” from any reference to an educational event. On pain of death (okay, maybe not to that extreme).

    Shame on us for blaming session leaders for bad events when we kept talking to them about their “presentations.” What did we expect?!?

    Finally — I’m with Scott about the value in meandering as a means to the end. Here’s a real world example:
    — NACUFS is doing a sustainability road trip and workshop as a pre-conference session. Foodservice professionals will be learning while going from spot to spot. Yes, there are objectives, and yes, there will be some meandering, but there will be learning, too. The delivery forum fits this membership base and these learners.

    Thanks for a great post, as usual!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great thoughts and perspective. I wonder how long it would take to get the meetings industry to stop calling their session leaders speakers and presenters. I’ve used presenters in an attempt to help conference organizers think of those sessions as more than lectures. To me, a presentation was more than a speech. However, your thoughts about facilitators and session leaders are even better. I definitely think there is a difference in a facilitator as compared to a speaker or presenter.

      And, I totally buy into a meandering journey as a learning tool, when it is accurately described as one in conference marketing materials. I’m one that tries to learn in every situation, regardless. The NACUFS example you gave was the best of both worlds–a journey for learning and one with learning outcomes. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. […] objectives rages on. Jeff Hurst stakes a stab at it in his MidCourse Corrections blog post, “Improving Your Conference Education: Begin with the End in Mind.” Phil Green gives his perspective in his Onlignment post, “After you have completed this […]

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