Let’s face it. Most conference education is lackluster. Actually, most of it stinks, is dull and could be used to line bird cages.
Generally, our customers say they attend conferences and meetings to learn and network. Yet, we as conference organizers continue to do the same things we’ve always done when planning our meetings–focus on the logistics and details.
Ultimately, the biggest barrier to better conference education is the speaker. Conference organizers typically secure industry experts as instructors for their event. We often equate their experience and expertise with the ability to communicate effectively. We assume that if they are industry veterans, they must also be good at delivering presentations. We think, “Surely they’ve had a lot of practice presenting.”
Experience And Practice
So is experience synonymous with practice? Aren’t they the same thing?
Experience means that you are simply engaged in an activity. I’ve been driving since I was 16 years old. I’m an experienced driver–that is I’ve done a lot of driving. But I’m not well-practiced, because for most of that time, I’ve not tried to improve my driving. Sure, I did work at improving my driving skills when I first got behind the wheel. My father took me out to large parking lots so I could practice driving. I took driver’s education in school. After a semester of driver’s ed and several months of practice, I had adequate skills to drive. So I stopped trying to improve.
Practice means that you are trying to improve your performance. Practice is hard. It takes time, intention and work. Practice involves more than engaging in activity. Athletes practice. Musicians practice. Actors practice. Yet most industry speakers rarely practice presenting.
The Importance Of Helping Our Industry Speakers Practice
To improve our conference education, we need to help our industry speakers practice developing content and presenting information. We need to help them practice the craft of effective presentations.
Here are three things that event professionals can do to help speakers practice.
1. Encouraging presenters to consciously try to improve.
It sounds obvious yet can yield positive results. As the conference organizer, set an average overall goal for all of your speakers’ presentations. Start with an overall 80% average favorable score. Share that goal with the speakers. Encourage them to do all they can to ensure getting an 80%, or better, rating in their sessions. Help them see the attendees as learners and participants. Consider rewarding the top quartile and not inviting back the bottom 25%. Host pre-conference speaker webinars and discuss the goal of improving education sessions and engaging the participants months in advance of the conference.
2. Provide activities and programs for speakers to improve their presentations.
Provide speaker webinars on how to design effective presentations. Provide podcasts on good adult instructional strategies and tips. Distribute short, insightful articles about designing effective presentations. Hold a half- or full-day pre-conference training session for all speakers and allow them the opportunity to practice five- or seven-minute presentations for their peers who can provide immediate feedback.
3. Provide better feedback and evaluation systems for each education session.
Practice entails getting effective feedback from knowledgeable people. Writers have readers and editors. Sports teams have coaches. Actors have directors and producers. How can our conference speakers improve unless there is some valid assessment of how they are doing? Without detailed feedback, they will never know what changes they need to make to become better presenters.
This means conference organizers must adopt better evaluation systems for each presentation. Providing an electronic survey with one question per session is not enough. The evaluation process should first occur at the end of each presentation.
Event organizers should ask attendees to rate
- the relevance of session
- the program’s content
- the pace and timing of the presentation
- the facilitator’s delivery style
- the facilitator’s knowledge
- if the facilitator met the program’s learning objective
- if the printed description matched the presentation
- if they learned anything new or if it was reinforcement
- if they will be able to apply what they learned
- if the content is important to them
We must also ask open ended questions like:
- What did you find most valuable from the session?
- What did you find least valuable from the session?
- How will you apply the information you learned?
- Other comments.
Event organizers should also be taking head counts at the beginning of each presentation and again 15 minutes before the end of the presentation to see if there has been a mass exodus from the room indicating a poor session. Even further, we should calculate the number of evaluations returned to the number of attendees. This is another indicator of the presentation as often people won’t complete poor evaluations because they don’t want to hurt their peers.
Until conference organizers take education evaluations seriously, education sessions will continue to be mediocre as feedback to presenters is limited.
If conference organizers want to improve education sessions, they must find ways to invest in industry speakers and allow them opportunities to practice presenting. That practice leads to improvement.
What are some other ways meeting professionals could allow industry speakers to practice presenting? What items do you evaluate for your education sessions?
Scott Briscoe says
Hey Jeff – I’m afraid we may never agree on the last post. I mean, I think the post is fine, but it puts people in the position of thinking about conference sessions as they always are, and I love trying to break new ground. I’d love to see us not be afraid of unstructure.
This post I love. Not because of the three points of advice, which I think are good and would be great if you could force your presenters to care enough (some will!). I loved the post because it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend talking about one of the things he learned at an ASAE conference years ago when we had Jay Leno do a gig at one of the evening events.
Jay was great, really fun, engaging, etc., but it was entertainment, nothing really to learn there. But then my friend said he learned how to engage an audience from Jay. Sure it helps to be funny, but what he took in was that when talking to a large group of people it’s hard to make connections with the audience. And while Jay was talking to a couple thousand, the same holds for a room of 100 — it can be hard to build a connection. How did Jay build connections–what did my friend learn? Don’t try to build a connection with 100 people. Choose a few of the people in the front and build connections with them. When you do that, you grab the whole audience. Ever since then, I’ve seen that play out with good presenters over and over.
Anyway, your post serves as a reminder to me: always be on the lookout to learn something. When at a conference watch the people who are good presenters and learn from them, not just what they’re saying.
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for the great story. It really applies well here that we should always be on the lookout to learn something. You have a very wise friend there! And, BTW, I actually embrace diversity of thought like in your comments on a previous post. I’ve always embraced it’s ok to disagree as long as we are not disagreeable!