Registrant, Attendee, Participant Or Learner?

Words, words, words. They are everywhere. Billboards, blogs, books, Facebook, menus, movies, internet, LinkedIn, magazines, newspapers, roadway signs, screens, social media, smart phones, television, Twitter and websites to name a few.

Words are rapped, shouted, spoken and sung. Some are believed, felt and trusted. Some are disputed, doubted and cause negative emotions.

Image by photine.

Some words dance, move and scroll across screens. Some change colors and sizes. Some say, “Buy me. Drink me. Eat me. Feel me. Smell me. Taste Me. Take me home. You need me.” With so many words, have some lost their meaning? Have some lost their power?

Words Have Meaning And Power

When we say, “I need you,” we offer someone hope. When we say, “I hate you,” we destroy another. Words can offer life or wound. They can lead or separate.

We use words to name things. Words describe people, places and things. Call someone by the wrong name and they don’t respond. Use the wrong word and people respond according to their interpretation of that word.

We can use words to describe what we are living, how we work and how to improve our professional lives. These words need to be received, responded to and acted on by others.

A blog needs a reader. A movie needs a viewer. A speaker needs a listener. A conference needs a _______________?

What Do We Call People Who Attend Conferences?

What should we call people who have registered to attend a conference? What’s the right word to use to describe how we want people who attend a conference to act, behave and respond?

Registrants? Attendees? Participants? Learners?

 Take a look at these definitions. The differences are subtle yet articulate distinct responses and actions.

  • Registrant – one who registers or is registered; a person who is formally registered and gains certain rights thereby.
  • Attendee – one who is present or attends a functions; a person who participates in a meeting
  • Participant – one that participates, shares or takes part in something; a participator; a partaker
  • Learner – one that gains knowledge, comprehension or mastery through experience or study; someone who learns or takes knowledge or beliefs; one that is learning; one that is acquiring new knowledge, behaviors, skills, values or preferences.

From Consumers To Participants To Learners

If we really want conferences and events to shift from people consuming information and passively listening to lectures to active engagement and contributors, perhaps we should choose a different word to define our registrants.

Ellen with aLearning Blog has raised this question several times here on this blog and on her own. As a professional educator and former association exec, she states:

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.

So what word or words should we use to call those that attend conferences and events? Do you think using the right word has any impact on behavior or is just all a matter of interpretation? I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

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  2. Paul Salinger says:


    what is interesting is that I’m involved with designing a conference right now for the Green Meetings Industry Council and we’re having this same conversation. We actually ended up changing the name of the committee working on the conference program design from the program committee to the learning design committee.

    the points you are raising really resonate with me. I’m very interested in how we bring along our audiences from passive attendees to highly engaged learners and even collaborators – and this is the direction we are taking with the GMIC conference. Our intent is to design a conference that is about total engagement, where we immerse our learner collaborators in a series of knowledge based sessions that combine context and learning combined with hands on practical experience and lots of white space to absorb and discuss in networking environments.

    The one issue we may need to address is whether we have done such a good job of training our “attendees” to be relatively passive and listen rather than participate, or sit through a long powerpoint-laden presentation, that this new way of approaching learning design is actually too intimidating and that some people do not want this kind of engagement.

    There is probably a balance in thinking about how people learn and potentially having a variety of experience that account for that.

    In some ways, I think we may need to lead the audience into this new world, but I do think it is imperative that we start to move to a new world of learning and collaboration at our conferences, events and meetings to enrich the experience for all involved.

    Thanks for raising the questions.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts. I’ve seen several tweets today with additional thoughts from folks. I’ll share more about those in a post tomorrow.

      Do I think we’ve trained attendees to be passive? No. With good facilitators, even passive listeners (lurkers in social media) can become active participants. It’s about the small nuances from the faciliators to state “turn to your neighbor and discuss” or the well-thought question strategies for groups of three, four, six or ten to discuss. I think we’ve allowed speakers to be lecturers for too long. If there’s any group that needs retraining, it’s our industry speakers. We need to invest in them and help them learn new strategies for sharing and facilitating experiences.

  3. Adrian Segar says:

    Jeff, I’m always impressed by how you highlight important issues.

    I think the four words make significant distinctions. When writing my book I was careful to use the first three in the ways you describe.

    But I don’t describe attendees and participants as learners. I want people to learn at my events, of course, but, even if I provide the most amazing learning environment possible, there’s no guarantee that anyone will learn a thing.

    If people register at an event that makes them a registrants; if they attend an event they’re attendees; if they participate to some degree they’re participants to that degree. But what and how much someone learns is ultimately up to them.

    Telling someone that the goal of a session is for them to learn something is important, and creating the best environment for that learning can occur is critical. But I don’t want to call attendees or participants learners, because that implies that if they attend/participate in the session they will learn no matter what. Then we’re back to learning by just showing up.

    Our job is to guide, support, and encourage attendees/participants in their own learning, while never forgetting that they are ultimately responsible for their own development.

  4. Paul Salinger says:


    you’re probably right about needing to retrain speakers more than attendees. this is really true in the B2B space where Powerpoint and lecturing have really become the norm.

    Adrian is right as well though that learning is as much the responsibility of the participant/attendee as it is of the presenter and the learning style presented.

  5. […] a recent blog post I asked Registrant, Attendee, Participant Or Learner? What do we call people who attend a conference or […]

  6. I struggle with this in writing about meetings. I usually fall back on “attendee,” since we know they showed up even if they didn’t participate in or learn during the event I’m writing about. In continuing medical ed circles, they usually call them learners (which may be a bit optimistic in some cases), so that’s what I usually use when writing about CME.

    But that’s where the focus firmly lies with CME. For a team-building event, participation may be more important. If all your organization wants out of the event is financial gain, maybe registrant is the right call (though I’d urge you to rethink your goals).

    I think it’s going to depend on what the goals are of the person attending and the organization that’s putting it on. I don’t think there will ever be one term that fits all meeting-goers, just as there’s no one term that aptly describes every kind of event (except maybe “event”?)

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Adrian Great point: “Our job is to guide, support, and encourage attendees/participants in their own learning, while never forgetting that they are ultimately responsible for their own development.” I like that statement.

      Here’s an interesting thought, we call people who attend schools, “Students,” meaning learner, whether they are learning or not. What if we applied the same principle to learning events and call those attending learners, regardless if they were learning or not? Just sayin… 🙂

      @Paul – Agree, the reponsibility for learning is as much as on the attendee as the presenter

      @Sue – I like how you’ve framed each word depending upon the goal. Your statement “…it’s going to depend on what the goals are of the person attending…” makes a lot of sense to me too.

  7. Brian Fang says:

    the business context/version should be “delegates”.

  8. Peter says:

    What would we call someone who is a target to be invited to an event/conference but hasn’t been invited yet? What about someone who might register for an event/conference?

    I’m really looking for the precursor to registrant and/or invitee.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I use the terms prospect or potential customer (potential registrant). In today’s world of tech-savvy people, it might also be the lurker. 😉

  9. VJ says:

    delegates? members?

  10. […] while we are at it, who fills the room at these events? Registrants, attendees, participants, or nonprofit […]

  11. […] a recent blog post I asked Registrant, Attendee, Participant Or Learner? What do we call people who attend a conference or […]

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