Do You Want Your Conference Attendees To Hear Content Or Learn It?


Here’s a question to think about as a conference organizer or speaker.

Do you want your attendees to hear the content or learn it?

Goal: Hear The Information

If your goal is for your attendees to hear the information, then continue planning like you always have. The lecture is the quickest, easiest and most efficient way of delivering information.

Your focus is on covering content. The aim is for the speaker to do all the talking and the audience to do all the listening. The main objective is to present as much information as possible. You judge the success of your conference based on how much content has been covered.

Goal: Learn The Information

If your goal is for the audience to learn critical content, then the way the information is delivered must change! The fundamental flaw with “Speakers talk. Audiences listen” is that is has nothing to do with how humans learn.

Listening to presentations does not equal learning. Content covered does not mean content leaned. The more content you cover and the faster you cover it, the more and faster your attendees forget it.

If you goal is for you conference attendees to remember and use the information, then lecturing won’t get you there! That’s right, just listening to presentations does not mean that the audience remembers or learns it.

Active involvement and engagement during each presentation will help your attendees learn content. To increase the learning, you need to give the attendees time to discuss, question, consider, reflect, decide, act on, share and learn from each other.

Simple And Complicated

Yes, it’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.

It’s simple because it makes sense. It seems obvious.

It’s complicated because it means that you have to fundamentally change your usual planning behaviors. You have to change how you’ve always done it. You have to change your beliefs about what does and doesn’t work at a conference for learning to occur.

You’ll have to change the belief that “Presenters talk. Audiences listen.”

You’ll have to help your superiors and team understand the change. You’ll also have to help your attendees understand and navigate the change.

Why The Old Model Of Lecture?

It is ultimately about the efficiency and economics of information-delivery.

The old model of speakers lecturing to attendees serves three non-learning functions:

1. Lecturing makes information easy to deliver.

The presenter talks; the attendees listen.

2. Lecturing makes information transfer easy to evaluate.

Organization leadership asks, “Did the speaker cover this issue?” If the answer is yes, the leadership assumes everyone now knows that topic.

3. Lecturing is affordable.

Lecturing requires less time to cover a topic than it takes for attendees to learn it. Less time means more money spent on other things. It also takes fewer resources to deliver a lecture than design active learner engagement. Similarly, it takes less space to deliver a lecture than it does for active attendee engagement.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the lecture does not work if learning is the goal! It’s time to stop giving lip service to learning and design conference experiences that foster learning instead.

Special thanks to author and trainer Sharon Bowman who helped frame this discussion!

What steps should conference planners take to make the transition from lectures to a mix of lectures and attendee engagement? Where do you turn to find resources about conference learning and designing attendee engagement activities?

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  1. Paul Salinger says:


    This definitely cuts right to the core of what any content or program design committee should be asking themselves – are we truly about education, or are we just an add-on to the marketing department?

    There may be times you need to do both, but my gut tells me that more and more our attendees are coming to learn, network and have fun. If the first word is right, then learning involves more than passive listening to content, as you so eloquently have written about in this and other posts.

    As planners and program/content designers, we have done a pretty good job of getting those economies of scale and training our audiences to sit passively and let us talk at them. That’s starting to change, fortunately. Now it will be interesting to see if content people within organizations can make the cultural shift to delivering learning vs. just delivering content.

    (FYI – this cuts right to the core of what I emailed you about).

  2. […] Do You Want Your Conference Attendees To Hear Content Or Learn It? Why The Old Model Of Lecture?It is ultimately about the efficiency and economics of information-delivery.The old model of speakers lecturing to attendees serves three non-learning functions:1. Lecturing makes information easy to deliver.The presenter talks; the attendees listen.2. Lecturing makes information transfer easy to evaluate.Organization leadership asks, “Did the speaker cover this issue?” If the answer is yes, the leadership assumes everyone now knows that topic.3. Lecturing is affordable. Source: […]

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Completely agree with your post – I’m one of those people who starts reading emails about 15 minutes into a lecture. At a recent trade show session, the presenter did mind mapping where every group not only documented their thought process on paper but also did graphic representations. It was pretty neat and people actually learned in the process…

  4. thom singer says:

    Jeff,… this is a next step to the ongoing discussion of “content vs. style” when it comes to presentations.

    I talked to a meeting planner from a Fortune 100 company who said “our audience only wants content. They do not care if the speakers are good at presenting… they only come to learn, not be entertained”.

    What? Who says “bore me to death with data”? Nobody I have ever met.

    I do not think “content vs style” is right. It is not too much to expect BOTH. No person wants data dumps once they are sitting in the conference hall chairs. I believe people long to be engaged (and that helps with learning).

    Same is true with what you say here in this post. I think we want the audience to hear AND learn…. but that means finding the right combination of ways to present, interact, engage, and start conversations. There is no easy answer, and it requires trying new things.

    It is easy to want a quantifiable check list about what was covered, but you are spot on that if there is no learning… why bother!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Hearing information and learning it is one of the most difficult challenges that our conference organizers face today. We have an accepted practice that listening equals learning, even thought the science says it’s not so. Making that shift form delivering content to delivering learning is critical for success.

      Great example of how a presenter can capture an audience’s attention and engagement with a simple activity like mind mapping. The learning in that room increased dramatically with that experience. Thanks for sharing it!

      Yes, the challenge is helping audiences understand that information can be found online and that learning is really what they want. Conference organizers have to help attendees understand why the conference changes are occurring and how it ultimately benefits them! Thanks for reading and commenting too!

  5. […] me ask you this. Do you want your participants to hear the information or learn it? If the goal is just to hear the information, keep doing what you’ve always done. If learning […]

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