Avoiding Zombie Zeitgeist: How Passive Listening Undermines Learning


The walking dead! We see them at every conference we attend.

Eyes glazed over. Faces void of emotion. Weird body twitches from sitting in one position too long. Aimlessly walking the same direction to the next session. Grunts and groans as they salivate for something they will not get–relevant, meaningful information, relationship building activities and unique learning experiences.

Most conferences create a zombie apocalypse with overwhelmed attendees leaving the event wondering what happened the previous three days. They don’t recall much of the content.

Memory is the residue of learning. If you don’t recall anything about the conference content, you didn’t learn it!

How Lectures Create Zombie Attendees

Often our conference education, the traditional lecture, is like a parasite that turns innocent victims into mindless zombies unable to think for themselves. The droning lecture takes over the brain and keeps it from learning anything. The more information that is shoved into our ears and minds, the less we retain.

Sitting passively all day in workshops, seminars and conference education is like a poison that slows our bodily functions. The more we hear from speaker monologues and panel dialogues, the more we enter a trance-like state with no memory. The more we sit and listen, the more the poison floods our body.

And what is often even more frightening than creating zombies? We pay for this experience. And we pay like mindless zombies every year for a repeat of that zombie apocalypse conference experience.

Real Learning Combats Zombie Syndrome

We learn best when we have the time to think and reflect. Our brain must be given time to connect new information to past experiences and knowledge.

Here’s the challenge. You cannot think and listen at the same time. So if the speaker is talking, you are not thinking. If you start thinking about something the speaker has said, you stop listening.

So doesn’t it make sense that the speaker should stop talking sometimes and allow the audience to think, digest, discuss and reflect?

Presenters and their messages are vitally important to conference listeners. When presenters deliver that message with passion and energy AND when they involve their listeners in active learning, they create an unforgettable experience.

The best way to make sure our listeners learn and retain what we share is to involve them in the learning process. It also combats conference zombism!

Wondering where to start with involving learners during a lecture? Try these activities or perhaps these formats.

Where should we start to help presenters move from lectures to audience engagement? What resources have you used to help speakers create audience participation and interaction?

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  1. Jay S. Daughtry says:

    Another challenging piece, Jeff. I think the problem is that we think we’re (or our roster of speakers) the exception to these dynamics. Most organizations can readily see the changes others need to make to their conference sessions but not to their own. Their excuses: sessions need to be this technical, these are the recognized authorities in our field, etc.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Lectures are great for transmitting technical information. However, the research shows they are as effective as distributing a report to read about the technical information. That’s huge. Until audiences demand different types of sessions, the lecture will remain.

      Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  2. thom singer says:

    Jeff- and it gets worse when those listening are also reading emails and checking Facebook on their phones. I saw this at SXSW… everyone spaced out from each other and buried faces in phones while speakers were talking. The multi-task made it double zombie.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great point that people who were not engaged in the experience, we’re doing something else with their time…emails, Facebook. IMO, the presenter is at fault there…their presentation was not more engaging than the distractions.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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