Conference Attendees Remember What They Think About

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Conference speakers make assumptions every day about how their attendees comprehend, remember and apply the information they hear.

These assumptions, as well as their presentation decisions, are based on a mix of theories, trial and error, past experiences with their own teachers and professors, and instinct.

Yet are these theories, experiences and instinct serving the speaker and the participant well? Are the speakers’ assumptions accurate?

Issue: The Speaker Talks As The Attendees Listen Yet Learning Doesn’t Occur

Consider the following scenario. It’s not much different from conferences across the globe.

The speaker presents a strong, coherent presentation. The lecturer shares a significant set of facts in sequential order that lead to a reasonable conclusion. At the end of the session, the speaker distributes a short evaluation to see if the audience learned the critical information.

The attendees show no understanding of connecting the facts to the conclusion. Some repeat the conclusion without the facts. Others parrot back the facts without knowledge of how they are connected. Few can explain how the facts and conclusion apply to their jobs. Few can articulate what changes they will make in their office as result of hearing the lecture.

Why do well-crafted, coherent presentations result in less-meaningful, fragmented forms? Why do the majority of lectures result in a lack of understanding the conclusion and how to apply it? The information was presented so is it just the attendee’s fault for not paying attention?

Fact: Shallow Knowledge Occurs With Lectures

Rote learning, memorizing facts, is devoid of all meaning. The knowledge attendees appear to have after listening to a lecture is actually shallow knowledge. They heard the facts and conclusion. Because they heard it, it is familiar to them. And they may even be able to regurgitate some of the facts or the conclusion. Unfortunately, they do not understand the relationship of the facts to each other or to the conclusion. Nor do they understand the affect the conclusion has on their profession.

Cognitive science has proven that what ends up in an attendee’s memory is not simply the material the lecturer presented. It is the product of what the attendee thought about when he/she encountered the material.

In other words, the facts may be isolated because they are without meaning. The attendees might see a couple trees but they can’t see the forest. Nor do they realize how the forest affects their job.

Resolution: Memory Is As Thinking Does

One factor trumps all others when determining what is remembered: memory is as thinking does.

What you think about when you encounter a presentation is what you remember.

Just because the speaker’s presentation has meaning to the attendees, does not mean that the meaning will be remembered. If the attendees think about that meaning during the presentation then the meaning will reside in the memory. If they don’t, it won’t!

Memory of the presentation is the residue of learning.

Speaker Solutions To Transform Shallow Knowledge Into Meaningful Learning

Constructing meaning is a matter of being mentally engaged. It involves intentionality on the part of the learner.

So how do we help conference attendees be mentally engaged? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Urge speakers to cut their content by 50 percent and add time for discussion and independent reflection.

Suggest to speakers that instead of pushing content the entire time, find ways to pull participant experiences with the content into the presentation.

2. Challenge speakers to anticipate what their presentation will cause attendees to think about.

Speakers should always try to anticipate what participants will be thinking during their presentations.

3. Require speakers to provide discussion opportunities. Ask them to have at least two 5-10 minute peer to peer conversations built into their presentation.

Speakers should ask attendees:

  • Leading questions that encourages thinking about how to apply the information in the presentation.
  • To identify how the facts are connected to each other and how they affect their work.
  • To analyze and evaluate what changes they should make at work after hearing the presentation.

4. Request that speakers provide individual reflective exercises during the presentation.

Speakers can ask attendees to write down one way the information will change their work habits. Attendees can answer a series of questions provided in a handout. Speakers can ask participants to self-examine what they are currently doing that hinders them from applying the new information.

From Shallow Knowledge To Meaningful Learning

Research clearly tells us that deep, connected knowledge can occur when we encourage conference attendees to think about what they heard during a lecture. The job rests in the hands of experienced presenters.

Keeping the “memory is as thinking does” principle in mind is critical if learning and retention is the goal.

What are some ways speakers can encourage attendees to think? How can organizers provide more thinking opportunities during conference experiences?

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  1. Great article Jeff. Makes me think about when I was teaching 8th grade American history. My colleagues would tease me that they could tell their students a ton more than I could wasting time by doing things like having students dress up as part of a formal mock trial to try Columbus for high crimes against humanity – using testimonies they personally researched to create.

    I doubt those same teachers heard back from their students years later, in great detail, citing what they had learned in their classes like I did. 😉

    The students loved it then – and adults have been enjoying participative learning when it comes to leadership development as well.

    Thanks for sharing such important information.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and responding. Your are a great example of a presenter that challenges people to think and gives them the time to do so in presentations. Viva la Learning! 8)

  2. Nadia says:

    Hi Jeff, reading your posts should be a must for any so called expert presenting her or his knowledge! Thanks a lot for your reasoning.
    What about giving a leading question in the beginning as well as time for jotting a first reflections on that question down on some paper. Self-refelection, bubbeling with the neighbour and comparing its own notes from the beginning might be quite revealing. But even greater would be moving: interrupt the presentation ans send participants in pairs outside for a 10′ walk: walk the talk. I never experienced this one but I am convinced it’s worth a try (depending on the location and size of the group).
    Best, Nadia

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation. You’ve given a great example of a self-reflection exercise and then peer sharing. I also really like the “walk the talk” exercise and have used it in many times. It’s a great example of brain science for learning at work…movement, along with conversation with a peer.

      Thanks for adding those!

  3. […] Conference speakers make assumptions about how attendees comprehend and remember information they hear. Does a lecture lead to learning?  […]

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