Conference attendees generally want to learn.
Presenters generally want attendees to learn.
Conference organizers and hosts generally want attendees to learn as well.
So why does so little learning actually occur at a conference?
Good Intentions Pave The Way To Learning Fail
The conference organizers’ and presenters’ intentions are good. Unfortunately, their intentions go awry because often a disconnect occurs in the “what and how” of learning.
Typically, conference organizers spend the majority of their time seeking experts to deliver specific information. The experts focus on covering content. Usually, they try to cover too much content.
This entire process embodies presenter-focused, or teacher-focused, education. The attendee as a learner is completely lost. The learner is expected to adjust to an established way the speaker presents–frequently the lecture.
For successful learning to occur, the organization must shift to attendee-centered or learner-centered education. For conference organizers to succeed in their education endeavors, we must unlearn our expert-reliance. We must become learner-centered.
We must demand that conference organizers meet attendees’ learning needs. We must insist that conference organizers and presenters get better at diagnosing their audience’s learning needs. We must stipulate that speakers choose appropriate learning strategies for their presentations. We must challenge and require speakers to move away from a totally lectured-based presentation.
Attendees Are Information Processors
Conference attendees are information processing organisms. They have sensory capacities, information receiving constraints and memory limitations. To move to a learner-centered conference, we have to recognize how our bodies naturally receive and process information.
1. Sensory Capacities
Presenters should remember that attendees have multiple senses, each with different processing capacities. The more an attendees’ senses are engaged in meaningful and organized ways, the more easily learning can occur. Force too much information through one sense and you’ll overload its capacity.
2. Information Receiving Filters And Constraints
Do you perceive all the information bombarding your senses? Are you aware of the feeling your shoes create on your feet? Do you hear every sound around you right now? If you try, you’ll find that your focus on some noises causes others to fade.
Part of the wonderful way our body works is the ability to selectively perceive all of the stimuli around us. We only notice what appears to be relevant. We are automatically hard-wired to filter out information we perceive is irrelevant. Much of this is done unconsciously.
Three parts of our body, the brain, the nervous system and the endocrine system, are involved in automatically filtering information. Note: The endocrine system controls the chemicals released in our bodies that regulate mood, growth, metabolism and more.
In short, these three body systems act as gatekeepers to whether we focus our attention on specific stimuli. You can take charge of that attention for a short period. However, as soon as you lose attention, the body reverts to its automatic filters.
If an attendee unconsciously feels that the information is not vital to his or her needs, our body systems automatically filter out the information being transmitted.
To facilitate effective learning, presenters have to focus on attendees’ information-handling and storage capabilities.
3. Memory Limitations
Information that gets past our bodies’ natural gatekeepers is allowed into short term memory. Short term memory lasts for 10-15 seconds. It fills up and then automatically empties to be refilled again.
Information that enters short term memory is examined and either dropped or sent to long term memory. Unconsciously, the attendee decides if the information is important to store in long term memory. This decision is based on need, relevancy and past experience. If there’s no past experience with that information, there’s nothing to connect it to in long term memory and it is quickly forgotten.
The Conference Presentation As Transformation
As you can see, learning is a fragile process. A lot of things can stimulate or hinder conference learning. We have to get better at designing experiences that foster learning. We have to become learner-centric and see our attendees as information processers, including its limits and opportunities. The traditional lecture is not enough and is actually a learning barrier!
When learning does occur, the attendee’s mind is literally no longer the same as it was before the learning took place. Learning is change in our brain. It is the change that occurs in our physical and cognitive structures. That change can lead to new attitudes. It has the potential to lead to new behaviors.
This transformation equips the attendee with the ability to act in new ways. The attendee is transformed! And the attendee’s brain has changed, literally!
What are some ways to engage the senses at a conference experience that facilitates learning? What does moving from an expert-reliance conference experience to a learner-centered experience require?
Andrea Cook says
Enjoyed your post. As an event reporter – and Toastmaster – I find myself critiquing the speakers and presenters often. There are times when I get SO distracted from the poor delivery of a presenter that there is zero takeaway. When this happens, it not only reflects poorly on the speaker, but also on the event curator/promoter and all of the players and sponsors involved in the event.
I liked some of your tips here too. Many of us need infotainment, rich content lightened with some yummy eye-bytes with a dash of humor, in order to absorb the material. After all, many of us learned the ABC’s while watching Sesame Street!
Thanks again Jeff for a great write up. I hope we as an industry can raise the bar when it comes to deliver behind the lectern.
– Andrea Cook
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for reading and responding too. So agree that presenters have to change up their traditional presentations to engage the audience in a variety of ways. It’s critical to the learning success.
Ian Adams says
Andrea, as a former Toastmaster as well (or maybe an always aspiring Toastmaster), I scrutinize presenters performance. People are primarily visual. We rely on our vision to process the majority of information. To your points Jeff, some ideas to spruce up presentations to really make the content pop and not only educate but entertain I’d recommend sites like Prezi.com. I have no affiliation with them, and there are many others out there, but these type of tools can really help differentiate a presentation.
Thanks for the post.
Jody Urquhart says
Personally I haven’t found PowerPoint to enhance many presentations but I don’t think most people use it right. I very rarely use it.
I think Customizing is the key here. Its about the ability to organically connect the material to the audience as the speech unfolds. Especially in diverse ( say association ) audiences, participants are so diverse and eclectic( jobs, values, goals,learning styles), no matter how much preparation you do, you cannot but completely sure all your content is 100% relevant to everyone.
So i think it is a dance speakers do to present there fabulous content while also gauging where it sits with the crowd. If it’s a shorter keynote, interaction is more difficult but still critical.
Short interactions with audience members or open ended questions may give you a clue as to where participants are. Very often the most reserved audience member is also the one getting the most out of the presentation- so it can be hard to judge.
Engaging all the senses and learning styles is also a crucial part. Doing longer one day session it is easier to overall gauge an audience interaction better than in a short keynote. Longer sessions have much more intense feedback and an ability to alter your course along the way.
This is a very cool topic. I love it. I love to listen to a fabulous speaker and be totally engaged (and analyze why). I do feel when I am inspired my brain has been changed.
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks as always for reading and commenting.
As a meeting professional often in charge of securing the right speaker for my audience, I found that I would be watching the audience more than the speaker. I learned to observe to see it that speaker was resonating and connecting with the participants. Analyzing why certain speakers works and others don’t is a skill more meeting professionals could use for sure!
I’m with you that visuals are an extremely important part of a brain-friendly presentation today! The scientific research is overwhelmingly in favor of using visuals and creating images in our minds. We think in pictures, not words. When presenters use the spoken word and don’t paint pictures with their presentations, the information gets lost. Current science states that 80% of our brain’s processing power is devoted to processing visuals.
I personally am not a fan of Prezi as it has a tendency to make me sea sick. To paraphrase Jody, it’s not that PPT is wrong, it’s the misuse of it. It’s the same thing with Prezi, a lot of people still use it incorrectly.
Thanks for reading and commenting!