Three Pitfalls To Your Conference Education Success

Catch a Wookiee with a Cookie

I was extremely irritated.

In less than twenty minutes I visited four different conference education sessions. Each of them was a waste of my time.

Two sessions were about content that I already knew, even though their session descriptions said they were for advanced audiences. One session had two bumbling, rambling presenters speaking jargon and using acronyms that made no sense. One session was on a subject that was entirely different than the session description.

I sat in the hallway and met with a group of others who were also frustrated with the sessions. We created our own session which ended up attracting about 20 others.

Letting The Content Drive Design Vs Letting Learner’s Needs Drive Design

Often conference organizers and presenters have a hard time deciding how to develop their content. Most default to a content-centric model instead of a learner-centric one. If presenters work for content thoroughness and clarity, it is a very different presentation than one that centers on what the listener is thinking, doing and feeling.

Let’s face it. Content-centric models for presentations are easier to develop. They tend to dominate our thoughts and focus. Unfortunately, they also frustrate our audiences.

Three Pitfalls To Good Conference Content And Education

Here are three common traps that presenters and conferences organizers fall into when deciding content and presentations.

1. Presenting content the audience already knows.

This is a presentation killer! It only irritates the audience.

Typically, speakers assume the role of presenting information to the audience and leading activities. Unless all the attendees are identical in their experience, presenters have the challenge of reaching those that have little background and the need to cover the basics as well as trying to pacify those that are familiar with the basics and want more advanced content.

If the audience does not feel they are getting value for their time and investment, they will quickly move from disappointment to irritation. Sometimes they move beyond irritation to a point of no return.

An audience’s positive attitude of interest and readiness to learn can get lost in seconds if the presentation is of no value. Without an appropriate frame of mind, no learning occurs.

2. Paying little attention to the audience’s perspective.

Too often, the presenter lets the content dictate what should be shared. The content drives the scope and sequence. Unfortunately, the content’s depth does not align with the learner’s needs.

Here are some important questions speakers should use to guide their presentation development:

  • What is the learner wondering?
  • What challenges would increase the listener’s curiosity?
  • What would increase the listener’s interest in the content?
  • What misconceptions does the learner have about the information?
  • What does the learner know already?
  • What do the learners aspire to achieve?
  • What actions regarding the content look easy but are actually hard?
  • What actions regarding the content look hard but are actually easy?

3. Presenting complicated information that the audience can’t understand.

This is a conference death trap. It only irritates the audience!

Learning is a building process between what we already know and the new information. The goal of learning is to result in a sustained change in behavior. If the listener does not have context of the new information, it is difficult to understand much less apply. A learner’s perspective is much different than that of the expert’s.

When conference organizers let content drive the design, they only frustrate learners. They neglect the very aspect of education that is to facilitate comprehension.

How can conference organizers help speakers avoid these three common traps? What should conference organizers do when a speaker is delivering a presentation that does not align with the publicized session description?

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  1. Traci Browne says:

    Good stuff here Jeff, but I have a question regarding the first pitfall and I’ve been there several times. How do you handle an audience that has a mixed level of understanding of your topic? I’ve presented advanced sessions to marketers only to discover that half the room didn’t know the difference between goals and objectives and strategy and tactics. If I didn’t explain that first I’d lose half the audience going forward, If I did stop to explain, those who already knew would be lost. Luckily for me at was leading into a break so I suggested that those who wanted to understand the difference should hang back to discuss. What would you suggest in these situations?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Great question. Here’s one way to handle this challenge. Take five minutes and have your audience discuss in small groups what they already know about the topic. Typically, the beginners can learn the basics from the experienced in their small groups. Spend a few minutes debriefing what everyone knows and then proceed with your topic. Manage the audience’s expectations too by telling them you are not going to cover the basics and if they need more beginning content, they can talk with the experienced attendees during the break. Hope this helps.

      Thanks for reading and commenting too.

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