Five Strategies To Improve The Common Conference Lecture

TEDxMidAtlantic 2011 - Arun Majumdar

All learning IS experience. Everything else is just information. ~ Albert Einstein

Talking is a critical part of that learning experience. We talk so we can understand. We talk so we can remember. We talk so we can learn.

But who does the majority of talking at a conference and who does the majority of listening? The speakers talk as the audience listens.

Attendees Spend The Majority Of Their Conference Time Listening

Yes, listening is part of the learning process. However, in formal learning environments, like the lecture, listening is usually the only thing that attendees do. And it’s the least thing they should do if learning is the goal.

Evidence-based education proves that listening is the smallest part of the learning process. To learn best, attendees should listen and watch, write and talk, demonstrate and practice, and share what they’ve learned with someone else. It is when they talk about it and share with others that they begin to master the subject.

Bottom line, the person doing the most talking at your conference is the person doing the most learning about that topic. Usually, that’s the speaker.

We should be allowing our attendees to talk more at conferences. Our education sessions should sound like a thriving beehive with buzz of talking attendees.

Strategies To Improve The Lecture And Increase Audience Engagement

Here are five strategies to help all lecturers improve audience learning and retention.

1. Speakers Stop Talking

This will be the most challenging thing a presenter has to do.

“But I have so much information to cover. They need to understand this principle and this principle and this fact to understand the bigger issue,” is probably what many of your speakers will say. Just remember, the longer they talk, the less the audience learns.

Speakers should identify three things they want the audience to remember and build their presentation around those three things. Then they should plan to stop talking several times in their lectures, even if just for a couple minutes. The audience can summarize what the speaker has said and how they might apply them in one to two minutes.

2. Begin With Pairs

When a speaker asks a large audience a question, only one person responds while everyone else listens. When the speaker encourages everyone to find a partner to discuss the question, everyone gets involved in answering that question. The introvert also feels safer talking to one individual than a table of ten or twelve.

The speaker can move from pairs to triads to crescent rounds of six throughout the presentation to mix it up. However, the speaker should start with pairs whenever possible.

3. Create The Safe Space

For audiences, a low-risk activity is one where they collaborate with others to answer a question. High-risk activities stir up the emotions as someone has to answer the question in front of a group. The risk is psychological because most people do not wish to appear ignorant in front of others.

Paired or triad discussions are low-risk discussions and create a sense of a safe space.

4. Two Before You (If You’re The Speaker)

Frequently when an attendee asks the speaker a question, others in the room know the answer. Help the speaker ask for two responses to the question before responding. Or when the speaker asks a question, he/she can say, “I would like at least two responses before continuing.”

5. Open-Ended Fosters Discussion

Whenever possible, the speaker should ask open-ended questions. Yes/No questions don’t engage the brain. Here are some sample questions to consider:

  • How does this information compare with what you already know about this subject?
  • What does this information mean to your profession or task?
  • What are two things you now know that you didn’t know before you came to this session?
  • What are some changes you can make to leverage this information?
  • What are the barriers that will keep you from applying this information and how can you overcome them?
  • How will you share this information with your team, colleagues and supervisors and what do you expect them to say?
  • What will it take for you to apply this information?

Hat Tips to author Sharon Bowman and her many education resources about learning and training.

What’s keeping you from transitioning from conference education that is talking monologues to peer sharing? What other strategies would you suggest to improve the common lecture?

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  1. Frank Kenny says:

    I have noticed in my presentations that if I go on too long, no matter how important the info is, I will start to lose people. I have to remember to stop every so often and bring the audience back into the discussion.

    Thanks for these tips.

  2. Traci Browne says:

    Good stuff Jeff…I will be putting these tips to practice at my session at EXHIBITOR in March. I’ll let you know what the response was.

  3. I especially like tip #4. That’s a great idea! It makes the presentation much more interactive.

  4. Have employed the pairs strategy on many occasions and the richness of the ‘pair engagement’ is clearly evident. Totally agree that speakers should start with pairs first – watch, listen & observe! Next week will be trying out the triads approach to a group of health practitioners. Thanks for great info Jeff.

  5. Tom Costello says:

    Great tips Jeff and thanks for sharing. I will certainly keep them in mind while delivering my webinar next week.

  6. Great ideas as always, Jeff! I am always a little skittish when it comes to the “paired share” – especially in very large groups. But that doesn’t stop me!
    I was at a conference sitting in the back observing one of my speaker buddies, and the speaker asked us to discuss a specific question. So I looked over to the gentleman who was sitting relatively near me to start chatting and he responded, “I didn’t come to hear what you have to say; I want to hear what the speaker has to say!”
    Spoken like a true “Boomer” generation…
    Keep in mind, you WILL have people who resist, so help them by saying, “We all have an idea or perspective about [this topic], so let’s start a conversation with what you think and I promise we’ll ALL learn from each other, bringing the best ideas forward.” At least, that’s more my style.
    Another speaker buddy friend of mine addresses the resistance right up front: “I know some of you are thinking….that I didn’t come to hear from the guy or gal next to me. I came to hear YOU! That’s okay…we’ll get to that later!”
    The tee up of your point 2 is soooo important!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      So true about the resistance a presenter may get when it’s pitched back to the audience to think about. I like to frame my discussions with the evidence that “talking trumps listening” and that if we truly want to learn something, we need to talk about it with others. I also give people the right to say “Pass,” if they don’t want to participate. That freedoms goes a long way to create a safe space.

      Thanks for reading and bringing to light the importance of framing the why and how of discussions so that others will participate.

  7. […] Most attendees spend the majority of their time in lectures at a conference. If learning is the goal. we need attendees to spend more time talking.  […]

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