Fostering An Extremely Powerful Tool At Your Conference: The Session Discussion

innocent, i tell ya!

Can we talk?

I certainly hope so!

Two-way communication is an extremely powerful tool that your conference needs to foster. Discussions are critical to cement learning in the brain. Without peer discussions, your conference education sessions are nothing more than audio voices blowing in the wind.

Let’s Talk

Talk! We can’t get enough of it.

Yet often we try to control chatter and talking at our conferences because we believe listening to an expert speak is more important than allowing the audience to talk to each other.

Actually, we need a balance of both! And if learning is the goal, we need more attendee discussions than expert lectures. Without peer discussions, most of the information presented by the speaker is forgotten.

It’s time to devote 50% of all conference education sessions to peer discussion! We have to move away from the institution of the lecture as the primary education method for the conference.

Success Conference Discussions Include

A successful conference discussion:

  • Starts with the speaker framing why discussion is important and necessary for learning and retention
  • Allows people to pass if they want opt out of the discussion
  • Encourages participation by all members that want to participate (not just the panel on stage)
  • Explores issues in depth
  • Looks at a variety of perspectives
  • Takes effort and energy
  • Is not monopolized by one or two people
  • Does not have frequent interruptions from other members
  • Is not just Q&A at the end of the session

The most successful conference discussions are done in pairs or triads. The smaller the discussion group, the safer it feels for people to participate. Pairs and triads also allow every person an opportunity to share their thoughts and insights. The larger the discussion group, the less learning that occurs because people have to wait their turn to speak. Also, introverts feel safer in pairs or triads than they do in groups of six, ten or twelve.

The Benefits Of Conference Discussions

During lectures, conference attendees are passive recipients of information that is transmitted from a speaker. According to education researcher Dr. Donald Bligh, the common lecture is the equivalent of distributing a report. It doesn’t mean that the recipient reads, understands or applies the report.

During discussions attendees become active participants. They are thinking about the content and deciding how it fits within their own context.

Discussions (both online and face to face) allow conference participants to:

  • Articulate their ideas
  • Ask questions
  • Think about the content and respond to it
  • Receive feedback from others
  • Identify different perspectives
  • Connect with others
  • Interact with new information
  • Acknowledge how they feel about the information, a critical component of learning

The mere act of telling or explaining what one knows to another helps cement the understanding of concepts and issues. It also allows participants to ask questions and deconstruct how new information might apply to them. Sharing opinions, explanations and experiences helps both the talker and listener connect new ideas to past knowledge and experiences. It gives them an opportunity to “think out loud” and thinking is necessary for learning!

Discussion is so important to education endeavors and learning that the Common Core State Standard Initiatives adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia, four US territories and the Department of Defense Education Activity include an emphasis on formal and informal discussions. If the majority of our state governors and public elementary and secondary education officials have adopted discussion as a crucial tool for learning, shouldn’t conference organizers do the same?

We must remember that the collective potential of conference participants far exceed any single contribution, including that of the subject matter expert! It’s time to mine that potential and let attendees become active participants through session discussions!

Why are so many conferences still filled with an outdated education model of the lecture? What are some tips that you’ve learned or experienced to foster audience discussions at conferences or meetings?

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  1. jim kelley says:

    Great points…it is always better to have a conversation “with” someone as opposed to “talking to” someone…

  2. Nancy Stone says:

    Is there a way to introduce discussion-based sessions with 80-100 ppl in the room?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and asking a great question!

      Peer discussions can be done with any size audience from 10-15,000. The easiest way to do it is to say, “Turn to your neighbor on your left or right and discuss the following question.” Audience size should never hinder discussion-based sessions.

  3. […] Hurt, “Fostering An Extremely Powerful Tool At Your Conference: The Session Discussion,” Velvet Chainsaw’s¬†Midcourse Corrections blog, posted 14 February 2013 […]

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