Conference organizers strong commitment to content actually blocks the path to more attendee-focused and learner-centric conference experiences.
This focus on content as the core of the conference creates a barrier that obstructs presenters.
Most speakers freely acknowledge that the need to cover content strongly influences, and often dictates, their presentation decisions. Our allegiance to content has been dominated by one assumption: more is better. It is time to challenge that assumption with new thinking about the role content in a conference.
We’ve all heard speakers say, “If I include audience interaction, I can’t cover all of my content.”
We put covering our content as more important than attendee learning.
Our loyalty to content is reflected in this metaphor used to describe the action we take regarding content: we cover it. So what does this metaphor of covering content actually mean?
Do we cover it like a quilt on a bed on a cold night? Is it like covering a landscaped area with mulch? And if yes, is that the relationship that should exist between a speaker and content when attendee learning is really the goal? (Remember attendees come to conference for education—learning–and networking.)
The Consequences Of Conference Content Commitment
So how much content is enough for your conference? How much content is enough for each presentation? These are the questions we should ask every time.
Our affection for content and information has negative consequences for our attendees. It reinforces that surface learning (just an awareness of the issue), memorization, and forgetting are important to education and learning. (And they are not!)
When we shove too much content at audiences, they are forced to engage in conference content bulimia where they binge and purge information. In short, they retain little information.
Our love-affair with content actually prevents us from using methods that focus on attendees learning the critical content they need to succeed. It causes us to embrace audiences as passive consumers instead of active learners.
For some reason, we have polarized presentations into either “content is covered or active learning is happening.” We have bought into the belief that they are isolated, unrelated and independent of each other.
We need to identify critical content the learner must know so they don’t fail at their job and then design learning experiences around that content. Content and learning are intertwined.
Finally, the Web has changed the role of content in our lives today. We can get information and content online at our desks, on our phones and while standing in line at the checkout counter.
We don’t come to conferences to get content anymore. We go to conferences to find practical, relevant solutions to our problems. We want deeper understanding of how to solve our challenges and wise, smart ways to apply those solutions.
The conference speaker-as-transfer-of-information is obsolete and inefficient. The Web does it better!
The Role Of Content In 21st Century Conferences
Often, we use content as a body of knowledge that people need to learn. When content serves two purposes—a body of knowledge and learning how to apply it—it serves a higher purpose.
Learning, unlearning and relearning are critical to success today. Yet, conferences rarely help attendees learn more about those skills.
Here’s how properly used conference content can help attendees today:
1. Uncovering Content To Solve Problems
We use content (not cover it) as a vehicle to develop skills to solve immediate problems.
2. Content As A Tool To Deeper Understanding Through Activities
We use content as a tool to help attendees tackle the tough issues they face and thus they learn and gain a deeper understanding through activities and exercises.
3. Practicing Applying Critical Content
We allow attendees to wrestle with the content through reflection, discussion and exercises so they can experience it firsthand. Thus they practice application.
This is part 3 in the series: It Is Time To Revolutionize Conferences
Sources: Dancing With The Devil by Richard Katz And Associates; Lifelong Learning and Higher Education by Arthur Cropley and Christopher Knapper; Learner-Centered Teaching by MaryEllen Weimer.
What are some ways you decide what content and topics should be offered at your events? What indicators have you see that audiences are expecting different results from conference education today?