Conference Improvement Means People Improvement


The quality of a conference’s education program cannot exceed the quality of its speakers.

The message is simple. What speakers do during keynotes, breakouts, concurrents, symposiums and workshops, matters. The greatest variance in our conferences relates to our presenters.

In short, a conference education program cannot give what it does not have. If it doesn’t have presenters that facilitate attendee learning, it cannot provide quality learning opportunities.

Conferences Exist For People Improvement

When you talk about improving conferences, you are talking about improving people.

That is the only way to really improve a conference. Unless you are talking about improving traffic flow, room sets, food and beverage, registration, marketing and venues. But improving those things is not really improving a conference. It’s just improving the structure of a conference, its shell.

The conference is its people! It’s paying attendees. It’s exhibitors. It’s sponsors. It’s hosts. It’s speakers.

So when we talk about conference excellence or progress, we are really talking about the conference’s stakeholders. (Hat tips to Ernest Boyner who first observed similar thoughts regarding teaching.)

Speakers Make The Difference … Or Not.

The postscript for all conference education is that “the what” that some speakers do, matters.

The quality of an attendee’s learning experience is the most important variable in the conference experience.

Speakers can make the difference of a successful or failing conference.

But not all speakers are effective. Not all speakers are experts in their field. Not all speakers are experts at presenting. Not all speakers understand how to facilitate learning. Not all speakers know how to get out of the way and guide attendees to deeper understanding.

Most speakers know how to talk. And they spend all their presentation time talking at attendees. They believe they can hand their knowledge to their audience through the spoken word.

Telling isn’t learning. Talking at audiences isn’t education. Nor is learning the byproduct from listening to a speaker.

Moving speakers from talking at attendees to talking with attendees requires deliberate steps. Helping speakers focus on learning design requires planned actions. Challenging speakers to concentrate on helping attendees create cognitive change that leads to attitude, behavior and skill change requires learning new skills.

Creating Conditions For Improving Conferences

Conference education can only be as good as it speakers.

If one of the most important variables in an attendees’ conference experience is the quality of the learning experience provided by speakers, then conference organizers must implement strategies that result in speakers learning, designing and facilitating learning opportunities in more of the conference education sessions more of the time.

Substantial conference improvement requires a coordinated, highly-organized, collective effort rather than a series of one-off, individual efforts. There must be a strategy to hold speakers accountable for their presentations and their attendees’ experience. This means moving away from an entitlement speaker syndrome to one that collects data on speakers to monitor accountability.

Then conference organizers must use learning experiences to help speakers improve. Conference organizers must begin to provide education opportunities so that speakers can improve their presentations. This has to be an ongoing, collective effort.

Creating conditions for improving conferences requires processes to ensure that ongoing, professional development opportunities for speakers exist.

Hat tips to authors Richard Dufour and Robert Marzano of Leaders of Learning who talk about education improvement strategies and spurred this thinking about conference improvement.

What barriers keep conference organizers from focusing on conference speaker improvement processes? Why do conference organizers feel they cannot hold speakers accountable for their presentations?

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  1. Jorge says:

    mm… Well, I’d say the greater barrier would be the lack of training in teaching or how people learn. I can’t speak for every single speaker out there, granted, but, for what I notice, speakers are usually more focused on being interesting or entertaining than didactic or instructive.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I think you raise an interesting issue about the goal of a speaker’s presentation: motivational, entertaining or instructive. That obviously should drive the development and delivery of that presentation.

  2. Thom Singer says:

    Goal for the speaker should be entertaining, instructive AND motivational. To say we don’t want any one of those can undermine the audience experience. Yes yes yes to training speakers to educate is needed. But education can be dull if not presented well. Boring presentations suck, too. And nothing is wrong with being motivational. Motivation has gotten a bad rap… But what is the opposite of motivation??? (Think about the answer). And is that what we seek on stage? I say it is not too much to ask for speakers who can educate, entertain, engage and enthrall.

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