The Tragic All Too Common Brain Busting Conference Lecture


Have you seen the Gary Larson cartoon of the student asking if he can be excused because his brain is full?

As author Roy Pollock points out, it’s funny as a cartoon. However overwhelming a listener’s brain is a tragic and wasteful problem that happens in many education sessions. Especially conference keynotes and breakouts.

Jam The Content In

Most conference speakers try to cover too much content in their allotted time.

The result is cognitive overload say education researchers.

When people receive too much information too quickly, they are unable to process it. They don’t have enough time to make sense of it to even consider committing it to long time memory.

It’s just not the extra information that is lost. Providing too much detail causes them to lose the basics too, says Pollock.

When overload gets large enough, it shuts down the entire learning system says researchers Clark, Ngyuen and Sweller.

Think about that for a minute. Your choice of conference speakers and topics may be responsible for shutting down your audience’s entire learning system. Ouch!

We have to improve our process for picking speakers that understand the balance of our brain’s biological limits, the need for active learning and how to engage the brain. For many of us, that means we have to start educating speakers and establishing new guidelines.

Speakers must know and understand the cognitive limits of their audience.

How Much Is Too Much?

So how much content is too much during any education session?

50% of the session should be dedicated to active learning, where the participant is actively involved in doing something besides just listening says the authors of the Field Guide To The 6Ds.

Yes, that’s right! 50% of any education session, except a motivation speech or inspirational message, should be dedicated to active participation. Active participation means thinking, reflection, peer discussion, answering questions on handouts, etc.

Yet most speakers feel they need 75%-90% of the time to cover their content.

The Tyranny Of Time

Why does teaching too much content happen in so many conferences?

First, we hire subject matter experts to teach a topic. They typically do not have the expertise or experience with delivering presentations. Much less the experience with delivering brain-friendly presentations. Most subject-matter experts include more detail than is needed by non-experts.

Second, we believe that we can cram information into people’s minds. We see them as an open vessel to be filled. Just take a look at a presenter’s slides and you will immediately know if they try to cover too much content…too many words per slide.

Third, we are very aware of the limits of time. So therefore, we try to cover as much content as possible in the time allotted.

We forget that content covered is not content learned.

Presentations For Application

We have to move to presentations that allow enough time for active practice and participation to comprehend the content. Then conferences should consider spacing the same topic with different perspectives throughout the event. This give attendees time to revisit the topic in intervals.

How can we ensure that our audiences get enough time during presentations to reflect and think about application instead of just listening? Why do organizations continue to secure high-dollar talking head keynotes that provide no ROI or value for the paying attendee?

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