Conference Education’s Dirty Little Secret

Day 174: Amazing Push-Button Shushing Action!

All conference education has a dirty little secret.

And it’s bigger and dirtier than most.

The big skeleton in the conference closet is that most attendees will forget the majority of what they hear during the event. The current design of the education session sabotages your learning and retention.

Let’s Waste The Company’s Money

No one says, “Hey, let’s spend a lot of money and time to attend a conference and participate in education sessions that we will never remember. Or even apply.”

So you delude yourself, and your boss, into spending a lot of money thinking you will increase your work performance and productivity. Unfortunately, your conference education attendance is usually wasted dollars, time and efforts.

Why? Because we forget things. And the current conference education model is not designed to help us remember and apply what we hear and learn.

When content is delivered in consecutive unstoppable, unrepeated waves, the probability for confusion is increased says Dr. John Medina, researcher and author of Brain Rules. Memory takes an almost ridiculous amount of time to settle into its permanent form, he states.

Remembering And Forgetting

People forget things.

They especially forget things that happen during conference education sessions. We often get cognitive overload with too much information being shared at any given time.

According to education researcher Will Thalheimer, people forget between 0%-94% of what they learned during an education session.

“The forgetting curve represents the idea that people forget information—ON AVERAGE—in a predictable manner. Specifically, the forgetting-curve notion asserts that learners forget lots of information shortly after learning it, but gradually the pace of forgetting slows,” says Thalheimer.

Helping Attendees Remember

Thousands of conference organizers and speakers make choices that sabotage conference education efforts every year.

We can reverse that trend and do things to help your conference attendees remember as much as possible. Here are several suggestions to help attendees remember.

1. Secure speakers that help their audiences remember.

Recruit professional speakers that know and connect with the learning research. Avoid speakers that believe they can talk at their audience and transform them through the magic of the spoken word. Help industry volunteer speakers understand and employ brain-friendly strategies that help foster long-term retention.

2. Align conference education sessions with the context of attendees’ jobs.

Obtain speakers that use context-aligned simulations, scenario-based questions, realistic practice, and similar learning methods as suggested by Thalheimer.

3. Ask speakers to use spaced-interval methods instead of uninterrupted lectures.

Chunk content into 10-minute segments as learning snacks. Then allow attendees some type of learning and reinforcement exercise such as “Think, Write, Share” peer-learning.

4. Provide several sessions on the same topic with different speakers and perspectives.

Repetition is an important part of the remembering process. Allow for greater elaboration with later repeat presentations of topics from different perspectives. Ask speakers to apply the content to their work context. Employ “Show me. Let me practice techniques,” says author Sharon Boller.


What are some other strategies conference organizers can use to help attendees remember and apply valuable content? Why do we continue to secure speakers that insist that their lecture-based methods work even though the research clearly shows the opposite?

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