Converting Three Hugely Popular Complaints About Changing Conference Education


Some conferences have begun to make the transition from passive listening experiences to active participatory education sessions.

Participatory conference education is moving from a buzzword to a normal practice. And ultimately, attendees benefit greatly from the change.

Some conference organizers have discovered that this transition requires more work than the traditional model of sit-‘n-get lectures and panels. Conference leaders, organizers and presenters often face strong resistance from registrants. Even when the audience learns about the benefits of participation, some still complain.

Three Complaints And Their Conversation Starters

When audiences complain, are we really listening?

If we listen closely, we’ll hear those complaints as invitations to important conversations that can shape authentic learning says Dr. Robert Talbert.

Here are three common objections and the conversation-starters they create:

Complaint #1: I wish the speakers would just teach the class!

This complaint is often raised when the audience realizes that they will be involved in making sense of the information instead of just listening to it.

Many conference attendees have only experienced lectures and panels in education settings. They confuse presenting, teaching, lecturing and learning. So attendees are justifiably unsettled in seeing a speaker not teaching the class.

Conversation starter #1: Why do conferences have education sessions?

Speakers can pose the following: We can either have a traditional lecture where the science says you will remember and apply very little of the information, if at all, or we can spend the time helping each other connect the information to your context and consider how to apply it.

There is not enough time for both. So which will help you learn, remember and apply the information best?

Complaint #2: I learn best by listening to a lecture.

Those that have attended school believe that lectures worked. We made it through a lecture- and expert-centric system so therefore it’s successful. We think lecturing is the only way to present, share or teach information. (Be aware that many presenters think the same thing!)

Conversation-starter #2: What are the three most important things you ever learned?

Many will say things like learning to walk, talking, feeding myself, etc.

Then ask them: How did you learn those things?

Usually the answer is trial and error with some coaching from others. Rarely do people respond that they only learned these things by listening to a lecture or a panel.

If we learned those very important things without a lecture, how can we say we learn best by listening to a lecture or panel? Perhaps learning is more deeply connected to our biology than we suspect.

Complaint #3: I paid to learn from an expert, not others in the class or to do the work myself.

At the core of this complaint is not an issue of who is paying whom. It is an issue of the purpose of conference education.

Conversation-starter #3: Why are we here?

Often attendees’ responses include: professional growth, to gain new knowledge, to learn something, or to solve my most pressing work challenges.

What do all of these responses have in common? They intersect with learning about how to learn. Growing professionally, learning and solving challenges all involve understanding and applying new information.

Explain to the audience that everyone in this session brings their own ideas, experiences, past knowledge and insights about this issue. We frequently talk to others in the hallways and at the bar about our experiences, so why not bring those conversations into the classroom.

It is through sharing with one another that we can make sense of the issue and discuss how to customize our actions to fit our context. We also get feedback from one-another, critical to learning. We don’t get personal feedback from an expert’s lecture.

What are some of the other complaints you hear about moving to a more participatory model? What steps can conference organizers take to help attendees make a smooth transition to new education models before they attend the event?

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  1. Cynthia says:

    I am a conference organizer but as a participant of many industry conferences, the most frustrating thing about “participatory education” is that too often I have there are people who hijack discussions – and often times the session then becomes all about their concerns – which may or may not be pertinent to others. One must have an EXCELLENT moderator in order to make these types of sessions work and be valuable. Also, many people are shy and don’t want to speak up and in many instances many people don’t get called upon to speak or the same people get called upon too often – it’s important to have mechanisms in place to allow anonymous questions and statements that the moderator can address to the group.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      You bring up a great point. Great moderators and facilitators use methods that put limits on the amount of time each person gets to talk. That way everyone that wants to talk gets a chance. Thanks for highlighting this issue. And thanks for reading and commenting too.

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