The Tension Between Content And Process In Facilitated Conference Learning Experiences

Us Versus Them; Point of Conflict

Have you ever attended a conference education session because of the presenter and not the content? (I think most of us have.)

Have you ever been surprised when a full day workshop ended? You were so engaged that time flew by without you realizing it.

If you’ve had these types of experiences, you’ve witnessed firsthand skilled facilitation. A great facilitator moves back and forth between content and process engaging participants in their own learning journeys. We need more conference facilitated experiences where time flies, everyone present is involved in the work of their own learning and everyone has the opportunity to grow professionally.

Content And Conferences

Quick—name one word you hear the most regarding conference education sessions.

Most people say content. Content serves as the measure we use to identify and select topics, tracks and even subject matter experts (SMEs). SMEs submit a presentation application outlining the content they will discuss during their presentation. Then advisors, volunteers and staff review applications to select the content and speakers for their event.

We design our conference programming around content. We use that content to attract registrants, exhibitors and sponsors. Content serves as the foundation to our entire event.

Content Versus Process

In facilitated learning experiences you hear two words: content and process.

Content refers to what is being discussed. It is the subject of the session or the task needing addressed. Content signifies the challenge to overcome, the issue to explore or the problem to be solved. The content is expressed through didactic delivery of information to the audience. Because it’s usually the verbal portion of the meeting, it consumes the participants’ attention.

Process refers to how the content is discussed. It indicates the structured activities, exercises, methods, tools and formats used. Process also includes the participants’ interactions with each other and the content, group flow, and overall climate established. Because the process is often largely ignored, it’s harder to identify.

We need more facilitated learning experiences in our conferences. We need to dedicate just as much time to process as we have dedicated to content. Our facilitated learning experiences should devote 50% of the time to process. The participants think about the content by connecting it to their past and experiences as well as make sense of what it means to them.

The Conference Tension Between Content And Process

Unfortunately, most conference presenters spend a disproportionate amount of their time on developing their content and how they’ll deliver it. They rarely consider how their audience will learn and process the content.

The costs of the traditional education model of an expert speaking to an audience is that we rarely see people engage their full capacity to learn. There is a great deal of teaching and very little learning.

The presenter as facilitator focuses on creating a climate of collaboration. Instead of offering content as solutions, speaker-facilitators offer tools so that individuals and groups can collaboratively co-create their own solutions. They guide participants through discussions and activities to reach their own conclusions.

If learning, attitude, behavior and skill change are our real conference goals, we must take a slower, more intentional and deliberate approach to our conference education. We have to value struggle over prescription, questions over answers, tension over comfort, tools over solutions, methods over tips and thinking over recommended steps to remedies. We have to respect participants as active in their own learning process more than the expert delivering a speech to passive audiences.

Hat Tips Facilitation At A Glance by Ingrid Bens; Unlocking The Magic Of Facilitation by Sam Killermann and Meg Bolger; Facilitating Collaboration by Brandon Klein and Dan Newman; and Flawless Consulting by Peter Block.

What are the steps we need to take to transition experts from speakers to facilitators? Why do facilitators place more emphasis on the participant wrestling with the content than telling them what to do?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  1. Ena Reynen says:

    Well said, I couldn’t agree more! So often conference presenters focus on what they want to talk about vs. how they will ensure learning actually occurs in the session or how they will keep the learner engaged — i.e. a speaker centric vs. learner centric session. I struggle a bit with the choice of the word “process”. I personally like to think about the “content” as the desired knowledge transfer and the “session design” as the plan to ensure learning actually occurs through such things as content chunking and varies activities such as those you suggest above. But this is just a question of taxonomy. In the work I do as a conference content strategist and learning designer, I deal with hundreds of speakers. A first step in moving them away from a speaker centric mindset and towards designing collaborative/interactive/facilitated learning experiences is to convince them of the need for change. Many still believe that attendees want to be talked at :-(. It’s a slow process, but with guidance and support, I am seeing speakers begin to make simple changes in their session design to ensure a better learning experience.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Ena for reading and responding. I totally agree about designing a learning experience. One of the subtle shifts I’ve made in my language with SMEs is when discussing chunking content I also stress that the audience needs to do the work of chaining that chuck…meaning connecting it to their experience and making sense of it. It’s been my experience that the chunking content trend has lead to shorter and shorter sessions as if chunking content into shorter segments leads to better learning. We missed allowing learners to think about that content and process it.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting too.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *