What True Learning Is at Participant-Centered Conferences

Putting the participant at the center of your conference programming by becoming more learner-centric, that is planning and offering education sessions that go beyond surface learning, is one of the biggest challenges facing conference organizers today. You need to enable participants to find meaningful and mentally stimulating experiences.

The knowledge gap between the stage and the audience has shrunk substantially over the past decade. Conferences that are able to leverage the intellectual capital of the participants through facilitated learning experiences will deliver the greatest value.

The first step is to dispel outdated ideas of what true learning is and is not.

  1. Learning is a process, not a product. It requires the learner to understand and apply concepts to their problems and context. Learning isn’t application of a best practice.
  2. Learning creates a change in our brains. It is a biological and chemical change.
  3. Learning is not something done to attendees. It is something they do. The learner wrestles with how to adapt the information to their challenges or opportunities and considers the consequences of application.

Help Your Learners Process by Participating

Learner-centric conferences provide education sessions where attendees act as participants in their own learning. Participants construct meaning and sense-making as they hear and consider content. They grasp how and why the content is relevant to their work. At least half of the session time is dedicated to participants processing the information through discussion, reflection, or exercises.

In contrast, speaker-centric conferences emphasize subject matter experts and their knowledge. Speakers are often rapid-fire and try to cover too much content, causing participants to reach a cognitive load limit.

In learner-centric conferences, organizers secure presenters and facilitators that focus on designing real-world learning experiences. They facilitate discovery-based, experiential and collaborative activities for participants to actively construct their own knowledge.

The conference community and ecosystem — including content creators, exhibitors, planning team, practices, processes, programming, speakers, sponsors, strategies, suppliers, technologies, tools, vendors and volunteers — all intentionally contribute their part to the overall learning experience.

Learning conferences are havens where participants consider, assess and practice new patterns of thinking, while nurturing new mental models on how to do their work.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2018.

How much of your conference program is focused on learners? Do you coach your presenters to be more learner-centric?


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  1. Excellent post and so very true! It’s often hard to prove the value of conferences because so often as soon as the event is over, we don’t apply our knowledge soon enough for it “to stick.” Any opportunity to better reflect on the presented (or created!) content makes the experience even more valuable. Another tip is to find a way after the event to reconnect with participants and find out if and how they’ve applied their new knowledge to their work.

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      Thanks for adding your insights Donella! When conference learning results in changes post conference, the value prop goes through the roof.

  2. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Why when we know this do we continue to call those who are learners and participants “attendees”, a word that just is like fingernails on a chalkboard? It’s exhausting to hear it over and over. And the word ‘attendee’ then helps learners not learn.. makes them more passive. It’s such a silly industry isn’t it?!

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      Thanks for commenting Joan! No question, words matter. I fear that in a world of Alexa, Siri and Google, life-long learning and unaided problem solving will be less abundant.

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