We live in a world full of explanations. Sometimes it seems that we should be able to explain everything with the right words.
And yet it’s so hard to convey what an interactive participant-centered event is like to someone who hasn’t experienced one. I’ve tried to explain to over a thousand people the power and value of the Conferences That Work meeting format. Some people “get it” right away. But a significant number remain skeptical, somewhat unconvinced.
I end up advising people they have to participate in a Conferences That Work event to truly understand what this kind of learning and connection can be like. When they do, 98 percent become converts. The most common comment on evaluations is: “I don’t want to go to traditional events any more.”
Why does this happen over and over again? Perhaps it’s because we live in a world where people are led to expect “experience” as something produced by a minority and broadcast to a group: experience as entertainment. Somehow we ignore the reality that the most important learning moments in our lives invariably occur when we participate and connect via sharing with others. Entertainment is fine when we’re tired and want to zone out in front of the TV and watch a movie. But entertainment rarely leads to long-term learning, growth, and change.
I salute and appreciate the growing number of people who are willing to risk saying “Yes!” to an event experience they don’t understand. Eventually, perhaps, participant-driven and participation-rich formats will become the new normal for face-to-face events.
Until then, we need to remember that, sometimes, words are not enough.
Feeling good—for a while
At MPI’s 2011 World Education Congress I heard the best motivational speaker I’ve ever seen. Bill Toliver gave an amazing twenty-minute speech.
I felt inspired by Bill. Here’s what I tweeted at the time.
But three months later, I didn’t remember a thing Bill said. (In fact I didn’t even remember his name when I came to write this post and had to ferret it out from an archive.)
Now this may be simply because my memory is declining with the passage of time—though I suspect that you may have had a similar experience. But I don’t think my dying brain cells are to blame.
As a counter-example, I still have vivid memories of workshops I attended over ten years ago.
Why do I remember what happened at those workshops but not what Bill said? We’ll get to that shortly, but first….
Testing two styles of lecture learning
I am not surprised by the results of research published in the May 2013 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Here’s the experimental setup:
“Participants viewed one of two videos depicting an instructor explaining a scientific concept. The same speaker delivered the same script in both videos. The only difference was in how the information was delivered. In the fluent speaker condition, the speaker stood upright, maintained eye contact, displayed relevant gestures, and did not use notes. In the disfluent speaker condition, she hunched over a podium, read from notes, spoke haltingly, and failed to maintain eye contact.” Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning—Shana K. Carpenter, Miko M. Wilford, Nate Kornell, Kellie M. Mullaney
Right after watching their video, participants were asked to estimate how much of the information in the video they would be able to recall after about 10 minutes:
“Participants who viewed the fluent speaker predicted that they would remember a greater amount of information than those who viewed the disfluent speaker. However, actual performance did not differ between the groups [emphasis added]…
…It is not clear precisely which aspects of the lecturer’s behavior influenced participants’ judgments, and the experience of fluency may be subjective. What is clear, however, is that a more fluent instructor may increase perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning [emphasis added].”
What can we conclude from these results? It’s just one experiment, but it does support something I’ve believed to be true for years. A great speaker may well provide a more enjoyable and emotionally satisfying presentation—but the learning that results is not significantly better than that provided by a mediocre lecturer!
Am I saying that we should discount the value of the quality of a speaker’s presence, examples, stories, and presentation as a whole? No! If we’re going to learn something from a speaker, there’s value in having the experience be emotionally satisfying.
What I am saying, though, is that it is a mistake to correlate the quality of a speaker’s presentation with the learning that occurs for those present. That is a big mistake.
But there’s another mistake we’re making when we fill our conferences with speakers.
What’s the use of lectures?
Back to those workshops I attended. Why do I remember vividly what happened in 2002 but not what Bill, the magnificent motivational speaker, said in 2011? Because in the workshops I was participating in my learning. I was interacting with other participants, receiving feedback and insights about what I said and did, and what happened led to deep learning that has stayed with me ever since.
When we give center stage at our events to presentations at the expense of participative engagement, learning suffers. The best speakers may be far more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than the worst ones, but, according to the above research, we’re not going to learn any more from them. Perhaps a truly great speaker may inspire her audience to take action in their lives—and that can be a good and important outcome—but I wonder how often that happens at our events. (There’s an idea for more research!)
What we have known for some time though, is that if we are truly interested in maximizing learning at our events, hiring the best speakers in the world will not do the trick. Instead, we need to incorporate participative learning into every session we program. That’s the subject of my next book. Stay tuned!
What do you think is the real value of good speakers? How much have you learned (and retained) from presentations compared to interactive workshops?
A year ago I wrote about the myth of the conference curator, starting with the observation that highly paid sports scouts do barely better than chance at picking great players. Last week, Seth Godin wrote this:
“We have no idea in advance who the great contributors are going to be. We know that there’s a huge cohort of people struggling outside the boundaries of the curated, selected few, but we don’t know who they are. That means that the old systems, the ones where just a few people were anointed to be the chosen authors, chosen contributors, chosen musicians–that system left a lot of people out in the cold…The curated business, then, will ultimately fail because it keeps missing this shoulder, this untapped group of talented, eager, hard-working people shut out by their deliberately closed ecosystem…Go ahead and minimize these open systems at your own peril. Point to their negative outliers, inconsistency and errors, sure, but you can only do that if you willfully ignore the real power: some people, some of the time, are going to do amazing and generous work… If we’ll just give them access to tools and get out of their way.”
—Most people, most of the time (the perfect crowd fallacy) by Seth Godin
Appropriate participation techniques are the tools for participants to do amazing and generous work—for others and for themselves—at conferences. Give them permission, access, and support for these tools and get conference curators out of their way.
Ever wanted a way to find out what people at a meeting would actually like to learn, discuss, or ask questions about? Post It! is what you need. It’s a simple technique that can be used at various levels for:
All the attendees at an event.
Breakout groups discussing a specialty set of topics.
A single conference session.
If you’re a conference presenter with an audience of less than 50 people, you can use Post It! to rapidly discover audience interests and to help decide what those present would like to hear about.
Run Post It! at the opening of an event, breakout group, or a single session.
It is surely no surprise that you’ll need one or more sticky notes (e.g. Post-it® brand) for each participant. If you’re using Post It! for a presenter tool at a single session, supply a single 2” x 3” note to each attendee. For a group display of topics, supply one to four 6” x 8” (preferred size) notes, or 3” x 5” notes if posting space is limited.
Make sure that you have sufficient pens available. Fine tip marker pens are best.
Finally, you’ll need clear, accessible wall or notice board space where notes can be posted. Walls should be smooth and clean, as sticky notes don’t adhere well to rough or dirty surfaces. If you’re using Post It! as a presenter tool, the posting area should be close to where you are standing in the room so you can easily refer to it.
How a presenter can use Post It! to shape the content of a session
Before the session begins, give each participant a single sticky note and a pen. Ask the audience to write down the one topic they would like explored or question they would like answered during the session. Give everyone a couple of minutes to write their response and collect the notes as they are completed. As you collect the notes, browse their contents and mentally categorize their contents into broad themes. For example, some attendees ask specific questions, some may want an overview of your topic, and some may want you to cover one particular aspect. Once all the notes have been collected, briefly read each note out loud and add it to a cluster of similar notes on the wall next to you. You may find a note that is unique and needs to be placed by itself.
Once all the notes have been stuck on the wall, it should be clear to both you and your audience what the group is interested in. Don’t feel obliged to cover everything mentioned. Instead, use the notes to make a plan of how you will spend your time with the group. Describe your plan briefly, and apologize for topics that you’re not able to cover in the time available. Even if you don’t cover everything requested, your audience will have the information to understand why you made the choices you did. If you’re going to be available after the session is over, you can invite attendees to meet with you to talk more.
As you continue with your audience-customized session, you can refer to the note clusters to confirm that you’re covering your plan.
How you can use Post It! to make public the interests and questions of a group
Before the session begins, decide on the number of sticky notes to give to each participant. The number will depend on the size of the group and the length of time available for any resulting sessions. Suggestions for the number of notes to be provided are shown in the table below.
Size of group
Suggested number of notes for each attendee
20 − 30
2 − 4
30 − 50
2 − 3
50 − 100
1 − 2
Hand out this number of sticky notes and a pen to each attendee. Ask the audience to write down one or more topics they would like explored or questions they would like answered during the session, one per note. Tell them they do not need to use all their notes. Indicate the wall area where notes can be posted, and ask them, once they have finished, to post their notes on the wall. Give participants a few minutes to write their responses. As the notes are posted it is natural for people to hang around the wall and read what others have written. Let them do this, but ask people to allow late posters to get to the wall.
Once all the notes have been posted, provide some time for everyone to take in the topics and questions displayed. This group sharing can then be used as a starting point for Open Space, Fishbowls, Plus/Delta, and other group discussion techniques discussed in my upcoming book.