Status and event design

We all like to feel important some of the time. Having status in some of our human relationships is important to our psychological well-being. As psychologist Matthew Lieberman explains:

“We desire status because it suggests that others value us, that we have a place of importance in the group and are therefore connected to the group.”
—Matthew Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

The problem with many conferences is that limited, unchangeable status is frozen into the event structure. The people who have high status are the ones who have been predetermined to be at the front of the room. Everyone else is just one of the lower-status crowd.

The beauty of a peer conference is that it provides many more opportunities for each participant to be high-status some of the time. The Conferences That Work opening roundtable format guarantees that everyone gets a short time (the same amount for each person) at the front of the room. During the event, you can be a learner (lower status) one moment and a teacher (higher status) the next. And it’s far more likely that expertise or experience you have that others value will be recognized and turned into a learning experience for others.

Let’s be clear—peer conferences don’t impose similar status on everybody. An industry veteran is likely to spend more time in higher-status situations than the novice first-time participant. But a peer conference makes no initial assumptions about who has something to offer, and I’ve seen plenty of situations where an industry novice turns out to have valuable contributions to make from her prior experience in another field.

Isn’t a conference format where everyone gets to be appropriately high-status once in a while healthier than one where a tiny minority get it all? I think so, (and thousands of evaluations back me up!)

Why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks

Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123
Photo by Flickr user orange_squash_123

I have been filling out quite a few conference presentation proposals recently, and began to notice a pattern in my behavior. My mood changed when I had to fill out the session’s learning objectives (which are statements of what attendees will be able to do by the end of the session.)

Specifically, every time I had to fill out the learning objectives for a proposal I got really, really annoyed.

Over the years I’ve found that paying attention to patterns like this is nearly always a learning experience for me. And I had just watched Chris Flink‘s TEDx talk on the gift of suckiness, where he makes a great case for exploring things that suck for you…

…so I reluctantly delved into why I started to feel mad when required to write things like “attendees will be able to list five barriers to implementing participant-driven events“.

At first I wondered whether my annoyance at having to come up with learning objectives (with active verbs, please, like these…)

Learning objectives action words
From http://apha.confex.com/apha/learningobjectives.htm

was because I was a sloppy presenter who hadn’t really thought about what my attendees wanted or needed to learn. I imagined the conference program committee wagging their finger at me (or sighing because they’d seen this so many times before). Listing learning objectives was forcing me to face what I should have thought about before I even suggested the session, and I didn’t like being confronted with my lack of planning.

And then I thought, NO. I DO have goals for my sessions. But they’re much more ambitious goals than having participants being able to regurgitate lists, define terms, explain concepts, or discuss issues.

I want to blow attendees’ minds. And I want to change their lives.

OK, I admit that would be the supreme goal, one that I’m unlikely to achieve most of the time. But it’s a worthy goal. If I can make some attendees see or understand something important in a way that they’ve never seen or understood before, so that they will never see or understand it in the same way again—now that’s worth striving for.

Here’s an imaginary example (not taken from my fields of expertise). Suppose you are evaluating two proposed sessions on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. The first includes learning objectives like “define and understand the term sexual harassment”, “identify types of sexual harassment”, and “learn techniques to better deal with sexual harassment”. The second simply says, “People who actively participate in this session are very unlikely to sexually harass others or put up with sexual harassment ever again.”

Assuming the second presenter is credible, which proposal would you choose?

Learning objectives restrict outcomes to safe, measured changes to knowledge or competencies. They leave no place for passion, for changing worldviews, or for evoking action.

That’s why requiring learning objectives for great conference presentations sucks.

What’s your perspective on learning objectives?