How to convert a traditional conference into a connection-rich conference

When people are asked why they go to meetings, the top two reasons they consistently give are to learn and to connect with others. Both reasons are rated of similar importance (although there’s recent evidence that connection is becoming more important than learning.)

So why do we structure traditional conferences like this?
Conference connection.001
Conference lectures only focus on learning (that is, of course, assuming people are learning from the lecture, which is by no means certain.) No connection between attendees occurs during a lecture. Connection at a traditional conference is, therefore, supposed to happen somehow outside the sessions, in the breaks and socials. Unfortunately, breaks and socials aren’t great ways to connect with people at conferences.

So traditional conferences are heavy on lecture-style learning and light on the connection that attendees desire!

Luckily, there’s a simple way to redress the balance between connection and learning at meetings.

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Passive Programs Past Prime

Sleeping audience 12635014673_d06b960426_k

“Part of the art of making change happen is seeing which cultural tropes are past their prime and having the guts to invent new ones.”
—Seth Godin, Skinny, sad and pale

It took hundreds of years before standard medieval medical practices like blood-letting, exorcism of devils, spells, incantations, and a proscription of bathing were replaced by modern medicine.

Conference programming consisting of one person lecturing at many has been our standard meeting model for hundreds of years. One day I think we will look back on this tradition and marvel about how we could believe for so long that it was the best thing to do at meetings.

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Meetings are a mess—and how they got that way

Apple 1984

“Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
—Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding

The hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings is broadcast: most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?

I think there are two principal historic reasons: one shaped by technology, the other by culture.

How technology shapes our system of education
Perhaps you’re thinking: Technology? Isn’t technology a relatively recent development? How could technology have influenced how we learnt hundreds of years ago?

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Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

Motivational speaker 3775763004_ae663793fc_o

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.

Bill Toliver 2013-06-01_2215

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?

Photo attribution: Flickr user psilocybes

Fifteen hundred years of broadcast learning

Physics lecture at OxfordForty years ago, I was one of the students in this picture (the physics lecture theatre at Oxford University). They’ve repainted the walls and replaced the seating, but the room layout has remained unchanged.

When Oxford University was founded, nine hundred years ago, this is how you were taught. And the early universities grew out of the monastic schools, established in the 5th century, where abbots and abbesses inculcated the young men and women novices.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we have a hard time taking seriously other modes of learning. After all, we’ve been told for fifteen hundred years that sitting and listening to someone who supposedly knows more than you do is how you learn.

Image attribution: Martin Wood