Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.
I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)
But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?
Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.
Last week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.
“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!
I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”
Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.
Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.
Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.
Customizing a workshop
When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.
This did not happen at Traci’s event!
“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”
Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.
This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.
One final suggestion
If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!
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 don’t we strive to create a connection-rich conference?
Why do we structure traditional conferences like this? 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.
Replace lectures with participation-rich sessions!
Doing this greatly improves the meeting because:
Attendees have opportunities to connect during the conference sessions, redressing the balance between connection and learning.
Session participants learn socially from each other, drawing on the hundreds of years of experience and expertise in the room, rather than relying on the knowledge of a single expert.
Explains why the health and survival of any conference increasingly requires that we integrate participation into meeting sessions;
Provides comprehensive practical information on how to create an event environment where connection thrives; and
Supplies an extensive organized collection of powerful participation techniques you can use to construct meetings that attendees will love and return to over and over again.
A connection-rich conference
When I began organizing meetings in the early 1980’s, I filled my programs with expert speakers. It wasn’t until 1992 that I unexpectedly discovered the power of incorporating participation to create a connection-rich conference. It took ten years for me to realize that this fundamental change improved the experience at every kind of meeting and for every meeting audience with whom I worked. My book includes everything I currently know about making this improvement possible for you.
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 we’ll marvel about how we could believe that it was the best thing to do at meetings.
A fundamental flaw
The fundamental flaw of traditional meetings is that most of the time only one person—the lecturer—is active while everyone else passively listens. Everyone who’s ever taught a class knows that the best way to learn anything is to teach it. But we rarely use participatory session formats where everyone gets to “teach” their understanding, questions, and points of view—and, as a bonus, gets to meet and connect with other participants with whom they share common interests.
Passive programs are past their prime. I think most people don’t use participatory session formats because they aren’t aware of them. Even when they are, they don’t know how to use them effectively and/or are scared of doing something perceived as “different”. Luckily, an increasing number of people are having the guts to create and use powerful processes (e.g. World Café, Open Space, Art of Hosting, and, yes, Conferences That Work) that incorporate what we now know about how people effectively learn, connect, engage, and come to action.
All the above meeting formats are about twenty years old (although they all build on much older informal process). We now possess tools to make fundamental meeting change happen.
My professional life mission is to promote awareness of such tools, work on improving them, and encourage and support their increasing use. Join me and a growing number of others in our mission to fundamentally enhance the quality and value of meetings, one meeting at a time.
This is another post in the occasional series How do you facilitate change? where we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
Broadcast is the hundreds-of-years-dominant paradigm for sessions, conferences, and meetings. Most of the time, one person presents and everyone else listens and watches. Why?
“Things are the way they are because they got that way.” —Quip attributed to Kenneth Boulding
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?
To answer these questions, let’s take a journey back in time. It’ll take a while, but stay with me! I’ll shine some light on some rarely-examined foundations of our current educational paradigm.
Understandably, we tend to think of technology these days as material devices like cars, printers, and smartphones or, increasingly, as computer programs: software and apps. But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Such a definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow.
What is “technology”?
“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.” —Alan Kay, at a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s
An older reader will immediately recognize a typewriter, but a child might stare in puzzlement at a 1945 Smith-Corona Sterling. A device found on a table at a yard-sale appears to be a piece of rusty sculpture until a Google search reveals it’s a ninety year-old cherry stoner. By Alan Kay’s definition, anything made after you became aware is technology. Anything that’s really old, we don’t even recognize as technology!
This worldview exists because human beings are incredibly good at adapting to new circumstances. Such an ability greatly increases our chances of surviving a hostile and treacherous world. But there’s a downside. When we start making changes to our environment by making useful things, what was once new becomes a part of our everyday existence. In the process, what was formerly new becomes largely invisible to our senses, focused as they are on the new and unexpected. As David Weinberger remarks: “Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.”
A wider definition of technology
So let’s adopt a wider definition of technology and see where it takes us. I’ve been influenced here by Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants.
Technology is anything made to solve a problem. —Adrian’s definition, a paraphrase of Wikipedia’s definition of technology
This definition is useful because it opens our eyes to technology that we have been using for a very long time.
Science, writing, and language
For example, by this definition, science is technology! Science is just a way that we’ve invented to understand the patterns we notice in the world we live in.
Science is old. Writing is older; it allows us to communicate asynchronously with each other.
Writing is technology!
And oldest of all—we don’t really know how old—language is technology. Every culture, tribe has its own language it has invented to solve the problem of real-time communication between its members.
These technologies are so old that they are invisible to us. They are part of our culture, the human air we breathe. Language, writing, and science are tools outside our conventional, narrow-scope view of technology. We instantiate these tools using invented conventions: sounds, gestures, and symbols. These sounds, gestures, and symbols, however, are secondary features of these ancient technologies. Ultimately, language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.
Human process technology
Human process has become the most invisible technology. It is inexorably and continually built into every one of us by our culture, starting the moment we are born, before we can speak, write, or reason. Our culture teaches us throughout our life the signs, sounds, and movements that signify. We are superbly equipped to learn to speak, write, and think before we have any self-awareness of what we are being taught.
“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” —Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
Our awareness of the processes we constantly use to learn and make sense of the world and to connect with others is minimal. It’s like breathing, largely automatic and unconscious. As a result, the old process technology that we adopted for practical purposes long before recorded history continues to shape our lives today.
Think for a moment about the impact of language on our species. Before language arose, we had no way to transfer what we learned during our all-too-brief lives to our tribe and following generations. “These plants are safe to eat.” “You can make a sharp spearhead from this rock.” “Snakes live in that cave.” Every individual had to painfully acquire such learning from scratch. Language allowed parents and tribe elders to pass on valuable knowledge orally, improving survival and quality of life
Similarly, the later development of writing made it possible to share, physically transfer, and expand a permanent repository of human knowledge. And the evolution of the process methodology of science enabled us to design experiments about our world, codify the patterns we discovered, and turn them into inventions that transform our lives.
The effect of technology on education
Now we’re ready to consider the effect of the historical development of language, writing, and science on education. For almost all of human history, language was our dominant mode of communication and our single most important educational tool. If you wanted to learn something you had to travel physically to where someone knew what you needed to learn and they would then tell it to you. Eventually schools developed: establishments for improving the efficiency of oral communication of information by bringing many students together so they could learn simultaneously from one teacher.
Language reigned supreme for millennia, thus becoming an invisible technology. Only when writing became established it was finally possible to asynchronously transmit information. By that time, the model of the single teacher and multiple students was buried deep in our collective psyche and, to a large extent, the book paradigm mirrored the language process since most books were written by a single expert and absorbed by a much larger number of readers.
(The very word lecture beautifully illustrates the adoption of old models that took place during the development of writing. The word is derived from the latin lectūra which means—to read! The first books were so rare that a group who wished to study a book’s content would have someone read the book out loud while the others copied down what they heard.)
Even science started as an individual enterprise. The early study of “natural philosophy” by Socrates, Aristotle, and others used an oral teacher-students model. Although science today is largely an intensely cooperative enterprise, we still see considerable leftovers of the older invisible technologies in its societal organization: prescribed progressions towards mastery of fields, formal paths to tenure, the format of academic meetings, etc.
The effects of invisible technologies
What are the effects of these powerful invisible technologies on our educational archetypes? Technologies like language, writing, and science are thousands of years old. So it becomes very difficult for people to consider learning models other than broadcast. Even though other models may be far more appropriate these days.
The earliest organized religious schools are a few thousand years old. The oldest non-religious universities began nearly a thousand years ago. For centuries, oral learning was the predominant modality in what we would recognize as schools. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that a significant number of people were able to learn independently from books and newspapers, which are, of course, still a form of broadcast media.
Even though the invention of inexpensive mass-printing revolutionized society, the old broadcast teaching models were sunk so deeply and invisibly into our culture that they have persisted to this day. When you are taught by broadcast by teachers who were taught by broadcast it is not surprising that when you are asked to teach in turn, you employ the same methods. And this ancient cultural conditioning, which we are largely unaware of, is very difficult to break.
As adults, when we create a meeting we are thus naturally primed to choose a broadcast paradigm for the “learning” portions. As a society we are mostly unaware of our conditioning by past centuries of broadcast learning. And when it is brought to our attention, it is still very difficult for an individual to break away from the years of broadcast process to which he has been subjected as a child.
The process we’ve been using for so long inhibits our ability to consider alternatives. But the quantity of “knowledge” that we currently expect adults to possess also plays a role. And this leads us to the second reason why broadcast methodology infuses meetings.
How culture shapes our system of education
For most of human history, learning was predominantly experiential. Life expectancy was low by modern standards and formal education nonexistent. Even after schools began to become important institutions, curricula were modest. In the Middle Ages, formal education of children was rare; in the fifteenth century only a small percentage of European children learned to read and write, usually as a prerequisite for acceptance as a guild apprentice.
Up until around a hundred years ago, advanced education was only available for a tiny number of students. The expectations for those entering university were laughable by today’s standards. Isaac Newton, for example, received no formal mathematics teaching until he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661. Students didn’t routinely learn algebra, even at university, until the eightieth century. In the Victorian era, secondary school students mastered the “three R’s”—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic—plus perhaps a few other topics like needlework (girls only), geography and history.
The drivers of education
The need for jobs has driven education since the birth of apprenticeship programs in the Middle East four millennia ago. Apprenticeship remained the dominant model of education until the advent of the industrial revolution, when apprenticeship no longer matched growing needs for workers just-enough capable to handle repetitive work plus some with specialized new trainable skills like bookkeeping and shopwork. A period of emphasis on career and technical education ensued. Once formal education became a social and legislative requirement for a majority of children, curricula wars erupted between the conflicting goals of content and pedagogy. These wars have been with us in some form ever since.
Whatever you think about the relative merits of “traditionalist” and “progressive” approaches to education (see Tom Loveless’s The Curriculum Wars for a good overview), the key cultural reason why broadcast methods remain firmly embedded in our children’s education is the sheer quantity of knowledge that society—for whatever reasons—is determined to cram into young heads during formal education. As the brief history above illustrates, we now require young adults to absorb a staggering diversity and quantity of topics compared to our expectations of the past.
As a result, there is no way to teach this added knowledge experientially in the time available. It took centuries for some of our brightest minds to formulate the algebra that today we routinely teach to eleven-year-olds! While we have probably developed better paths and techniques for sharing this educational content, any increased efficiency in delivery has not kept pace with the massive increase in expected knowledge mastery.
Why meetings perpetuate broadcast education
It is this significant cultural imposition that requires us to use primarily broadcast methods to educate our young in school. The mistake we make is to assume that the broadcast learning we received as kids should continue into adulthood. This is why meetings continue to concentrate on broadcast learning modes. Every one of us is conditioned by an overwhelming exposure to broadcast teaching in our youth.
Receiving specialized adult learning from an expert made sense for human history up until the industrial age. Now that information is moving into systems outside our brains, we have an urgent need to use adult learning modalities that do not concentrate on packing information into our heads. Instead, we’ll find that most of what we need to learn to do our jobs today is based on working informally and creatively with novel problems with solutions that need just-in-time information from our peers.
We find it hard to stop conference lecturing because it’s the dominant learning modality during our formal education before adulthood. Being taught in school, however inefficiently, via lecture about the amazing things humans have created, discovered, and invented indoctrinates us to believe that lecturing is the normal way to learn. That’s why we continue to inflict lecturing on conference audiences. It’s what we’re used to. Sadly, we’re mostly unfamiliar with alternative and more effective learning modalities that are more and more important in today’s world.
Yes, meetings are a mess!
If you’d like to read more about the ideas shared here, and also learn about how to make meetings powerful places for learning, connection, engagement, community-building, and action, check out my book The Power of Participation.
Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
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.
Highly-paid speakers may provide better emotional experience, but that doesn’t mean their listeners learn and retain what they hear especially well.
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!
So, do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?
What do you think is the real value of good speakers? How much have you learned (and retained) from presentations compared to interactive workshops?
Forty 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.