In American schools, the first experience of public speaking is typically Show and Tell. A child stands in front of the room with something brought from home and tells their classmates about it. The child gains experience and confidence in addressing a group, and provides entertainment to the classroom audience. Everyone quickly forgets the details of the monster truck except the presenter.
Many conference sessions follow this same format. A presenter imparts information by showing and telling to an audience. A “good” presenter may entertain people, but research shows that much of what is learned during the session is quickly forgotten.
So, how can we learn better? It turns out that the more multi-sensory our environment becomes the more our ability to learn improves. This requires us to become active participants in our learning. If the child passes round the monster truck for other children to touch and explore, their memory of it will be more accurate, more detailed, and longer lasting. If everyone gets to play with the truck for a while, they will learn even more.
We can improve the learning in our conference sessions in a similar way. If adults are to effectively learn new ideas—and this doesn’t just include rote learning but also understanding the ideas—they need to actively discuss the ideas and answer questions about them. When two people discuss a topic, research indicates that the current speaker makes the greatest cognitive gains. This occurs because 1) speaking provides the opportunity for tacit knowledge to become conscious; and 2) articulating ideas activates more of the brain than listening.
Three ways to do rather than show and tell
One simple technique to create active discussion at a conference session is pair-share. When pair-share is happening, half the audience is explaining their ideas to the other half. As each speaker and listener swap roles, everyone in the room gets to actively process the session’s content. This is far superior to the typical question and answer session at the end of a presentation, which provides little or no opportunity for most of the audience to take part.
Another example is LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®, a method for getting people to “think through their fingers”. This tactile interactive process uses working with Lego® to quickly move small groups of people into sharing and learning through creative problem solving.
A final example: my favorite conference sessions to facilitate are experiential workshops that involve participants working together throughout, experiencing new techniques or solving problems as a group rather than as individuals. The high level of activity provides a fertile environment for learning through doing, rather than by listening or watching.
All other things being equal, when we do, we learn better than when we’re shown or told. If you want your attendees to learn more effectively, you’ll need to incorporate more “doing” into your conference sessions.
My next book includes a large number of participatory techniques that you can use to maximize learning, connection, engagement, and community building at any event. Sign up to be informed when it’s published!
Photo attribution: Flickr user wwworks