Three better alternatives to the conference lecture

Ah, the ubiquitous conference one-hour lecture. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. Actually I don’t need to do that since Donald Bligh listed them all in his classic book What’s The Use Of Lectures?, first published in 1972!

Rather than reiterate the shortcomings of broadcast-style teaching, I’ll go positive. Here are three superior alternatives to sitting through an expert’s non-stop utterances.

As an example I’ll use a three-day conference I’m currently designing. The participants are four hundred international scientists who only get to meet en masse every few years. It’s important to give them excellent opportunities to discover and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues and ideas. They also need to share a massive amount of information about their current research in ways that maximize appropriate learning, fruitful connections, and future collaborations.

Here are three session formats we’re using for the middle of the conference arc. In my experience, each of them is far more effective than a traditional conference lecture.

1 — Short bursts of varied content followed by breakouts
Most academic conferences schedule large numbers of simultaneous lectures. Instead, we’ve designed sessions with multiple short serial presentations, aka lightning or speed talks. By “short” I mean four minutes per scientist. After a batch of these talks, each presenter moves to a separate space in the room. Participants are then free to meet in small groups with the presenter(s) they chose for in-depth discussions.

We’ve scheduled 165 lightning talks grouped into 16 thematic sessions.

The four-minute time limitation nudges each presenter to focus on the core aspects of what they want to share and how to communicate them as effectively as possible in the time available. In addition, audience attention remains high because the presenter and their material is changing every five minutes, well within the ten minutes Bligh and John Medina cite as a maximum before listener attention flags.

Each session is assigned a facilitator, a timekeeper, and a staffer who projects a pre-assembled master presentation slide deck for the four-minute presentations.

2 — Poster sessions
Poster sessions are a variant of the above format. Presenters stand in front of a standard size poster they’ve created that summarizes and illustrates their content. (We’re using e-posters, which not only eliminate the need for the presenters to print, pack, and securely transport a large poster to the conference but also make changing posters between sessions quick and efficient.)

One potential drawback of simultaneous sessions is that presenters can’t attend another presentation that’s taking place at the same time. In a thematic poster session, this prevents presenters from engaging with other presenters who are standing next to their own posters. To allow individual presenters the opportunity to engage with some of the other presenters and their content, we’ve divided each poster session into two 45-minute parts.

Each poster session begins with half the presenters giving a one-minute summary of their work/poster to everyone present. Attendees then spend the rest of the 45 minutes browsing content that interests them. The poster creator remains available for explanations, elaborations, and discussions as needed. The process is repeated for the second set of presenters.

The need to create and deliver an effective one-minute presentation concentrates a presenter’s mind wonderfully!

Each session is assigned a facilitator/timekeeper and a staffer who makes the appropriate e-posters available for the presenters.

We’ve scheduled 125 poster sessions grouped into 7 thematic sessions.

3 — In-depth interactive sessions led by one or more experts
In addition this conference includes a small number of longer sessions on key organizational and science issues. The formats for these sessions vary, but they are all designed to incorporate ten-minute or shorter chunks of presented content or provocative questions interspersed with small group active learning activities.

Such sessions provide more effective and appropriate learning than a traditional lecture. They supply learning that is personalized, and that will be remembered longer, in greater detail, and more accurately.

Summary
Given the sheer volume of information available from the assembled scientific minds at this event and the considerable investment of time and money to hold this conference, it’s important to use session formats like these. They maximize rich knowledge transfer and the likelihood of making the kinds of “aha” connections that can lead to significant advances in the conservation work and research these scientists perform.

Image attribution: Marisha Aziz

 

The UnExpo Experiment

During my 20+ years as an IT consultant and developer, I fell in with a delightful international crowd of software testers: those all-important people responsible for the impossible task of making sure that software works the way it’s supposed to. (Fun fact: the testing community often uses my term “peer conferences” for their get-togethers, due to a chat about meeting design I had with tester James Bach at the 2004 Amplifying Your Effectiveness conference.)

Software testers are especially conscious of the processes they use in their work. So it’s not surprising that when they get together they experiment with meeting formats. A recent experiment is a good example of how creative folks can look at a 50-year-old meeting format, try out something fresh and innovative, and — this is so important — learn from the experience.

Here’s the abstract of a long post written by Sarah Deery of The Ministry of Testing about their UnExpo experiment:

During the 3 breaks of TestBash Brighton 2018, The Ministry of Testing (MoT) trialled a new experimental conference engagement method named The UnExpo. The aim of the UnExpo was to boost the awesome community feels that are present at every TestBash and to provide a space in which software testers could converse deeply on topics of interest. Our results suggest that The UnExpo created an environment where software testers felt free to discuss their inner thoughts and feelings on the craft of software testing and their lives working in software development. We believe maximum feels were reached and attendees were highly engaged on a wide range of topics throughout The UnExpo. We intend to run a more streamlined UnExpo at future TestBashes and encourage other conferences run them too!
—Richard Bradshaw, Rosie Sherry, Heather Reid, Áine McGovern, and Sarah Deery, The UnExpo: A Novel Approach to Increase Conference Attendee Engagement and Maximise Community Feels

The entire post is well worth reading. It’s a detailed and candid account of the development and testing of a meeting format. Here are a few extracts that illustrate the development and evaluation process:

“We received feedback from the community that they would like more engagement and structured opportunities to confer with other attendees during the breaks of TestBash.”

MoT started with a core component of (any kind of) process improvement: soliciting and receiving feedback from prior experiences. Most meeting conveners concentrate on feedback about:

  • meeting content (“great speakers!”); or
  • logistics (“the food could have been better.”)

They shy away from feedback that suggests the meeting format and processes should be changed or improved.

Identifying their Expo (trade show) as a place where engagement and conferring could be improved, they explored using some kind of poster session format:

Our hypothesis: if poster sessions can engage and encourage scientists to converse, they can do the same for software testers too.

However, we felt that the scientific poster session format was too rigid, passive and formal. To maximise the engagement and fun, we encouraged the software testing community to submit to run poster stands that were interactive. Posters could be on any topic attendees were currently interested in; be it technical topics or the human aspects of working in software development. Other attendees armed with post-its, pens and awesome tester brains would then walk around The UnExpo and interact with posters of interest.

Having developed an overview of what would happen during The UnExpo, MoT then designed a detailed implementation. This included:

  • logistical resources — a Poster Creation Station and appropriate room set; and
  • a schedule of when the posters would be made and installed for interaction during the three conference breaks. (See the post for full details.)

MoT then describes in detail what happened during the experiment — and they don’t avoid critical observations:

The UnExpo set off to a shaky start during the first break of TestBash Brighton…
…it was a logistical pain for TestBash helpers to do the poster swap during the TestBash talks…

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the observations were positive. The post nicely conveys, with numerous pictures and quotes from participants, what the UnExpo experience was like.

The day after the event, MoT ran a Twitter poll for 24 hours. It received 58 votes, with 91% of the voters agreeing that The UnExpo worked.

Did the #testbash #unexpo work?

— Ministry of Testing (@ministryoftest) March 17, 2018

The post also documents more detailed feedback from Twitter, both positive and constructive.

Finally, the post’s conclusion offers:

  • commentary on the UnExpo experiment;
  • a list of the format’s benefits for individuals and the event;
  • a commitment to run UnExpos at future TestBashes; and
  • a description of planned format improvements.

Our findings support our hypothesis and suggest that poster sessions can engage and encourage software testers to converse with one another. We believe our tweaks to the poster session format led to highly engaging, interactive and fun conference break sessions where testers could have deep discussions around a variety of topics of interests…

We identified multiple benefits for running a stand at an UnExpo and attending an UnExpo:

  • Poster presenters got to practise their communication and presentation skills.
  • Those running stands were able to gather community feedback on their topic.
  • Posters acted as a handy medium enabling TestBashees to easily engage with others interested in the same subjects as themselves.
  • The UnExpo led to genuine connections and potential future collaborations being made.

…At future UnExpos, we will run a more streamlined format with a higher number of stands that will run all day. We will also have a small section of stands that are exclusively for those inspired folk who want to book a slot on the day, these stands will rotate each break. We believe this strategy will allow for attendees to continue conversations but also keep the energy and topics fresh!

My conclusion? This post is an excellent example of how to invent, explore, evaluate, and improve new meeting formats. To improve the quality and effectiveness of meetings, this is exactly the kind of focus and work we need!

Photo attribution: Samantha Cooper