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.
Although I have good reasons to champion meeting designs where the participants get to choose what they want and need to discuss and learn rather than a program committee, there is invariably a place for some predetermined presentations at conferences. Unfortunately, most program committees use a flawed process selecting sessions.
“The M&Ms provision was included in Van Halen’s contracts not as an act of caprice, but because it served a practical purpose: to provide a simple way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.” —Brown Out, snopes.com
Over the years I’ve contracted with hundreds of organizations for meeting facilitation and design consulting, and I’m starting to wonder if I need to adopt Van Halen’s approach.
For example, I have arrived at presentation venues to find, despite a written contract agreement to the contrary:
The room is full of furniture that prevents participants from moving around. “We didn’t realize it was important, and we need this room set for the session after yours.”
I can’t post materials on the walls. “Can’t you use some tables instead?”
Requested audio equipment isn’t available. “We couldn’t get you a Countryman/lav, but here’s a hand mike.”
The unobstructed free space is far smaller than what I requested or was told. “We needed a stage for the afternoon keynote.“/ “We decided to hold the buffet in the room.”
Ballpoint pens replaced fine-point Sharpies. “Oh I see, yes, I guess no one will be able to read all the participant Post-Its at a distance. We’ll just have to make do.”
Projector resolution is not what I was told or requested. “Your slides will be a bit distorted, but I’m sure people will still be able to read them.”
Tables that were supposed to be covered with taped down white paper for participant drawings are still bare. “Kevin said he’d cover them, but we don’t know where he is. Surely it won’t take long; can you help us?”
Carefully diagrammed room sets have been replaced with something different. “Well, our staff have never set up curved theater seating before — it’s not on their standard charts — so they set the rows straight.”
Why it’s necessary to read and follow contracts
It’s true that I’m not the standard-presenter-talking-from-a-podium-at-the-front-of-the-room — i.e. “Give me a room full of chairs and my PowerPoint and I’m all set!” Yet there are sound reasons for my, apparently to some, strange-seeming requests. Those contract provisions are not about making my life easier or more luxurious — they are needed to provide participants with the best possible learning, connection, and overall experience during my time with them.
I am well aware of the incredible demands made on meeting planners before and during events. I’ve had that role for hundreds of events, and know what it’s like. Things rarely go according to plan, and creative solutions need to be invented on the spot. No matter what happens, I always work with planners to the best of my ability to ensure that the show goes on and it’s the best that it can be under the circumstances.
What’s frustrating is that complications like the examples above can almost always be avoided with a modicum of planning — if meeting planners read and take seriously the terms of presenter contracts to which they’ve agreed. I will bend over backwards to resolve pre-event concerns, but being hit with last-minute surprises is, at best, annoying, and, at worst, can significantly reduce the effectiveness of what I have been paid and contracted to do.
No, I’m not going to start trashing dressing rooms like David Lee Roth. (Full disclosure: nobody’s ever even offered me a dressing room.) But, folks, if you hire me, don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. Please read my presenter contracts before signing, ask me about anything you don’t understand or are concerned about so we’re clear about my needs and your ability to fulfill them, take my requests seriously, and, as the event approaches, keep in mind your commitments so they don’t get overlooked. I will appreciate your professionalism, and everyone — your attendees, you, and I — will reap the benefits.
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?
Recently I’ve been frustrated and baffled. No less than three venues (two hotels and a conference center) in the last month have informed me that I was not allowed to post anything on the walls of the room I was meeting in.
Nothing could be posted. No flip chart paper, no masking tape, no stick pins, no thumbtacks, no sticky notes, and no wall clips.
To add insult to injury, none of the venues apologized or offered any suggestions on alternative ways I could display materials on a vertical surface. None of them had any substitute surfaces, like large portable notice boards or whiteboards available.
One conference organizer wondered if I could use tables instead. Unfortunately, tables are not a comparable substitute for walls for two reasons:
On walls, notes or cards can be placed anywhere in a seven foot band between the floor and where people can reach, while on tables, human reach limits us to a three foot band.
Information placed on a wall can be easily seen by many more people than if it is displayed on a table.
Some of the most powerful techniques available for group problem-solving require ways to display multiple pieces of information to an entire group, whose members can then easily and publicly move items around to cluster, list, sort, and map relationships. Schools have used blackboards (aka chalkboards) for two hundred years to display information to students, thumbtacks (aka drawing pins) have been around for over one hundred years, masking tape was invented in 1925, and we’ve been using post-it notes for over thirty years. These are not new technologies, folks, why are they now being banned from the walls of venues where we meet?
I understand that venues are used for many different purposes, and wall damage, through incorrect use of attachment technology or marker bleed-through, costs money to repair. But “wall work” is an essential component of group problem solving, and for a venue to prohibit its use while offering no alternatives mean that many kinds of useful meetings will not be held there.
In the second part of this post I’ll cover some of the technologies now available for posting information on walls, including some that you may not know about. Stay tuned!
Have you had venues not allow you to post materials on their walls? What did you do?
An inconvenient truth Think back on all the conference presentations you’ve attended. How much of what happened there do you remember?
Be honest now. I’m not going to check.
Nearly all the people to whom I’ve asked this question reply, in effect, “not much”. This is depressing news for speakers in general, and me in particular as, since the publication of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, I have been receiving an increasing number of requests to speak at conferences.
When I ask about the most memorable presentations, people (after adjusting for the reality that memories fade as time passes) tend to mention sessions where there was a lot of interaction with the presenter and/or amidst the audience: in other words, sessions where they weren’t passive attendees but actively participated.
Take a moment to see whether that’s your experience too.
Social learning Conference sessions that are designed to facilitate engagement between rather than broadcast content provide wonderful opportunities for social learning: the learning that occurs through connection, engagement, and conversations with our peers.
Social learning is important, and here’s why, courtesy of Harold Jarche:
There are additional reasons why supporting social learning during conference sessions makes a lot of sense:
Active participants almost always learn and retain learning better than passive attendees.
Participants meet and learn about each other, rather than sitting next to strangers who remain strangers during a session.
Participants influence the content and structure of the session towards what it is they want to learn, which is often different from what a presenter expects.
Being active during a session increases engagement, creating better learning outcomes.
Actively participating during a session is generally a lot more fun!
A mission for conference presenters Conferences provide an ideal venue for social learning; they are potentially the purest form of social learning network because we are brought together face-to-face with our peers. And yet most conference sessions, invariably promoted as the heart of every conference, squander this opportunity by clinging to the old presenter-as-broadcaster-of-wisdom model.
Of course, there are conference sessions that routinely include significant participation. Amusingly, they have a special name so they won’t be confused with “regular” conference sessions: workshops!
In my opinion, every conference session longer than a few minutes should include significant participation that supports and encourages engagement. If you’re a conference presenter, make this part of your mission—to improve your effectiveness by incorporating participation techniques into your presentations. Your audiences will thank you!