Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

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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.

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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

Why don’t meeting conferences pay speakers?

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“All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”
John G. Stackhouse, Jr

I like going to event industry conferences. I enjoy meeting old friends, making new ones, and learning new things. I love presenting on all kinds of topics that revolve around making conferences fundamentally better for participants and organizers.

But there’s one thing that really bothers me about these events.

The pitiful reality that few meeting conferences offer to pay speakers.

Traci Browne wrote about this miserable state of affairs three years ago. Sadly, nothing has changed, so I’m raising the topic again.

The default offer, often considered generous, is to cover expenses, though you’d be surprised at how many invitations to present I receive that don’t even mention that. Sometimes organizers have tried to get me to pay full registration too!

When you ask whether a fee will be paid, a common response is “well, we don’t have a budget for that.” Sometimes this is preceded by an embarrassed pause, sometimes not. Hmm, you have an F&B budget, a venue budget, and an administrative budget, but you don’t have a budget for the people who you’ve invited to fill your event with educational goodness and value? Why not?

One answer, of course, is “it’s always been done this way.” This is a rationalization for a lot of bad things in this world.

Another is “you’ll get exposure.” Listen up guys: good speakers for your sessions already have exposure—they aren’t relying on free speaking engagements. Yes, I have had presentation opportunities lead to client work, but not to the extent that they’ve even come close to paying the time and monetary costs to a) create a session proposal, b) prepare a presentation (typically five to ten times the presentation’s duration), c) travel to and from the venue, and d) give the presentation.

Finally, we have the “don’t you want to give to your community?” angle. Yes, I do. Yes, I speak for free or at a reduced rate probably more than I should. I also look for other ways to receive benefit that the conference organizer can provide, e.g. a professional video of my session or a couple of extra hotel nights at a really nice conference location. But, unfortunately, supporting your professional community doesn’t pay the bills.

The next time you (yes, you, you know who I’m talking to) are planning an event, build some money into your budget to pay speakers. When you ask someone to present, offer them up front specific compensation for their expenses and their time and expertise. The message that you value their presence at your event, rather than taking them for granted, will speak volumes.

Photo attribution: Flickr user danmoyle