“Do” beats “Show and Tell”

Show and Tell

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

Do great speakers just provide a better emotional experience?

Motivational speaker 3775763004_ae663793fc_o

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.

Bill Toliver 2013-06-01_2215

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

Transforming Your Conference Sessions With Participative Techniques: EIBTM 2012 workshop


Here’s a one minute video about my free two hour workshop at EIBTM 2012, Barcelona, on November 28, where you’ll learn how to transform your meetings using powerful participation techniques.

The best way to learn about participation techniques is to experience them, and that’s what we’ll be doing in the workshop. You’ll experience a variety of ways for participants to learn about each other and to discover and share the issues that really matter to them. We’ll also cover the why, when, and where to use these techniques.

The workshop will be held on Wednesday, November 28, 13:30 – 15:30 in Conference Room 4.1. Session attendance is limited, so arrive early to be sure to secure a place!