Are You Creating An Annual Conference Abyss Or A Healthy Oasis?

The Crate Full Of Content Conference Presentation
Many conference presenters use the Crate Full Of Content development process for their presentations.

They collect book excerpts, jokes, links, magazine articles, pictures, pithy sayings, questionnaires, quotes, videos, websites and anything else that looks like good fodder for their session. They dump them into a crate for use later.

When it’s time to design their conference presentation, the empty the crate on the table and try to assemble their speech from the disjointed bits of content.

Or they do the entire process above online with a folder of odds and ends around several subject matters.

There’s nothing wrong with collecting articles of interest and novelty. Some of them might very well fit into a course design. But ultimately, every item should be measured against the session learning objectives.

The Tip Of The Minute, The Flavor Of The Month
You know these presentations. There is a surplus of these rapid fire ninety-minute kitchen sink presentations in many conferences:

  • 40 Hot Tips To Better Position Your Education In A Down Economy
  • 50 Web 2.0 Ways To Tell A Story
  • 60 Tips For Marketing Your Social Media
  • 70 Practical Tips & Tricks To Build Better E-Learning 

Yes, all of the above titles are actual presentations. Who wants to sit through a rapid fire presentation where a tip every minute is given…hoping that two or three of the tips or tactics presented resonate? Can you really learn anything at these hot dog eating contest-cram-sessions?

But people love them. And they love to watch. Unfortunately, they also get information indigestion from these sessions.

Sure the attendees may react favorably to these presentations at the end. Yet a few days later, they realize that they haven’t actually learned anything and now only have a printed list of tips. When the jazzed feeling wears off, so does any perception of value. The smile sheets are temporary.

Did Learning Occur Or Was A Temporary Fix The Goal?
Here’s my question. Did any real learning occur? Can the brain really retain any of that rapid fire information? Or was the presenter’s real goal just to get rave smile sheets and provide a temporary fix like a drug pusher providing a short term high?

Heck, why not just turn on the public twitter stream and tell your attendees to watch and learn. It’s not any different. You could read the tweets out loud as they passed by and call it engagement.

Oh, wait, you the presenter say it’s different than the twitter stream. And because attendees want and ask for these type sessions you should provide them.

What are you selling? Crack? Seriously, what benefit are you providing to your attendees? A short term feel good feeling that the attendee got everything they wanted in less than ninety-minutes?  

The Crate Full Of Content Provides Brain Drain
These sessions sounds like the drive-through version of fast-food education. Instant education, mind crammed full of content in less than ninety-minutes. It’s like the silicon brain plastic surgery. You’ve provided the bottomless pit of trivial information.

But guess what. It doesn’t work! There is 100%, absolutely no way that the brain learned and retained all of that information. You’ve created the annual association abyss in the conference. You’ve just proven that you are only there to make a buck off the attendee and not really provide any value or learning.

Think I’m joking? Providing too much information during a presentation is probably the number one deadly presenter mistake most speakers make. Less is more and in a one hour talk, it’s best to limit the presentation to three main points, five at the most. Any more than that and it’s not learned or retained. Think I’m off my rocker? Well so are ASTD, Brain Rules’ John Medina, Fred Pryor Seminars Langevin Training, Made To Stick’s Dan Heath, pioneer trainer Bob Pike, Presentation Zen’s Garr Reynolds and presenter Olivia Mitchell, just to name a few. The research has proven that your brain can only retain up to seven chunks of information at any one time.

The Healthy Conference Oasis
In the healthy conference presentation, attendees want value and meaning, not just information. People want to connect with others and enjoy learning. Their lives are already full of email, handouts, junk mail, mandatory meeting, phone calls, spam, status updates, texts, websites and more meetings. Give them a break. Present a small bit of information, no more than 10-15 minutes and then facilitate some type of interaction. Then repeat the process several times. Overwhelming them with data, facts, information or tips is only a disservice to them.

Rapid fire presentations with a horde of tips are only good if you’re hired to entertain and mesmerize! If you’re hired to make a difference in attendees’ lives, to inspire them, help them learn new things and apply that learning, you cannot talk at people for hours.

What’s good for learning and a healthy conference oasis?

  1. Seek your attendees’ attention sparingly.
  2. Give them time to process.

Smile Sheets, Evaluations And Real Learning
According to the Kirkpatrick Model of evaluation, presentations and training should be evaluated on four related points:

  1. Reaction – What the attendees think at the end of the presentation (that’s the smile sheet)
  2. Learning – What the attendees learned, any  new knowledge or skills gained
  3. Behavior - How their behavior changes following the training
  4. Results - How those changes affect the business. Was it worth it?

Attendees’ immediate reactions to presentations are easiest and the least expensive to measure. Guess what, they should be what you care about the least! (All presenters should read that statement again!)

Business results due to an attendee attending a conference or session are the most difficult and costliest to measure. They are what you should care about the most and they are what the boss cares about the most. They represent the real reason why attendees come again and tell others about your conference.

Most conference organizers and presenters survey attendees immediately following the session and consider the program fully evaluated. Those evaluations provide immediate and often useful information to speakers. They are important to the training function but not so much to the attendees’ organization. The major limitation of the smile sheet is that it cannot tell you if the session worked. Favorable responses don’t mean that attendees will retain or act on the material. Smile sheets are necessary but not sufficient.

Measuring learning is harder and more time consuming than asking attendees if they liked the presentation. Observing attendees’ behaviors as the result of attending a session is even more complicated. According to studies cited in The Learning Alliance, about 90% of attendees will not be using the new knowledge or skills six months later. So why do presenters provide rapid pace presentations with a tip a minute if the majority of those tips are forgotten before the attendee leaves the room? What value are those presenters bringing to the table? Even more important, why do you as a conference organizer secure speakers with these type of presentations? You’re showing that you do not value the attendee’s learning.

Attendees will love you when they have a fun time learning and are able to retain and apply what they learned. Practicing shovelware (shoveling as much content as possible into attendees’ brains), and “I know this so it must be important to include in the presentation” creates an unhealthy conference environment. It can become the conference abyss.

As a conference organizer or presenter, it should be your job to care about what the attendees learned, how their behavior changed following the session and how their changes ultimately affected their business.

So why do we as attendees love to attend the fast paced tip presentations that are nothing but data dumps? What can conference organizers and presenters do to provide more healthy conference presentations?

8 Responses to Are You Creating An Annual Conference Abyss Or A Healthy Oasis?
  1. Justin Locke
    April 23, 2010 | 10:12 am

    well jeff as always i adore your bringing these points up to conscious level, but i do have one or two questions.

    first of all, is “learning” really the goal? or is the goal to perform a sort of annual social ritual? after all, there is an awful lot to be said for maintaining the status quo, esp if one is currently employed. the twittersphere is loaded with links to endless “tips,” most of which are warmed-over advice to neophytes, and people seem to enjoy them. i don’t mind hearing a presentation of old stuff, as it makes me feel superior to already know the information. and how many people want to hear “new” christmas carols? i sure don’t.

    I strongly suspect that repeated information acts as a sort of comforting lullaby, and comfort has value.

    truly “new” information is really not as appealing as it sounds. if it is truly new, then it is still being tried out and experimented with. how many conference planners are willing to take risks on something if they have no idea how the attendees will react to it? safety first.

    i agree with all your points but i wonder if we are looking at the proper root cause. could it be that the general bland lightness is the goal in itself? after all, even if you are providing new information and doing it well, the mind can only retain so much when it comes in concentrated doses. as is so often the case, stated goals and actual goals don’t always match. – jl

  2. uberVU - social comments
    April 23, 2010 | 1:56 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by VelChain: R UR conference sessions causing brain drain or real learning? by @jeffhurt http://bit.ly/cJvbgC #assnchat #eventprofs…

  3. Jeff Hurt
    April 23, 2010 | 3:43 pm

    @Justin
    Thanks for the comments and leading the thinking in a different direction of the annual social ritual and bland lightness. Good food for thought there.

    When you survey conference attendees on why they attend, the top two reasons are networking and education. In many companies, justification to attend an event, unless the attendee is paying from their pocket, is education. So yes, learning is a goal. To top it off, the largest percentage of time at a conference is spent in “education offerings” with learning and retention the goal. So from the business owners’ perspective, “If the travel, registration and expenses are on the company’s dollar, learning had better occur.” I even have friends that return from conferences and event and have to write papers and/or give reports on what they learned when they return. And yes, yes, yes, the mind can only retain so much information in concentrated doses. It needs time to process and reflect too.

  4. Ellen
    April 24, 2010 | 9:32 am

    Jeff — Again, we’re on the same page!

    I’d venture to say that the rapid-fire sessions are popular because they’re — usually — fun to watch. And attendees figure if they get a few good ideas from it, then it was worth it. I don’t think anyone attending expects to absorb everything. Instead, I think the presenters offer a lot in hopes that everyone will get at least something from it. Not ideal, but I think there’s good intention behind them.

    Can I point out a few elaborations on your smile sheet and evaluation remarks?

    I’ve written about both for ASAE:

    The current issue of Associations Now includes “Smile Sheets to Smile About.” Smile sheets can be used to collect helpful information (rather than the same-old, same-old)and this gives some suggestions for doing that. The article can be found online here: http://www.asaecenter.org/PublicationsResources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=48521

    And back the PD section enewsletter of September of 2007 includes “Do Your Members Actually Learn What You Teach Them?” It distinguishes smile sheets from transference evaluations and provides some inexpensive ways to find out whether learners are applying what they learned at an educational event. That article can be found here: http://www.asaecenter.org/PublicationsResources/EnewsletterArticleDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=28408

    We ask far too much of our smile sheets, and far too little of our educational sessions. Thanks for helping change that, Jeff!

  5. Sue Pelletier
    April 26, 2010 | 9:44 am

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people at conferences say, “If I walk away with one or two actionable nuggets of information, I consider my experience there a success” (or words to that effect). Expectations are low, which may be why those rapid-fire tips sessions are so popular–there’s usually one out of those 90 tips they haven’t heard before and can use. Not saying it’s great learning, but it does meet expectations of the learners in a lot of cases.

    I also remember hearing that sometimes the best learning experiences actually tend to fare the worst on smile sheets, because to have real learning, you have to ask participants to let go of preconceived notions/admit they don’t know about something–they have to recognize that there’s a void before it can be filled. And that can be very uncomfortable, and people tend not like the presenters who make them uncomfortable, versus those who keep them entertained and happy. Just a thought.

  6. Jeff Hurt
    April 28, 2010 | 2:30 pm

    @Sue
    Great points. Yep, who wants to make an attendee feel uncomfortable…it hurts the smile sheets. Thanks for adding your feedback.

  7. [...] beyond passive listening. They take the path of least resistance. As Sue Pelletier said in a recent blog comment, “… People tend not like the presenters who make them uncomfortable, versus those who [...]

  8. [...] of images.”Thanks to Jeff Hurt, who brought my attention to Medina’s work with this blog post. Share and [...]

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