The problem, the association discovered, was that the education was lacking — not so much in its content, but in the way it was being delivered. “We learned that, to our attendees, the expertise in the audience was as important, if not more important, than the expertise of the people sitting on the dais,” says Wilkins. “So we looked at how adults learn and applied these adult-learning principles to our meeting.” The result has been packed sessions and attendance increases year over year.
It sounds pretty simple, but the truth is, most associations rely on lectures and talking heads instead of what the educational research shows to work best when it comes to educating adults: interaction, role-playing, and peer-to-peer dialogue. While lectures do have their place — most notably, when you just want to impart information, not necessarily spur attendees to act on what they learn — that's not the world we live in today. As Suzanne Murray, president, Axdev Global, a Norfolk, Va.-based management consulting firm, says, “Years ago, the focus was on what you knew — the more knowledge you had, the more degrees, the better. Now it's shifted to not just what you know, but how are you applying it — the performance.”
Times have changed in other ways as well. Technology is rapidly making education a commodity via the Internet and e-learning applications, companies are more cognizant than ever before about getting results for the bucks they spend sending employees to a conference, and the new generations entering the workforce expect hands-on learning and lots of multimedia.
With these changes come opportunities — for those up to the challenge. “We have some tremendous opportunities to incorporate a greater variety of learning formats, shifting from presenting information to facilitating dialogue and learning, and balancing the content knowledge of presenter with the practical life experiences and the wisdom of the people in the room,” says Jeffrey Cufaude, founder of Idea Architects, an Indianapolis-based meeting consulting firm.
Time to Change Your Perspective
“Meetings, it would appear, are designed to mirror the look and feel of the worst high school or college experience,” says Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates, Washington, D.C. “You're in a huge lecture hall listening to someone drone on, and there's not enough time for real discussion.” Adds educator, consultant, and attorney Tyra Hilliard, Esq., CMP: “Rarely do you see people focusing on education from the learners' point of view. Just delivering the topic is not education — it's got to be received. You can have the world-renowned expert speaking on the hottest topic in the world and it may still fall flat — it still may not reach the audience if you're not integrating adult-learning principles.”
Generally, the more actively adults are engaged in an educational sessions, the more they learn, because they are tapping into the experience and knowledge of their peers. “Adults have a lot of experience and professionals are very intelligent people and therefore can frequently problem-solve just by the peer-to-peer, interactive, engaged, dialogue,” or self-directed exercises, says Hilliard. The “expert” should be more like the “guide on the side,” providing insight and expertise, but also facilitating discussion, encouraging ideas, and offering feedback. “That's interactivity at its best,” she says. (See sidebars on page 18 and 22 for more on adult-education principles.)
Exercise Their Right Brains
Aside from the fact that lectures don't allow for interactive learning, they also don't appeal to the portion of the population who are right-brain thinkers, people who are more visual, creative, subjective, and holistic in the way they think, says Eisenstodt. “Meetings are designed for left-brain people — people who are more logical, analytical, and subjective. But research shows that right-brain thinking is going to really make people do better work,” she says, referring to a book by Dan Pink (www.danpink.com) called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
Quite frankly, educators say,are a left-brain world in need of some right-brain thinking. And some associations are hearing that message. For example, the American Academy of Audiology took a right-brained turn by employing a creativity coach to work with presenters both before the meeting, via a Web training session, and on site in the presenters room. The coach provided feedback on presentation techniques, not content, and suggested ways to engage learners and make ideas more visual, adding “a few right-brain ideas to the left-brain facts,” says Cheryl Kreider Carey, interim executive director at the association.
Here is how three other associations incorporated adult-education models — with some sometimes unexpected results.
Case 1: Listen to Your Learners
The only way to know for sure what will reach your audience is to ask them, as the Council on Foundations did via a member survey. The survey showed that respondents felt there were too many “talking heads,” that the sessions tried to cover too much ground, and that they had just as much experience as the expert. In short, they wanted a little less talk and a little more interaction. While about half of the attendees said they came primarily for the networking, the other half came for the education. The time had come to marry education with networking to revitalize their increasingly empty sessions.
For starters, COF limited each session to 90 minutes, with at least 45 minutes set aside for audience interaction. “We don't mean just Q and A,” says Wilkins. The interactive sessions could be small table discussions of an issue thrown out by the presenter, or case studies that invite feedback from the attendees. If it's a panel discussion, sessions are limited to no more than two panelists, plus a moderator.
This is a concept that Cufaude calls “concentrated” content. “A lot of presenters just pour content over the participants and there's no time to do anything else,” he says. But concentrated content is key ideas, insights, or assertions put forth by the presenter as a catalyst for engaging attendees in conversation and interactive exercises.
The Council on Foundations also developed an online tool that walks session designers through the requirements mentioned above. “It shows them exactly what it takes to get a session at our conference,” says Wilkins. They will work with the designers and presenters on ways to make the sessions interactive, and they require presenters to provide resources — either handouts or post-session resources — so attendees don't have to worry about taking notes.
Since networking and learning were equally important to COF members, Wilkins built in time for open-space sessions — informal sessions without moderators where attendees lead the discussions. “We apply open space in different ways,” says Wilkins. It could be time set aside in a particular session, she says, kind of an “open mic” portion where people can throw out topics from the floor and mingle and discuss them. They also build open-space sessions into the program, blocking out rooms where people show up to discuss a pre-determined topic.
Case 2: Rock the Boat
But what if everyone's pretty happy with the way you've been doing things? Often, associations don't incorporate adult-learning models into meetings because they don't want to rock the boat. If attendance is strong and the meeting evaluations are positive, then the assumption is made that “we must be doing something right,” says Eisenstodt, “so let's keep doing what we're doing.”
The fear that some association executives have is that fixing what isn't broke could alienate some members and hurt attendance. But as Cufaude states, that's precisely the time to at least experiment with new formats. “I wouldn't suggest taking an annual meeting that has high attendance and good satisfaction and blowing up the entire program to see what sticks,” says Cufaude. “But when you are in a position of strength, you are better positioned to try new things because you are building from a pretty strong foundation.”
That's the attitude Kristi Graves Donovan, associate director, education at the National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions, brought to the table last year when she introduced some radical ideas into a meeting that had seen a steady increase in attendance over the years. “We're always looking for opportunities to bring something fresh and new into our meetings and keep people engaged,” she says. And, they figured, “it's better to do something now before we get desperate.”
So, they created learning communities at the meeting where attendees were randomly pre-assigned to groups of about 50, identified by color-coded dots on their badges. Each color met in a different room on three occasions — the very start of the meeting; the end of day one, and the end of day two — for free-flowing, facilitator-led discussions.
In the first session, they talked about why they came to the conference, what they hoped to learn, and why. In the second gathering, they talked about what they had learned, what they liked and didn't like, and the next day's program. In the third session, the discussion focused on how they were going to apply what they learned at the conference to the workplace.
Cufaude, who worked with Donovan to design the communities, champions the idea in his practice. In some sessions he has led, he asks the room to break into quadrants by some type of common interest — be it job-related or personal. People form connections much more quickly this way, and he finds the interaction and energy level of these teams to be higher when they are working on exercises or solving problems.
Get Out of the Comfort Zone
The Professional Convention Management Association's Executive Edge program went a little radical this year with its incorporation of adult education principles. Part of PCMA's annual meeting, the program taps into the world's best business schools to deliver top-notch education to convention professionals. This year's session — held at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto — challenged participants as never before, and some were uneasy with Rotman's hands-on and collaborative process, which took attendees from concept to design. A few people even walked out.
“It took people out of their comfort zones,” says Deborah Sexton, president and chief executive officer, PCMA. “Rotman embraced a different way to deliver learning, and some people had a tough time with it.”
Heather Fraser, director, business design initiatives at Rotman, led participants through the process of “design thinking” — that is, developing a business strategy and designing “breakthrough” innovations that bring it to life. After a brief overview and introduction by Fraser, attendees were split into teams of 10 to discuss a photo from an actual convention (that one member from each team was asked to bring in advance). Each group was asked to zero in on the “story” of the meeting, based on the photo. The groups then came up with a hypothetical attendee and, through a series of exercises, designed a way to improve the convention experience for the hypothetical person. Many groups developed technology-based concepts designed to personalize the convention experience, like “The Valet,” a hand-held organizer on which attendees can download schedules, materials, directions, activities, and other convention-related information. Another group actually redesigned and rebranded the entire “convention” to make it workshop-oriented and hands-on for the attendee.
They Don't Call it Risk-Taking for Nothing
Innovation doesn't come with guarantees, however: The results for these three educational innovators varied widely. For COF, it was a big win for both the association and its attendees. Immediately after revamping its meeting to include more interactivity and peer learning, COF noticed that attendance started increasing, going up about 5 percent each year. They attribute that to the buzz created by the revamped sessions, which were filling up, in some cases spilling out of the room. Also, the pool of session designers gradually increased because they were happy with the response their sessions were getting and that word filtered out. “When we first started doing this, it sometimes felt like we had to beg people to do sessions,” says Wilkins. “But because we were proactive, explained to them what we were looking for, and armed them with the tools to do it better, different people started to submit session proposals.”
What's really interesting is now, just a few years after making these changes, post-event surveys indicate that by a about a 55-45 split, more people come for the education than the networking. “People are not just coming to attend the conference,” says Wilkins. “They are engaged and actively participating.” So, even if education didn't drive them to be there in the first place, for a good portion of members, it does now.
Donovan's learning communities experiment had a somewhat different result. Attendance decreased with each of the sessions. By the third go-round, there were only 10 to 20 people in each room. The rest of the people were in the hallway outside of the room having their own discussions. While these officially were sessions, not breaks, “those were the busiest breaks we had,” she says. “It wasn't exactly what we thought was going to happen, but it achieved our goal, which was trying to help them build connections between each other, network, and process what they had learned. They just did it in a different way.”
Attendees had a mixed reaction to it, saying they liked the networking and peer-to-peer interaction but didn't get as much out of the education because the topics of discussion didn't apply to them. So, next time, she may organize the rooms by theme or topic to keep the dialogue open, but make the conversations more focused. “I see it as another experiment. If it doesn't work, we might try something new the next time,” says Graves. “It's much more interesting to try new things every time. They don't need me to do the same program every year.”
For the PCMA experiment, about half of the 180 participants really enjoyed the two-day session, while the other half — not so much, says Sexton. Those who didn't like it were frustrated by the lack of parameters and dearth of “instruction,” as there was virtually no lecture, just peer-to-peer interaction. They were also frustrated because they didn't understand why they were doing these exercises and where they were headed. “They weren't comfortable, but they played along, trying to figure out what they were doing,” says Sexton.
In the end, when they actually designed a way to improve the hypothetical meeting, they got it. Those who stuck it out — even those who didn't enjoy it — fought it “tooth and nail” until the very end when they finally “understood what we were doing,” says Sexton. “In some instances, you've got to see something from the beginning to the end for the light bulb to go on.”
Sexton knew the Rotman session would stretch the thinking of participants — and she understood that some might not like it. “It was a risk we took and we think it was a good risk, because it was a learning experience and it showed another way to deliver education,” she says. “We are going to continue to experiment with different ways to deliver education and the experience one leaves with in the hopes that they can apply it to their day-to-day activities.”
The competition is tougher nowadays, and many believe that only those willing to take a few risks will thrive in today's educational arena. The question is whether your organization is willing and able to shake things up in the name of more effective education.
“Today, we all have to think differently to be competitive. If we are not using quality education as a tool, ultimately we're going to lose,“ says Sexton. While networking is very important and a major reason people attend meetings, it can't be the only reason, she says, because there are other associations, other outlets, for networking. But if you can deliver better education, along with networking, you are probably going to capture the market.
How Planners Can Foster Adult Learning
Familiarity with adult-education principles isn't just for education directors, but also for meeting professionals, even those with no input into content. “Logistics and education delivery have to blend, or it all doesn't work,” says Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates, Washington, D.C. Here are some ways to foster adult learning:
USE ROUND TABLES. Use round tables for 8 to 10 people, or use “half moon” tables instead of classroom-style seating in sessions. It helps facilitate interactivity among attendees.
SCHEDULE SUFFICIENT BREAK TIME. Don't cram too many sessions into the day, and do leave time for longer breaks. Some of the really good learning at meetings happens in the hallways and at the coffee urns. Have some 30- or 45-minute breaks instead of all quick 10-minute breaks.
PLAN HALLWAY ACTIVITIES. Speakers can encourage attendees to continue the dialogue during breaks by giving them topics to discuss and report back on. Also, post provocative topics, information, or questions on a whiteboard in the hallway so people have a place to convene and strike up dialogue.
PROVIDE COMFORTABLE SEATING. Make sure that facilities have plenty of couches and seating areas in the concourses so people have ample places to read materials or chat. Consult with facilities' personnel about creating these spaces in coffee break or lounge areas. Also, inquire about changing room sets during the day.
SIMULCAST. Have the general sessions broadcast on monitors in the facility. It's a way for people who don't like sitting alone in the dark in the general sessions to gather around the TV and chat about the presentation.
LOSE THE LECTERN. Or at least provide the speaker with a wireless microphone so he or she can move around the room and interact with the audience.
PROVIDE HANDOUTS AND DOWNLOADS. People want information they can take back to the office and apply immediately, says Eisenstodt. Downloadable information is extremely helpful, especially for sessions people missed.
GIVE THEM BRAIN FOOD. Large lunches and sugar or carb-heavy breaks cause people's energy levels to crash in the afternoon. Have healthful food options.
FOSTER EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING. Schedule some sessions outside of the facility around a topic or theme. It's a way to break the monotony, get people to see the city — and learn.
USE TECHNOLOGY. Social networking applications, smart badges, etc., are good ways to help people connect. Audience-response systems promote interactivity and instant feedback. For large sessions, computer stations around the room let attendees ask questions, and interact with a panel, keynote speaker, or moderator.