Picture a group of attendees at a small meeting being given this challenge: First they are divided into groups to come up with some ideas. The room surges with energy. Voices spill over each other. Participants introduce themselves and eagerly share the strategies they have already used in different business situations and toss new ideas back and forth. After about ten minutes, the whole group reconvenes and discusses solutions.

This, explains Clifford Baden, director, programs in professional education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, is an example of how adult-learning principles can be used to create an interactive and productive session. Attendees are given the chance to be active participants in their education--to share their expertise, learn from experiences of their peers, and build on that reservoir of knowledge to create practical solutions they can apply immediately to problems they face. Those are the key tenets of adult learning.

Adult-learning theories have been around for decades. Yet many corporate conferences continue to offer traditional seminars, with presenters locked behind lecterns, and panels that are really no more than a series of mini-lectures. But those standby formats are no longer satisfying audiences--if they ever did.

To help meeting planners develop more creative approaches to designing programs, the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives Foundation contracted Baden to do a study of programs that have successfully employed adult-learning principles. The results have just been published by the American Society of Association Executives in a book, Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice (see sidebar, page 14). The goal of his book, Baden says, is to encourage planners to think of themselves as people who can make a difference by providing attendees with highly effective educational experiences.

"There is some irony in the fact that much of the most powerful learning occurs outside the formal program," Baden writes. He then challenges planners: "Why not plan to have equally powerful learning occur in the sessions themselves?"

CREATING REAL DISCUSSION One of the surprises Baden encountered doing his study was that he found fewer interesting uses of technology for seminars than he expected. Using a techie tool such as PowerPoint does not alter the lecture format if the learner is still passive, he says. "[Technology tools] never help interaction. They may help learning for those who like to see something presented visually, but they tend to be an impediment to good dialogue."

For example, when preparing a slide or PowerPoint presentation, Baden points out, all your decisions have to be made before you meet the audience. Unless the speaker is expert enough at the technology to know how to use it flexibly, "what happens is the very antithesis of good adult learning," Baden says. "If someone throws you a question, you can't say, that's really interesting, let's pursue it. You have to go on to the next slide."

One format that works well for integrating adult-learning principles is the case study, where attendees are given an example of a problem drawn from real life. "The problem does not have a single right answer," Baden explains. "It is complex and ambiguous." Because there is no right answer, attendees share their own opinions, listen to different points of view, and develop a wider perspective.

One way to stretch attendees' perspectives is to adapt a case study format to your audience's specific issues. For example, a meeting of actuaries could be given a case study that involves a company in the midst of a takeover. Instead of viewing the issues from an actuarial viewpoint, however, the actuarial attendees could be assigned new identities, such as human resources manager or CEO. They then go through the acquisition process from that person's point of view.

When asked to value the company, actuaries normally would look at the books, the assets and liabilities, and then arrive at an evaluation. But when they look at it from a human resources perspective, they could find out what it means to company morale. Will it devalue the worth of the company if employees are not producing for fear of the takeover? This sort of case study can bring in aspects that members of one department may not normally consider.

Another variation on the case study method is to elicit participants' own experiences--what Baden calls self-generated case studies. When conducting seminars, Carole Copeland Thomas, MBA, a Woburn, Mass.-based diversity speaker and consultant, hands out index cards and asks attendees to write down--anonymously--difficult situations they have encountered involving a diversity issue. She then sets up small group discussions and role-playing based on those examples. "Stories that can be generated in-house are more valuable," she says. "People say, 'Wow, I never realized my story was so much like those of other people.'"

Drawing stories from the participants also helps mitigate the "been there, done that" response of jaded attendees who have been through many programs. Their attitude, says Thomas, is, "Yeah, [a diversity program] is nice, but I want something that pertains to my growth." Another benefit, Thomas notes, is that attendees find it easiest to develop an action plan when the problems are their own.

Another way to generate genuine discussion is to take the traditional panel presentation and turn it into a talk show format. Panelists talk for about five minutes each, and then the moderator, with a wireless mike, goes through the audience eliciting comments and questions. If it's a good, controversial topic, people will grab the mike and start talking.

One program moderator who always mixes with the audience is Joan L. Eisenstodt, president, Eisenstodt Associates in Washington, D.C., an independent meeting planning company. "You have got to be out there," she insists. "To make people stand up in the aisle and talk into a standing microphone is about as criminal an act as you can have at a meeting. Most people don't want to speak in public and you're asking them to stand and everyone looks at them, and then they have to wait [their turns] and their anxiety level increases. I hate having to do that."

NO MORE PREACHING It takes a different kind of work on the part of the facilitator to conduct an interactive session rather than lecture, Baden points out. "They are required to not simply get up and make a presentation that they prepared a few weeks before, independent of who would be sitting in the room, but are required to have the ability to listen to people in the room talk about why they are there."

It can be scary for a speaker to put aside those prepared remarks and slide shows, and respond spontaneously to the audience's needs. Trying out nontraditional formats can force planners to be more attentive to their speakers. When you expect them to do more than just lecture, you may have to spend a lot more time getting them prepared.

It can help to hand-pick your speakers when you first start implementing the new programs.

If you know which personalities can pull it off, go after them and ask them if they can help your fulfill your goal of making the sessions more interactive. Later, you may find that speakers will volunteer and come up with their own ideas.

In interactive seminars, speakers have to be able to handle the emotional reactions of attendees. Learning is an intensely personal and emotional process, Baden reminds planners in his book. But instead of taking these emotions into account, companies "often treat education like a sponge," he writes. "They wring out as much of the emotion as possible, leaving behind only the soaked-up knowledge."

When facilitators generate real interaction with the audience, especially with a charged topic such as diversity, things can get heated. "Adults are only grown-up children," Thomas says. "They come in with their own level of baggage and they act out."

Rather than squelching or ignoring their reactions, Thomas encourages participants to voice their opinions. "If they can express [their feelings], we can begin to change behavior. I'd rather have people express themselves than be indifferent," she says. "That way, I know where they are coming from."

Not everyone is adept at adopting a more freewheeling presentation style. If speakers think they will have a difficult time with an interactive format, they could participate instead in a more traditional program. They should be told up front what will be expected of them, and they should let you know if they can't do it.

MAKING THE CHANGE Many companies have stuck to the old panel discussion/followup workshop program format for years. Almost out of sheer inertia, the "talking heads" format could limp along indefinitely--unless, of course, the meeting planner decides to take on the considerable but rewarding challenge of making a change.

This can be a difficult challenge, particularly for companies that do not have an officially designated meeting planner who has long-term responsibility for education. When the responsibility for adult education is passed from department to department and person to person, it's easier to replicate what's been done in the past than to implement new program formats.

It also is important to plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to research and think creatively before you have to make decisions, rather than making decisions under pressure of deadlines.

One way to accomplish a change in program format is to experience what the new format is like, particularly if there is any resistance to making the change from other involved members of the corporation. To convince others involved to adopt adult-learning principles, you could put them through a series of games and teambuilding exercises so they could experience how interactive formats worked.

For example, if you were planning a conference in Hawaii, you could divide the others involved into teams and play a kind of "Wheel of Fortune" game to learn key words and terms, such as learning objectives and recruiting deadlines. Each time a team gets a right answer, they could be given macadamia nuts (to fit into the Hawaii theme, of course) and the team with the most nuts at the end would be declared winner.

This way everyone can learn to work as teams and to learn all the buzz words they need to know to plan a successful program. Although staff people may first ask why they have to play these games, they will understand by the end just how adults learn by participation.

BREAKING BARRIERS The way the planner sets up a meeting room sends a message about what he or she considers to be important, says Baden. "If everybody is facing front, it says that all information is going to flow in one direction. If people are facing each other, you are saying, 'We have information to share.'"

Instead of setting up chairs classroom style, arrange for a U-shaped format if the group is small enough, or a semicircle, or seat people at round tables. When deciding on the room arrangement, Baden advises planners in his book, ask yourself: How easy is it for [attendees] to see and to hear each other, the presenter, and any displays? How easy is it for people to move around, to stretch, to get refreshments?

For the talk show format, you must be careful not to put layers of barriers between the speaker and audience by removing speakers too far from the audience, on a stage, or far away behind a table. Instead you can seat the panelists and moderator in comfortable chairs around a coffee table. Another possibility is to seat panelists on the edge of the stage to create an interactive atmosphere.

And don't lower the lights. For the audience to be as involved and interactive as possible, individuals need to be able to see each other and to react to each other's facial expressions.

Even something as seemingly mundane as a different room arrangement can throw a speaker off guard. Women who normally would wear a straight skirt, expecting to be hidden behind a skirted table, will not be comfortable in a meeting room arranged to look just like an "Oprah" set. It's a good idea to include a diagram of the room setup in speakers' packets, and to suggest what clothing they might be most comfortable wearing.

Speakers aren't the only ones discombobulated by new room setups and program formats. Attendees also can get used to being in the same setting and not know where to sit in a new arrangement. Staff can be on hand to explain to attendees why the sessions look different and what the purpose of the each program is.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT FORMAT There are many different formats for creating interactive programs. Will each type work for every attendee? Of course not. Each adult has a preferred style of learning, Baden says. Some prefer active, hands-on sessions, others prefer listening.

But if all your programming has attendees sitting in rows of chairs facing front, listening to someone, you're satisfying only one type of learner, Baden says, asking, "What are you doing for the others?"

Even those people who learn better through listening will benefit from programs that use adult-learning principles, says Baden. "If you construct that listening so that they have to think, not just listen, you will engage their attention better. Give them a problem to think about, as opposed to just listening to the speaker talk."

No matter what the topic, you can involve the participants, agrees Reneta E. Webb, PhD, CAE, and president of Partners in Learning, an educational consulting firm in Chicago. "Even if you're doing a philosophical thing, like ethics in meetings contracts, there are ways of letting people participate," she says. "Have them formulate a contract."

When planning a meeting, think about incorporating various teaching formats, says Webb. "There's gotta be some lecture, some group work, some individual think-about-it time."

Make sure the format you choose matches the subject matter, however. In teaching modeling, for example, the instructor needs to stand at a blackboard, and explain the mathematical formulas and how to do them on a computer. For that type of session, an open forum just won't work.

When you use innovative approaches to education, "the satisfaction level does go up," says Webb, "because people have learned something. They feel better about something, which is also a big part of it. As a result, the next time you send out your brochures, they say, 'I really liked that. I want to go back.' Your credibility level rises."

We've all heard speakers lecture about creativity, but to really foster creativity among your attendees, you need to give them opportunities to be creative, says Clifford Baden, director, programs in professional education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

How? Well, you could send attendees to an artist's studio for a day to make ceramics. Or to a theater workshop where they create a dramatic piece. Or to an African art museum to learn to play African musical instruments. Afterward, participants would come back together and discuss what they learned about their own creative potential and how, back in the workplace, they could establish an environment for their employees that encourages creative thinking.

That's just one of the program ideas outlined in Baden's new book, Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice. While the book's title highlights the usefulness of these techniques for associations, the same adult- learning principles apply to any small group corporate training session or seminar. Highlighting 24 model programs implemented by associations, universities, corporations, community-based organizations, and consultants, Baden encourages planners to tap into their own creativity to develop more innovative educational programs.

Eschewing academese, Baden writes in an accessible style, providing an overview of each program, and explaining when you might consider adopting a similar approach. For example, Baden suggests using video vignettes in a seminar when you want to strengthen participants' decision-making skills.

Each section also features a sidebar of tips for success, advising how long the sessions should be, how the space should be arranged, and what experience is required of the facilitator.

Published by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), the book is $29.95 for ASAE members and $35.95 for nonmembers, plus $6.25 for shipping and 5.75 percent sales tax for books shipped to Washington, D.C. addresses. Call (202) 371-0940.