One Common Mistake that speakers make is to try to cram 10 days' worth of material into an hourlong lecture. A much better learning experience is created by having the speaker pick three or four main ideas and then deliver them in three or four mini-lectures of 10 to 15 minutes each. Between lectures, the speaker should insert some form of interactivity.

This approach was the heart of a presentation by Beverly Wood, MD, and Dixie Fisher, PhD, both with the University of Southern California, who outlined their ideas to an audience of meeting professionals at the Alliance for Continuing Medical Education annual conference in January. “Active learning is more than listening,” Wood says. The way to get ideas to stick is to have attendees apply their learning in some way: Analyze, read, write, evaluate, problem-solve. “If they don't apply it,” she says, “it won't get cemented into their long-term memory.”

“Talk no more than 15 minutes, and then do something different that engages them,” Fisher says. “It's during those two or three or five minutes of engagement that they are learning.” And, she adds, “The denser the lecture, the shorter it should be.”

Between the Lectures

Wood and Fisher have some ideas on what to have attendees do between mini-lectures:

  • Ask attendees to take what they have just learned and boil it down to 10 words.

  • Present a case study and ask attendees to write down their solution and then share it with another attendee.

  • Ask attendee pairs to exchange answers with a different pair, add anything else they can think of, and share the results with the larger group.

  • Audience response systems are useful tools, but not if the questions just have a right and a wrong answer, said Fisher. Ask controversial questions, and have attendees talk to their neighbors about why they answered the way they did.

Wood and Fisher asked attendees what barriers get in the way of injecting interactivity into a lecture. The answers included lack of exposure to these types of techniques, lack of time to incorporate them and still get all their points across, and fear of doing something different. Some thought speakers might be afraid that they couldn't answer the questions that would arise.

To help facilitate change, Wood and Fisher suggest outlining the format you expect speakers to follow and asking them to prepare several case studies that can be introduced into the talk. Another idea: Let them know that speakers who use these techniques generally get the highest ratings from attendees.

According to Wood, the key question to ask your speakers is, “Can you walk into the room and do what you're going to do even if there are no learners in the room? If so, don't do it.”