Many of your attendees may have grown up thinking education was all about sitting in a room while the instructor imparted nuggets of wisdom, which they were to memorize and regurgitate on the next test. They bring that baggage into adulthood — and into your meeting. They're the ones who passively sit and say, “Let me stare at the stage and absorb what I want.” Which is fine, but they likely won't be integrating what they learn into what they do outside that room, which is something employers now are requiring to justify the expense of sending someone to your conference. To really prime themselves to use what they learn, attendees have to live it a little. Which means they can't just show up, listen, and maybe take some notes. They must actually participate in the learning.
Can you hear the howls when attendees are asked to do just that? I have, notably at an association conference a couple of years ago where, after several sessions of peer-to-peer learning, people started to revolt, saying, “I came to learn, not teach.” When I asked if that meant they didn't get anything out of the session, they admitted that, in fact, they had gotten a ton of practical tips and tools they planned to use back at the office. But, for some reason, the value was less in their eyes because they learned from each other instead of from some guru on the stage.
Planners are in a tough situation: On one hand, the success of their meeting is measured by the number of butts they can plant in seats. On the other hand, they also need to provide a quality learning experience. If they provide that quality learning experience in the form of experiential learning — which experts agree is more effective than passive education like lectures — many who are used to passive learning likely will vote with their feet and leave. Uh oh.
To get around this, find out what it is your attendees need to know. Some — say, accountants who need to learn the latest regulations — may actually be better served by lectures. (See page 35 for a primer on making lectures better learning experiences — yes, it is possible!) But is there room for peer-to-peer learning in some of the other sessions, such as those that address running a profitable accounting firm? One planner I spoke with recently joked that we'll have to wait for the old guard to die off before experiential learning becomes the norm, but I don't agree.
We are becoming used to being active participants in our education in other areas of our lives, whether it be through searching Google for solutions, or learning about new products through experiential marketing campaigns. Why should meetings be any different? Like it or not, the old ways of teaching and learning are changing. The question is, can meetings adapt? I say, not only that they can, but that they must.
For more of Sue’s commentary, click here.