Pop quiz:

Three days after a typical learning session at a typical religious meeting or conference, how much of the information will the typical attendee have retained?

“Well, the speaker was great, so I'll guess 80 percent.” That's a little high.

“Fifty percent?” Still too high.

“Thirty percent?” Lower. The answer is 10 percent.

Amazing, isn't it? As religious meeting planners, you work extremely hard to find gifted speakers who will present wonderful information to receptive, intelligent people.

The truth is that if you measured what people actually learned, the results would disappoint you. And even fewer people actually change their behavior as a result of what is presented at a meeting.

The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way. With minor changes, your attendees could retain four or five times the information they retain now, and they could remember it for years. As a result, your meetings could be more effective in changing people's lives and transforming your organizations.

Marge Anderson, an education program manager with the Energy Center of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., outlined at the 2001 RCMA Conference ways that religious meetings can be more effective. Anderson's presentation was based on the work of Howard Gardner, a Harvard University educator whose work is changing the way people view intelligence (see sidebar below).

Gardner has identified at least eight forms of human intelligence, and Anderson has translated his findings into advice for meeting planners.

“These are different things we can bring to our meetings that we don't traditionally do,” Anderson says.

  1. Linguistic intelligence is the understanding of the written word.

    “We all have this in our meetings,” Anderson says. In fact, most religious meetings are based too heavily on linguistic intelligence (see PowerPoint Is Putting Your Attendees to Sleep, page 24.) “This is the way a lot of things happen in the meetings industry. We have a heavy emphasis on linguistic intelligence, including things such as PowerPoint slides, talking, and oral presentations.”

    Anderson's advice: Drastically reduce the amount of time that your presenters spend lecturing or giving PowerPoint presentations. Strive to make each audience member an active participant.

  2. Logical, mathematical intelligence is problem-solving — learning things sequentially, in steps.

    Religious meetings probably are strong in this area, Anderson says, but you can take this approach further.

    Her advice: Include a problem-solving activity. Make sure to include written and verbal instructions. For example, as a team-building activity, one group built a playground in a low-income community. “They felt that was a really meaningful meeting for them,” she says.

  3. Musical intelligence is learning through music.

    “Here's one form of intelligence that I'd really like to see us use more in the meetings industry,” says Anderson, who believes music is a powerful tool.

    She points out that most Americans learn the English alphabet musically, through the “ABC” song. “I learned all kinds of things in the third grade that I sang, and I can't remove them from my mental hard drive, because they're embedded in there,” she says. “Musical intelligence has a strong connection to emotion, and emotion increases retention when you're learning or working on behavior changes.”

    Anderson's advice: Use a theme song throughout a meeting for people to connect and reconnect to. Use music to develop an environment in a room. She likes to use Big Band music, because nearly everyone can identify with and enjoy it.

  4. Visual and spatial intelligence is imagery — seeing images and pictures.

    Want an example of how knowledge of visual intelligence changed the world? Look at what Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, did. He transformed computers from intimidating, code-driven machines into friendly devices that even toddlers can use.

    “Younger folks really deal well with visual media,” Anderson says. Remember this when considering the audience at your meetings: The first wave of MTV viewers is in their late 30s!

    Anderson's advice: Use pictures, diagrams and icons in your meetings. Also, create mental pictures for people through the use of stories. Mental images help people to retain information.

  5. Kinesthetic intelligence entails two things: the physical (the things that your body can do); and the emotional (risks that you can take or connections you can make with other people).

    “Kinesthetic intelligence is a very powerful way of cementing whatever it is that you're trying to achieve — if you can make an emotional connection and involve the whole body,” Anderson says.

    Anderson's advice: “Kinesthetic activities don't have to be super physical. They can be stretching exercises or quiet movement. Participating in service projects to break up the sessions is a great idea. It makes the location more real for attendees. Attendees share an experience with people they're working with.”

    Be cautious, though, about physical activity, she warns, because not everyone is at the same level. A ropes course, for example, might sound great at first but turn out to be, well, not such a good idea.

  6. Interpersonal intelligence is learning from each other.

    “More and more meetings are getting more interactive — people learning from each other,” Anderson says.

    Her advice: Include ice breakers at the beginning or the end of a speaker to raise the room's energy level.

  7. Introspective intelligence is learning from within.

    Introspective intelligence is achieved by searching your self, Anderson says. An example is journaling. “Give people time off so they can absorb things. So often when we get together for our meetings we cram every minute with activity.”

    Anderson's advice: Build opportunities into your meeting for people to process the information they have received. You can begin a day with quiet time, for example, or include activities in which participants write their responses and then share them with the group. This gives extroverts the chance to edit their responses, and it gives introverts an opportunity to share.

  8. Natural intelligence is your connection to the natural world.

    Anderson says research shows that natural light helps the brain retain information: Studies of schoolchildren in California and North Carolina demonstrated that students learned more when they were in rooms bathed with natural light.

    Anderson's advice: Use conference centers with spaces that have a lot of natural light. If you are forced to use dimly lighted ballrooms, be sure to give attendees frequent breaks to be exposed to sunlight for mental recharging.

Build on Intelligences

When you are designing your meetings, think about your group and its collective strengths and weaknesses. Are you dealing with a group of pastors who are musically gifted but mathematically challenged? In that case, would it be a good or a bad idea to ask them to build a playground?

Is your group made up of church administrators who are strong with logic but weak on introspective intelligence? Maybe it's time to stretch them by offering an opportunity to journal.

Remember, too, that when you give people experiences that tap into more than one form of intelligence, it increases retention. For example, the group that built a playground together was using logical, kinesthetic, and interpersonal intelligence at the same time. Regardless of how the playground ended up looking, the members of that group probably will never forget the lessons they learned from building it.

Conference Centers Provide the Perfect Setting

It is much easier for meeting attendees to connect with their varied intellectual gifts if they are in the right setting.

Conference centers can be perfect. With indoor spaces that feature natural light (natural intelligence), green space that gives participants places to be by themselves (introspective intelligence), and varied terrain for physical activity (kinesthetic intelligence), it's no wonder that conference centers are the top choice when the top priority is learning.


For more on the subject of multiple forms of human intelligence, read Howard Gardner's Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century, Basic Books, 2000, or his landmark 1993 work, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory In Practice, Basic Books.

For more information on using music effectively in meetings, Marge Anderson recommends Training with a Beat by Lenn Millbower, Stylus Publishing, 2000. Among other things, Millbower explains why you never should use jazz as a background music (it's too complex and distracts people). He also says that, contrary to popular belief, fast music is not the kind of music to play after lunch.

Use These Principles to Improve Your Meetings

  1. Make learning fun.

    “When you're a child, learning is a fun activity,” says Marge Anderson, an education program manager with the Energy Center of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis. “But then you go to school, and it becomes this chore. I encourage you to get back to the idea that learning is fun and that it's OK to have fun. People learn better when they're having fun.” Tell your attendees, “It's OK for us to have fun. It will help us achieve our goals.”

  2. The meeting should center on the participants' needs.

    It's easy to focus on the goal of the meeting and to forget about the participant, Anderson says. “A lot of times, speakers can be really focused on themselves, and not on the needs of the participants. They're either in love with the idea of being a speaker, or they're in love with their content. They don't think about what it takes for a participant to transfer those results to their work or their life. Sometimes technology is the center of the meeting. It's all about what bells and whistles and stuff you can add to your meeting, instead of what people need to have to perform differently.”

  3. Learning is not a spectator sport.

    To learn, you need to be active, Anderson says. You want people to do something different, you want people's behavior to change because they attended the meeting. For example, your meeting might focus on the importance of prayer life and having confidence in the power of prayer. For people to change a behavior, they have to practice in the meeting what you want them to do. Sometimes giving them information and direction isn't enough. Give them time to practice.

  4. Attendees bring their own gifts and experiences to a meeting.

    When he is teaching at a conference, David Meyer, from the Center for Accelerated Learning in Lake Geneva, Wis., strives to have his meeting attendees do 70 percent of the work. He does that because retention is highest when people are participating, Anderson says.

PowerPoint Puts Attendees to Sleep!

Marge Anderson wants to turn off your PowerPoint projector.

“Everyone thinks you're not sophisticated if you don't have a PowerPoint presentation,” says Anderson. PowerPoint is fine if used sparingly and if it's used to project pictures, but the problem is that PowerPoint usually is used to project “a million words on the screen.”

Also, most PowerPoint presentations are shown in darkened rooms. Research has shown that the best environment for learning is a bright, naturally lit space.

As a result, the audience becomes passive, disconnects from the speaker and the other participants, and retains very little of the information. If the audience were asked to sleep during your presentation, they'd retain nearly as much!

Anderson recommends that you get rid of your PowerPoint presentations and replace them in part with peer-to-peer learning that involves the attendees and makes them participants, not listeners.

If you have to use PowerPoint, use it for projecting images, not words. And beware of using stock images. Chances are they won't fit exactly what you're trying to convey, and your audience has probably seen them before, in someone else's presentation.

Take It One Step Further

To make your meetings more effective, try learning practical skills based on the theories of multiple intelligences. Marge Anderson recommends a two-day training session from The Bob Pike Group (www.cttbobpike.com), based in Minneapolis. Prices for a two-day public seminar start at $895 per person. Anderson says the training is easy to learn and easy to implement.