Time and time again, we've seen that when meeting professionals try to cram the agenda with many sessions to provide a lot of content in a short amount of time, complaints increase, the audience's focus waivers, and attendance drops at late-day sessions.
When you consider how adults learn, this makes perfect sense. The learning process begins when they are exposed to new content during a session. But new concepts aren't fully absorbed or accepted right away. People need to look at a new idea from different angles, question whether they have understood the concept correctly, and consult with others they know and trust to check the idea's validity ("Did that make sense to you?" "Is it relevant to our situation?") before they feel they have learned something new--or discard it as incorrect, irrelevant, or not important. This important final step doesn't happen during a session; it only occurs later on, during times of quiet reflection, or during discussions with others. But if it doesn't happen soon after a session, the content usually is dismissed or simply forgotten. Worse yet, attendees will consider the session a waste of time.
Some event professionals try to integrate reflection and discussion time during the session itself, by breaking the audience up into small groups, requesting that they discuss topics relevant to the session and assigning a task related to the topic. This is an incomplete solution at best. The free-flowing conversation that's a key part of learning does not naturally occur during the formal, sanctioned, and structured session. It's between the sessions, outside the meeting room during unstructured, off-grid time, where attendees feel free to discuss and question, ridicule or defend, discard or integrate these new ideas.
To enhance learning, meeting professionals need to encourage off-grid interactions. Schedule ample networking breaks between sessions that take place outside of the session rooms. Make sure there's plenty of space for attendees to walk around and talk, but also provide a few high tables and chairs with notepads so they can congregate in small groups to scribble diagrams and ideas. Some meeting professionals even provide flipcharts and markers in the hallways outside session rooms to encourage this idea exchange. nTAG, for example, makes available an electronic "graffiti board" where attendees can enter text on their interactive name badges to express thoughts and ideas for others to see on a large screen and discuss throughout the meeting.
If you've encouraged attendees to network among different groups (i.e., conversations between sales and marketing professionals, between members of different global regions, between rookies and veterans, between members of different industries), they will get new views and perspectives on topics discussed at sessions that may speed up the learning process.
At a sales meeting held earlier this year, executives presented new data on how strongly the company was positioned vis a vis competitors. After the event, data revealed that attendees who felt most positive about the strength of their competitive position were not highly influenced by the sessions they attended—but their conversations with distributors and partners led them to feel positive and motivated. It was during the off-grid part of the meeting that the company achieved a key event objective and increased corporate value.
We observed similar findings at a recent user conference. Respondents who reported the highest knowledge gains were those who had the most off-grid interactions with a specific group of experts. We could have increased learning even more by providing more opportunities for networking, encouraging networking with icebreakers and contests, and ensuring that subject-matter experts were in attendance.
To ensure that the learning process is complete, make sure to include in the agenda off-grid time between sessions. Your attendees will thank you for it.