Lectures can be deadly dull, one-way communication train wrecks. But they also can be a necessary step in the learning journey. While intuition and experience make it easy to identify what makes a lecture bad, zeroing in on what to improve can be a little more difficult. Here are some strategies that really work to liven up lecture-based activities, according to the adult education literature.

1. Chunk the Material into 10-minute Segments
Studies on attention spans show that after 10 minutes, minds began to wander. What works better is to break a full day of lecture into a series of 10-minute chunks followed by 10 minutes of Q&A. Use moderators to make sure the lectures stay within 10 minutes; the moderators also can collect questions from the audience and read them out loud.

If your speaker isn't comfortable with frequent Q&A, you can inject a case, or ask participants to take a minute to reflect or to write down how they'll use what they just heard.

2. Quiz Your Audience
Use an audience response system to gauge whether the audience is getting it or not. And if you can't afford an ARS, make up your own. You can cut up strips of different-colored paper to hand to the audience as they walk in. Every 10 minutes, have the speaker put up a multiple-choice quiz, with each question keyed to one of the paper colors. The audience then votes with the papers, and if hardly anyone gets the answer wrong, the speaker can move on to the next area. The only down side to this, is that you lose the anonymity of an ARS—audience members might feel embarrassed if they’re the only one with a red card in their hand when everyone else is holding up a yellow card.

3. Put the Audience to Work
Think about having the speaker give the audience a few facts and then ask them to break into small groups and develop solution to a challenge using those facts. It should create a teachable moment because it will thrust them into a situation where they only have partial knowledge of how to accomplish the task. Then the speakers can walk them through the process, and they can pull out the fallacies and assumptions from what they created.

Small-group discussions can be effective because they offer the opportunity for attendees to test the way they do things against their peers and the experts. But, just as you have to have an effective speaker for the lecture to be successful, you have to have an effective facilitator if you want a small group to be effective.

All too often, lectures that break out into small group discussions are led by whoever raises a hand. Small-group activities that are not well thought out, designed, or led won’t be effective. Include your speakers in every element of the meeting's design, and make sure that speakers are available to the small groups to help guide, advise, or just answer questions.

4. Save Time for the Q&A
All too often, speakers talk until the end of their allotted time period, leaving no room for the Q&A participants crave. One idea is to limit the speaking portion of a one-hour session slot to 30 minutes, reserving the second half for Q&A. While at first speakers may not like the idea, they usually will come around once they see how the audience responds.

5. Bring the Learning Home By Using Attendees' Cases
Ask speakers to use cases, samples, and if at all possible data from the attendees’ own organizations. This allows speakers to bring their points home in ways that relate to that specific audience's work and professional environment, making it easier to translate what they learned to their work.

6. Lose the Lecture Altogether
If you have a speaker who's daring enough to give it a try, turn the lecture into one big Q&A. Have the speaker explain his topic, then ask the audience to suggest some real-world problems they’d like him to address.

Bonus Tip
Focus on Faculty Development. Of course, when you’re asking more of your speakers, you may have to teach them how to make their lectures more effective. Even using an ARS is a new skill set. The impulse is for people who know a lot to just want to tell people what they know.

Yes, you'll probably get push-back from your faculty, but while most presenters are comfortable giving a lecture for an hour, what's effective for the audience is when you let them dictate the specifics of what gets talked about. While speakers probably won't embrace all your ideas, see if you can talk them into making just one small change to make it more effective. Once they see it working, they likely will be willing to do a bit more next time, and before you know it you will have made a typical program into something extraordinary.

Note: This article is an update of one published in Medical Meetings in 2004.