The traditional conference model was broken, and it was time for a change. It consisted of hour-long keynotes in which participants sat passively and speakers droned on, followed by a series of breakout sessions in which death by PowerPoint continued on and on and on.
After some prodding from training and development specialists, meeting planners finally realized that adult attention spans are short. This fact, combined with pressure on employees to be away from the job as little as possible, necessitated change. But sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
And so the length of breakout sessions was drastically chopped, with a norm of 15 to 20 minutes each (45-60 minutes tops). Instead of a single speaker lulling participants to sleep, four or five talking heads flip slides until listeners reach a zombie-like state. When these comatose participants are asked for questions at session’s end, the silence is deafening.
The core message that’s been lost on planners here is that adult learners have short attention spans when they are in a passive mode of learning. When they take part in meaningful discussions, an exercise in pairs or trios, a relevant case study, a game or simulation, they engage for longer periods of time. What planners should glean from a brief exposure to adult learning theory is that the method of instruction should change every 10 to 20 minutes, not the speaker.
These resources can tell you more:
- 30 Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning, a must-read article by Ron and Susan Zemke
- The Adult Learner by Malcolm S. Knowles, the father of adult learning
- Creative Training Techniques by Robert W. Pike
- The Accelerated Learning Handbook by Dave Meier, subtitled A Creative Guide to Designing and Delivering Faster, More Effective Training Programs
- Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching by Eric P. Jensen
Now, here are some concrete steps to take to make sure the information in your sessions sticks.
3 learning alternatives
- For kinesthetic learners (those who learn by doing, not listening), carve out 20-minute blocks followed by a chance to take part in a hands-on demo or a one-to-one or small group session with an expert. This works particularly well for product sessions and technical or complex topics.
- Experiment with hour-long, 2.5-hourlong and half-day-long breakout sessions.
- Offer some breakouts on the same topic in longer and shorter formats so participants can choose what most appeals to them.
For all sessions
- Begin with an energizer to wake people up five minutes before a session is scheduled to start, especially in mid-afternoon, ahead of the last session before lunch and at the end of the day.
RELATED STORY: 6 guidelines to consider when designing conference content
For sessions of 1 hour or less
- Ask participants to work in pairs and come up with at least one specific question related to their topic.
- Unless your session is at least half a day, ask participants to complete all exercises in trios instead of table groups. This gives everyone more “air time” and opportunities for interaction.
For longer sessions
These steps will make it possible to cover content in depth without boring participants.
- Introduce the entire session briefly before moving into the first topic or agenda item.
- Think sound bites and mini-modules. Depending on the ages and learning styles of participants, sessions should last only 10 to 20 minutes, less for younger participants and kinesthetic learners.
- At start time, provide a template and give participants the chance to interact in pairs or trios for a five-minute session starter. Examples: write-your-own-role-play exercises; write-your-own-case-study exercises; solving tough questions with the who, what, where, what and why format; or solving sticky-situation scenarios based on a specific, topic-related challenge.
- Break things up with interactive, peer-to-peer learning — an exercise, a real-world case study, or a focused game or simulation.
- Debrief the peer-to-peer learning.
- Pause for questions.
- Introduce the next topic briefly.
- Repeat steps 5-7.
- During the last 20 minutes, give participants a chance to return to the session starter and find solutions. It’s a good practice to give the session starter for one group to another group. Try this: Have one person who developed a session starter get up and move with it to another table; give that person two minutes to explain the scenario; give groups five to 10 minutes to work on the scenario and generate solutions; then, armed with solutions, have participants return to their original tables and explain the solutions.
- During the final five to 10 minutes of the session, ask participants to revisit their original questions and let them ask questions.
RELATED STORY: Strengthening attendee ROI with take-home education aids
If you have breakout session leaders who are subject-matter experts but lack facilitation experience, pair them with facilitators who can handle the interactive portions of the session. You might also want to consider a Breakout Bootcamp the day before the conference or meeting to give session leaders tips and time to practice.
Please tell us what learning styles have worked best for you at recent events, both as planners and attendees.