Often when meeting and event organizers begin planning conference education, they take the most efficient path. They consider the venue’s meeting space, capacity charts and room layouts. The object is to get as many people as possible in each room for each presentation.
This planning process focuses on what’s best, efficient and easiest for the conference organizer. The emphasis is on managing the logistics wisely and economically. The focus is on the details and “things” of the meeting. The audiences of days gone by were satisfied with this process as it produced a well-organized conference experience and maybe a few tips or takeaways.
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Today’s audiences are more demanding and sophisticated. They want to hear customized, relevant, cutting-edge information that addresses their specific problems, plus they want to actively participate in content-creation and discussion with each other. They expect to hear compelling and memorable presentations, and they still want to be entertained.
Today’s meeting professionals need to shift their thinking and start with the attendee’s learning in mind, instead of the meeting’s details. They need to consider what room format is best for the learner, the flow of the educational content from session to session and how a learner will respond to the venue’s environment. This is a major shift from managing details to planning and constructing experiences.
Here are six guidelines meeting professionals should consider when planning education sessions for conferences and meetings.
1. Climate before content
Our brains are constantly processing information even when we don’t know or feel like it is. We digest a lot of information subconsciously. Unless your attendees feel good, safe and secure in the meeting venue, learning is impaired and tainted. Lighting, temperature, sound and visual aesthetics all have a powerful impact on learning. Create an atmosphere that is non-threatening, inviting and rich in auditory and visual cues. Encourage presenters to avoid putting attendees in awkward positions by ambushing them to answer questions or participate. Consider room layouts that allow attendees to look at each other in the eyes and encourage conversations and collaboration.
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2. Each attendee is a unique learner
Today’s audiences no longer accept and approve of one-size fits all presentations. Each person is an audience of one with their own expectations, challenges and needs. As the conference organizer, secure a variety of presentations from traditional lectures, to facilitated round-table discussions to hands-on interactive collaborative environments. The key to success is to provide a variety of learning format choices for each attendee’s own personal learning preferences. Label your education sessions in your marketing materials as lecture, panel, hands-on interactive, round-table discussion, etc., to help attendees choose their preferred format.
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3. Limit presentations that require attendees to “sit and listen” while speakers “stand and deliver”
Many speakers present in ways that actually inhibit learning. Good adult learning presentations deliver a well-orchestrated stimulation of the senses, and allow for audience participation and engagement. Secure speakers that have adopted the “guide on the side” style of presenting instead of the “sage on the stage.” Use room layouts like crescent and rounds to encourage attendee engagement with each other. Remember, the learning process is not always nice and neat like theater seating in aligned rows. What may appear messy may be a very effective process for detecting patterns, meaning-making, memory recall, and contextual connecting — all, of which, are good adult learning strategies.
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4. Emotions drive attention, meaning and memory
For many years, people treated emotions separately from learning and the brain. However, research on emotional intelligence and how the brain learns has proven that emotions, not logic, drives our attention, meaning-making and memory. To ignore the emotional connections to learning and memory is to close the door on an essential ingredient of the learning process. Strive to elicit curiosity, excitement, humor, joy, laughter and suspense in your meetings and events.
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5. People before content
Attendees want to hear the human side of the story. Ensure that your presenters know how to develop rapport with the audience and encourage them to balance their information sharing with the human element of their work. Sharing personal dreams, frustrations, failures, hopes and passions is a way to connect with attendees and bring the content to life. Attendees need to make meaning from the content being shared in order for it to be relevant. We learn best when our brains are engaged and our emotions are charged.
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6. All learning is state dependent
We all experience a variety of emotions, from highs to lows. Our state is a distinct, measurable, biological report card consisting of a variety of natural bodily functions from blood pressure and pulse to chemical brain reactions. Anger, apathy, celebration, curiosity, depression, frustration, inspiration and motivation are all states. Every thought we think and action we take is directly dependent on the state we are in at that time. As the conference organizer, it’s imperative that you manage your state during the event and maintain an infectious positive attitude. The first feelings your attendees experience as they enter the conference venue and each breakout session will be linked to presentations, speakers and content. It can make or break learning. Secure volunteers for each session to act as greeters with warm, friendly and inviting personalities. Using music and videos that arouse positive emotions, curiosity and hope will have a great impact on attendees’ abilities to learn and retain information. Make it your responsibility to be a catalyst that helps attendees transition into productive states for learning.
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