What do you get when you provide a learning experience that’s truly meaningful? According to this week’s guests on the podcast, Nancy Bacon and Mark Nilles, you create something “learningful”. And when it comes to creating impactful, “learningful” conferences, these two have teamed up to share what it takes in their recent e-book, Conferences That Make a Difference.
Nancy is a teacher and instructional designer who has worked for over 20 years in the nonprofit sector. For the past five years, she’s led Washington Nonprofits’ learning program, and she currently serves as the associate director there. She also occasionally writes on adult learning through her blog at ChunkFlipGuideLaugh.com.
Mark currently serves as the director of learning and impact at Humentum. His work has focused on developing evidence-based teaching and learning approaches for improved workplace performance. And his perspective is informed by years of training and capacity building for international development and humanitarian relief professionals around the world.
In this episode of Leading Learning, Celisa talks with Nancy and Mark about key concepts from their new e-book, including the importance of a conference strategy, how and why to ensure presenters are prepared, and the need for reflection time—both for participants as well as for the internal team responsible for planning the event. They also discuss ways to support continued learning after the conference is over.
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Read the Show Notes
[02:25] – Introduction to Nancy and Mark and some additional information about their background and work.
[05:21] – You recently released Conferences That Make a Difference. What prompted you to create the e-book? And why now and why together? Nancy talks about how it started with her experience attending conferences, which were all handled as big, fancy events—but that they weren’t very impactful. She found herself writing about conferences a lot in her blog, including her impressions on them and how they could be better. So for her, the e-book began when she wrote a working out loud blog piece (Thinking Out Loud: How to Make Conferences into Learning Experiences that Lead to Action), after one of their big conferences where they tried a bunch of strategies to deepen engagement. The article got picked up by Association Trends and the feedback she received showed there was a hunger for a deeper understanding about conferences and how to make them “learningful”. Around the same time, she and Mark got connected through Learning • Technology • Design (Tagoras virtual conference) and they found they had similar concerns and interests in terms of designing a learningful conference so they decided to write an e-book together. The e-book has four chapters, including:
- Chapter 1: Strategy and overall approach
- Chapter 2: Get Ready: Pre-Conference Activities
- Chapter 3: The Big Day: Deliver a Day that Makes a Difference
- Chapter 4: Make it Stick: Post- Conference Activities
[08:27] – The first chapter is focused on that big-picture, strategic view, and it stresses the need for a conference strategy. Can you explain what a conference strategy is and why it’s important? And, actually first, would you define how you use “conference,” since that term can mean different things to different people? Mark shares that they define conferences as large events that have diverse audiences that are oftentimes organized around an overall theme, but with multiple networking and learning opportunities (that usually feed in to that theme). And often the learning sessions are organized by tracks or categories. When they were writing the e-book, Mark says he and Nancy were really thinking about place-based conferences, but they also appreciate the growing use of online conferences and they think a lot of what’s in their book would apply to those as well. In contrast, they are not referring to a discreet learning event or course that has more of a very pointed learning objective. And since attendees of these conferences may experience different aspects (because of different tracks, sessions, etc.) it adds a level of complexity and that comes with lot of opportunities and challenges—which he hopes the book addresses. One of the things Mark says does help address that complexity is strategy. And to him, strategy is a framework that guides goal setting, prioritization, and planning. Why it’s important is because it allows for both alignment and it supports good decision-making (and he shares in more detail about each of these concepts).
[14:01] – After strategy is set, there’s still more to do before the actual conference, and one of the pre-conference activities you emphasize in the e-book is preparing the presenters. Can you talk a bit about how and why to prepare presenters? And if you have thoughts on why presenter preparation doesn’t happen as often or as well as it should, I’d be interested in that too because presenter prep seems like such a no-brainer, and yet it often doesn’t get attention. Nancy says that it’s in the small groups with presenters where people really deepen their learning so these are at the heart of the conference. She admits in her first years involved with conferences she was really hands-off with presenters because she didn’t want to insult or bother them. But one year they had some quality issues with one of their conferences so she started to realize that their presenters wanted more support and didn’t want to fly solo. This caused a complete shift with how they engage their presenters so now they really walk with them through the creation and delivery of their workshops. They’ve found that the quality has really strengthened and they’re also becoming much closer with their presenters and seeing them as part of their community, as opposed to outsiders who deliver something. Some of the things they’ve started to do to prepare speakers are:
- Implemented a pre-proposal webinar that lays out expectations.
- Offer workshop planning tools (included in the e-book) so they can really plan their workshop around outcomes.
- Changed the timing of their Train the Trainer series, an annual series they offer for people delivering learning experiences in Washington so their workshop presenters can now attend.
- At least one month before the conference, Nancy has one-on-one conversations with each and every presenter. They walk through the learning and engagement strategies and if needed, they schedule a second one-on-one.
- At the end of the conference evaluations/feedback are shared with presenters and a follow up conversation is scheduled, if necessary.
[18:22] – You said you were initially more hands-off with the presenters because you were worried about bothering/insulting them. Have you found that those were more perceived barriers rather than actual barriers, or have you actually encountered some of that and how have you made the point to those presenters that it is worth their time? Nancy shares that she began the process reaching out only to those presenters she had concerns about, but then she realized that even people who had been doing this for many years could use support. And being able to connect and explain the conference so they see how their piece fits within a larger context. Now her approach is to contact every single speaker and she tells them she meets with every single presenter—so it’s not really an option as to whether they think they need it or not. Nancy admits she has had some people who are really insulted and didn’t want to take the time. But they do this because they want to make sure that everyone attending their conference has a high quality learning experience.
Sponsor: WBT Systems
[20:10] – If want to provide high-quality learning experiences for your audience, we encourage you to check out our sponsor for this quarter.
WBT Systems develops the industry-leading TopClass LMS, which delivers transformative professional development experiences for education and certification programs. With a single point of support from in-house integration experts, TopClass LMS easily integrates with a wide variety of systems to provide efficient administration and a unified learning experience. WBT supports organizations in using learning technology to help drive growth in membership, increase revenues, and enhance the learning experience. WBT believes in truly understanding your challenges and partnering with you to ensure the success of your education programs.
[21:09] – You stress, among other things, allowing for participant-led learning and time for reflection at conferences. For folks like us who understand adult learners, these too seem like no-brainers, but again so often they don’t happen. Do you have thoughts on why they don’t happen more and how conference organizers can make the argument for them, should they get pushback from others who think the conference’s value comes from filling every minute of the day with pre-programmed content? Nancy jokingly describes reflection as the “brussels sprouts” of the learning world because when you slow down enough you can really appreciate the power of reflection just like when you slow down and savor farm-grown brussels sprouts, deciding you really do like them, even though you say you don’t. She talks about the relationship between action and reflection and how without one, you don’t have the other. So why aren’t we building this into our conference design? She thinks it because people are seeing conferences as events (like a wedding or any other kind of staged event) with no reflection themselves about strategy or desired outcomes. But as soon as you shift your brain from thinking about designing a conference as an event alone and seeing it as a place to operationalize that learning strategy, than you really have to include participant-led learning and reflection time. You have to slow it down in order for people to absorb all those key pieces that you’re trying to move the needle on.
To make the case to build in time for this, Nancy suggests that from the start of the conference design process you really need a pointed kind of Chief Learning Officer (or similar title), who is the person whose role is to be thinking about adult learning throughout. She also says slowing down and implementing that learning strategy can really help. From the evaluations they’ve done, they know that people want to take a break and talk to their peers to play around with the ideas they’re hearing about, so you have to make sure there’s time in the schedule for that.
[24:54] – In the final chapter, you look at what happens after the conference to make the learning stick. What do you see as some of the important things that need to happen after a conference concludes to make it a meaningful learning experience? Mark stresses that the mindset you go into when planning your conference is really important. He says Nancy talked about ways to make the event more learningful but he would argue that the event itself is not your last opportunity to support learning. With this in mind he came up with some turns of phrases that might help capture some thoughts around this, including: the conference isn’t over when the conference is over and learning is a process, it’s not an event. In terms of how an organization could execute on this sort of ongoing learning beyond the conference itself, Mark says he’ll talk about it for two audiences. First, for participants, he suggests that you keep in touch with them after the conference through traditional channels and the same way they probably heard about your conference in the first place (website, email, or social media). You can take key points from some of the key sessions and help participants think about:
- What was the tangible learning point?
- Why is this important for participants to know or understand?
- How can participants use it in their work?
- What results can it help them achieve?
So you can share thoughts answering or asking these four questions using email, discussion forums, social media—really anyway to prompt people to return to the material that was presented during the conference is valuable. Mark notes that blogging is also a fantastic way for people to reflect and can be valuable for participants and presenters. He says a blog doesn’t need to be a lot of extra work and can be done alongside – and parallel – to the session development process.
[29:42] – Mark continues to discuss how organizations can execute ongoing learning beyond the conference, this time the audience being you and your team. He points out that you and your team have just spend hundreds of hours planning and executing on a conference so you have learned a lot through that process—what worked well, what didn’t, and you were probably inspired during the conference to do something new. That’s why it’s really important that after you deliver a conference for you and your team to take the time engage in the same type of reflection you ask your participants to do. So structured reflection among your team, opportunities to debrief or do after action reviews to discuss what went well, what needs to be improved, what new inspirations came up during the conference, and recommended action steps so you can incorporate that into the future planning. So it’s not just about the participants but about the learning business itself, that internal team and making sure you’re learning as much as you can from the experience of putting on the conference.
Sponsor: Community Brands
[31:20] – To help provide a good experience for your learners and for your internal team, you need good technology. We suggest you check out our sponsor for this quarter.
Community Brands provides a suite of cloud-based software for organizations to engage and grow relationships with the individuals they serve, including association management software, learning management software, job board software, and event management software. Community Brands’ award-winning Crowd Wisdom learning platform is among the world’s best LMSes for corporate extended enterprise and is a leading LMS for association-driven professional education programs. Award-winning Freestone, Community Brands’ live event learning platform, is a leading platform for live learning event capture, Webinars, Webcasts, and on-demand streaming.
[32:23] – I’m curious about the meta experience. This is something that those of us working in learning businesses deal with often—we’re providing learning, and we’re learners. So, I’m curious to know how your role as a conference organizer has impacted your role as a conference attendee and vice-versa? Nancy shares that one of the most beautiful things about being a learning business professional is that you regularly put yourself in a place of being a learner as well. She says she respects that people set aside the time to attend their conferences and so she has empathy for them and feels she owes them the kind of day she would want for herself—and this motivates her. She also says she’s been sharing the e-book with other people who are running conferences who she thinks could really benefit from thinking a little deeper about how they are running them.
[34:35] – Mark, I know you and Nancy set out to share what you’d learned through trial and testing in the real world, but did you discover added insight as you went through the process? What perhaps unexpected thing or things did you learn in the process of working on this e-book? Mark reveals that it was Nancy’s enthusiasm that really inspired him to want to continue working on the book and making it as good as it could be. He’s tried to implement this same enthusiasm/energy when working with his colleagues. When it came to writing the e-book itself and making sure the content was what they wanted it to be, he says putting a really fine point on making sure it was practical and useful for practitioners. Mark talks about how this manifested itself a few times where the language wasn’t as accessible to readers as they may have wanted it to be. They also made sure to include an example when talking about a concept or idea on how you might apply it (on a practical level). And to an even finer point, their book includes templates and guides, for both conference organizers and presenters. Nancy adds that she’s really enjoyed having a colleague in this work so she’s thankful for being connected with Mark through Learning • Technology • Design. She says it’s been a meta learning experience around the power of the peer.
[38:47] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Mark shares about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in Africa and how it offered the opportunity for immersive experiential learning. And even though it was 20 years ago, he still reflects on it and says it changed his life in a lot of ways. Nancy talks about a leadership program she took a few years ago and how it offered both feedback and reflection. She says this experience made her realize that it’s really hard to truly take feedback, which has made her a better deliverer of it and much more empathetic to how she brings the emotional side of her work.
[41:24] – How to connect with Nancy or Mark and/or learn more:
[42:56] – Wrap-Up
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[44:51] – Sign off