After not attending in-person conferences for a couple of years due to COVID, we had the chance to attend several. That return to in-person sparked some serious thinking related to learning (or not) at conferences.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, we apply our unscientific but deep first-hand knowledge of the world of conferences to unpack key elements conference planners need to incorporate to foster effective learning. We also discuss the broader conference landscape and the comparative advantages of offering virtual versus in-person conferences.
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[00:00] – Intro
[00:59] – Recently attending three in-person conferences after so much time away from them got us thinking about learning at conferences. Admittedly, this is a very unscientific sample, but the observations that we share are based on two careers’ worth of prior experience with conferences, so it’s more than just these three, though these three are top of mind.
Conferences are part of professional life and typically something that people are expected or required to attend. Many of us want to attend them because conferences keep us on top of what’s going on in our particular industry or profession.
Before Tagoras and Leading Learning, we went to conferences as part of our work for former organizations, both those we founded and those we worked for. We’ve been attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors. We’ve spoken at many different conferences, and we’ve hosted our own conferences. We’ve hosted face-to-face conferences, and we’ve delivered online virtual conferences. Conferences are a deeply rooted part of our lives, which is probably true for so many of our listeners as well.
There are multiple perspectives on conferences, and it can be instructive to keep those in mind. There are the viewpoints of exhibitors, sponsors, speakers, session leaders, attendees, and organizers. They all have slightly different takes on what it means for a conference to be successful or for it to have return on investment. In this episode, we focus on the attendee perspective but with an eye toward what that attendee viewpoint might tell organizers about how to better design and implement conferences.
Not All Conferences Focus on Learning
[04:00] – Our lens for this episode is also on conferences that seek to focus, at least in part, on learning. Of course, learning is not the main aim of all conferences (e.g., expos, trade shows, governing meetings), but many conferences incorporate at least some learning component.
To borrow a term from instructional design expert Nancy Bacon, we’re talking about “learningful” conferences. Nancy and Mark Nilles collaborated on an e-book called Conferences That Make a Difference, and their e-book is designed to be very practical in helping you make decisions about and plan for your conference.
A nuance to add to our focus on learning is that many conferences have mixed goals and serve multiple ends. That’s often driven by people being in person. If you’re going to have people travel, you want them to get the biggest return possible on their investment of time and money. It can be expensive and requires time away to go to a conference, so it’s understandable for for organizers to try to achieve a lot and have multiple goals.
We think more organizations would do better to be clearer about the priority of those conferenced goals for the host organization and for the individuals attending. The individuals going to a conference want to be clear about their goals and what they want to get out of it. There are many intangible costs and opportunity costs related to attending a conference. Keep those in mind because they factor into whether someone gets a return out of the experience.
Virtual Conferences Versus In-Person Conferences
[07:10] – Virtual conferences aren’t under the same pressure to put everything under one roof because it’s cheaper to have multiple roofs if those roofs are virtual rather than physical. Virtual conferences offer the opportunity to disaggregate, which was the phrasing Veronica Diaz of EDUCAUSE used when we interviewed her for the most recent Virtual Conferences Report. Virtual conferences allow you to break things apart. At a place-based conference, you often see multiple tracks. A virtual conference might focus on the sessions in a single track.
Other benefits of virtual conferences include a much broader reach. Lowering the financial and geographic barriers and the time constraints means you’re able to reach more people. But there are things that virtually either can’t do (or is perceived as not doing) as well as in-person conferences. Networking is a big one that we hear about often.
Virtual conferences are a different beast. Diane Elkins has said that you can get the exact same content at a virtual conference and a place-based experience, but they’re not the same experience. That doesn’t mean that virtual is lesser or that you can’t get a return on investment like you can at an in-person conference, but you may need to look at the return on investment in a different way.
Four Recommendations for Help Make Learning at Your Conferences Effective
[09:57] – We’d like to offer four recommendations to help you make sure that learning at your conferences is as effective as possible.
1. Foster a Sense of Identify and Belonging
[10:23] – In many ways, this recommendation is built into the conference world because, usually, you offer a conference to serve people who in the same profession or industry or who have some common set of interests.
I think it’s also important, as you’re looking at the conference itself and at that experience there, that you do everything you can to foster that, to really help remind people that they are part of this shared identity, that, really, they’re all in this together. A conference is a great place for people to support each other in all sorts of ways. Of course, one of those ways is helping each other to learn and develop and grow.Jeff Cobb
Of the conferences we recently attended, it was a mixed bag. One fostered a sense of community and shared identity. That came across in the messaging from the organizers leading up to the event and at the opening and closing short comments on each day. At another conference, if you didn’t know other people or weren’t up to date on the latest trend, you ended up feeling excluded.
That’s important not just because of the emotional impact but because a sense of belonging can lead to trust and a feeling of acceptance, which means that then you feel safe. We know that safety is one of the three conditions required for learner engagement. Any effort that a conference organizer puts into fostering a sense of identity and belonging isn’t just feel-good stuff. It actually helps to create a space where attendees can engage and learn with the content and with each other.
Cohort-based learning is a hot topic now because it’s so effective, and a conference provides a chance for cohorts to learn together. It’s on a relatively shorter timeline than other examples of cohort-based learning, but it offers a potential for a more focused and structured approach to conference learning.
Cohort-based learning also allows you to foster that sense of shared identity and belonging and hopefully empowers attendees to stay in touch after the conference. This can help with more informal learning. Those shared sessions can serve as social learning objects. When people hear the same keynote, see same visuals, hear about the same concepts, and absorb the same messages, those become points of reference for conversation, discussion, and reflection going forward.
2. Focus on the Quality of Presenters
[15:16] – Presenters tend to be good at either presenting or understanding the audience. Those who tend to understand the audience and attendees often come from that community. Depending on your field, industry, or profession, it can be harder or easier to find session leaders who really excel at both presenting and understanding the audience.
Some of the responsibility is on the learner to engage with the content, take notes, and practice good learning habits.
Even so, how good the presenter is or isn’t and how effective they can be in making it a learning experience does matter. It’s one of the reasons that we developed “Presenting for Impact,” a free resource to help raise the quality of presenters to help bolster learning at conferences, both online and off, and through other types of presentations.
Conference organizers typically don’t engage all top presenters because of the sheer cost. They tend to spend a big chunk of the budget on a handful of presenters, typically the keynoter or keynoters. The concurrent sessions tend to be a mixed bag, and attendees don’t have a lot to go on to help them choose beyond a title and description.
If attendees haven’t had the chance to see a presenter before they have no way of knowing if they’ll be really great or really terrible. The organization putting on the conference might have past ratings for a speaker, but that typically information isn’t available to attendees to use in their decision-making. And it’s unlikely that Yelp-style ratings will take off in the conference world.
3. Limit the Quantity of Choices
20: 38 – Conferences can offer an overwhelming number of choices. Attendees have to spend time and mental energy choosing before they ever get to a session.
I almost think of this as a cognitive load issue. We’re draining attendees mentally before a session even starts. Many attendees…are already stretched. When they’re at a conference, they’re trying to keep things at home and at the office moving along while they’re away, and they’re trying to be there and be attentive in the sessions. I do understand the impetus to offer a lot. It goes back to that “If you’re going to have people travel, let’s put as much as possible under that roof.”Celisa Steele
You may want to offer something for everyone, but, in our experience, when quantity is high, quality is low, at least for some of the offerings.
We’ve seen the model of conference organizers using the top-rated sessions from the in-person conference to offer an online best-of offering often at a lower price point than the full in-person conference. But what about potentially flipping that approach? If you ran a virtual conference first, you’d have a way to vet those sessions and figure out which ones are the winners to showcase at an in-person conference.
Out of the three conferences that we recently attended, the one we got the most out of had the fewest sessions. They got people to present who they knew were good speakers because they could see them present in videos and samples available on the Internet. Because that conference offered fewer sessions, it was a more shared experience for the attendees. It was a smaller conference overall (though still hundreds of people), but it felt like a more manageable group where you could connect with others.
This may tie to Dunbar’s number, which says the number of stable, meaningful relationships you can have is 150. Of course, a stable, meaningful relationship is not necessarily what you’re getting at a conference, but it points to what most human beings can manage, including within the context of a conference.
4. Think Beyond the Content
[26:43] – During COVID and the forced reliance on virtual, many people missed the in-person conference experience. A conference is more than content. As an organizer, think about the experience overall if you want to be as successful as possible. This doesn’t mean do showy or kitschy things. There’s a place for a great band or fantastic food, but that’s not what we’re talking about primarily. We’re talking about truly making the conference a learning experience, something that adds up to being more than the sum of the parts.
As one example, one of the conferences we went to had on the schedule “lunch.” Snother conference had on the schedule “lunch and networking.” That’s subtle, and you might argue it doesn’t do much, but we think it primes and “presuades” attendees to think that 90-minute block isn’t only about eating. It’s about making connections and starting to think about the application of what you’ve learned.
There a meta aspect to content and how it’s positioned. We talked about priming and persuading with Robert Cialdini in episode 74 (Cialdini’s name is almost synonymous with influence and persuasion). The way you position things can influence on how people ultimately engage and what they get out of the experience.
[30:49] – Wrap-up
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Episodes on Related Topics:
- Making Conferences Learningful with Nancy Bacon and Mark Nilles
- Access and Ability in Learning with Diane Elkins
- Celebrating the Self-Directed Learner