Help a Reader Out: what do we really want out of conference education?

Yay!  Another fabulous comment/question posted on the Mojo post just yesterday (told you I was still getting comments!).  Can you help Jennifer?

…What really prompted me to post though is a question I have about what exactly you (and others who have thoughts) are looking for in educational sessions. As someone who is not a vendor and has done presentations (contributed through the ASAE Committee process) at several ASAE annual meetings, including ASAE10, I would love to get input on specifically what it is that makes an educational session “super high end†. I ask because what I often hear is something along the lines of “the programming isn’t challenging enough†and “I get more out of talking with [insert group - my colleagues, YAPsters, CAEs, etc] in the halls.†What I don’t hear are many specifics about what would resonate content-wise and what makes a session challenging enough.

My experience has been that once sessions are selected ASAE provides speakers with lots of tips and resources relative to content delivery/packaging. Based on what I’ve read here and heard at other times about the quality of sessions, what might be more useful is for ASAE to develop a list of tips/thoughts/ideas that is shared with committees, councils, and others submitting sessions that will help session developers better understand and hone in on the elements that lead to “super high end†educational experiences.

What I’m also wondering about is the attendee’s responsiblity to making the learning experience “super high end†. My impression is that most speakers are sincerely trying to do good work during their presentation time slots. Some miss the boat, but most are adhering as best they can to good content-delivery practices and most are offering opportunities for attendees to engage with each other. Are there better tips that can be provided to attendees that will allow them to maximize their own learning? Or, could there be, with speakers’ knowledge, a “seed†or two planted in every session who has the job of modeling audience engagement and supporting speakers in the effort to clearly articulate why the content matters and how it can be useful on the job?

Forgive me for summarizing here, but what I’m seeing in Jennifer’s comment are the following questions (in a nutshell):

1) what makes a session challenging enough content-wise?

2) what could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help speakers develop better sessions around their chosen topics?

3) how could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help attendees maximize their own learning?

I think these are great questions and I would think given what we’ve all been discussing about the new conference attendee (and not just here on our blog!) and the evaluation feedback we’ve all been giving to ASAE post #ASAE10, that they are probably (hopefully) pondering exactly these questions and more.  It’s definitely easy to either “vote with our feet” or grumble about sessions not being up to par than it is to define exactly what we want.

So I will offer up my answers, and I hope you will share yours!!

Q1 – I think everyone has different needs, and there seems to be a frequent disconnect between the session description and the actual thing.   Which actually is no surprise, since we’re asked to submit session proposals months and months before the event.  I think there’s something broken in the proposal / conference design process, like square pegs are being fit into round holes.  I wish we could propose “desire to speak” on “x areas of expertise” at the proposal deadline,  then go through some sort of collaborative discussion and design process with all of the possible speakers, based on a set theme for the conference and whatever necessary parameters were needed (such as 101-201-301, x number of sessions for particular tracks, diversity of formats, etc.).  Where everyone could talk about it all and then propose specific session ideas.  Then the top x number would be selected (by the association staff and whoever does this normally) and those not selected could choose to do unsessions if they so chose, but the whole thing would be transparent as to the process for selecting.  The end result (or goal) would be to have something for every kind of learner.

Q2 – For me as a speaker, who like probably many ASAE speakers have earned my current reputation as such through lots and lots of practice but NOT through any formal speaking training, I would really love the chance to participate in speaker training or even just facilitated discussions specifically about speaking, provided by ASAE.  I would pay for that for sure! I have attended exactly one three-hour “presentation workshop”, (not at ASAE) put on by the truly inspiring Jeffrey Cufaude, and I learned a lot from it.  It was really useful for me to sit in a room with other seasoned speakers and really dig into the topic.  I’d definitely have an interest in educating myself more about adult learning, about public speaking and keynoting, about creative session formats (I’ve experimented a lot with Prezi, tried Pecha Kucha, facilitated round tables, moderated different kinds of panels, etc etc etc) and definitely (of course!) about cool interactive presentation tools (like Google Moderator or Vue).  I think since ASAE uses so many members as speakers, that would be very valuable to those of us who may not have formal training, as long as the “trainers’ trainers” were really good, like Jeffrey.  Because there is no doubt that at the end of the day we all want to learn from our peers who work in and for associations!

Q3 – I think ASAE could do a lot in the area of helping attendees maximize their learning.  There are some true experts in this field (of course Jeff Hurt comes to mind) and it might be as easy as coming up with some kind of  ”guide for how to get the most out of the conference” or something.  I am also aware that the Professional Development Council will be much more involved in the ASAE Great Ideas conference, and I bet those guys have a TON of great advice on this point.  I hope some of you will share!

Over to you.  What do you think?  What do we really want out of conference education?  How would you answer Jennifer’s questions?


Michelle Harman September 17, 2010 at 6:51 pm

Hi Maddie and Jennifer,

These are the questions that meeting planners ask over and over and it seems that the answers are constantly evolving. But as they relate to today’s trends, i will try to offer some ideas.

1) what makes a session challenging enough content-wise?
EQ: I find that the best sessions are focused on a very specific topic that can dig deep down to the heart of a challenge or problem we face in our respective industry, tear it apart, then share a variety of ideas and solutions. Another session I enjoy are those that make me step outside of my comfort zone and challenge me to explore new ideas. Last, I love to be in “user group” type settings where people can share their own successes, best practices, etc that would inspire me, and that I many not have realized I needed to hear and possibly impliment to become better at my job.

2) what could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help speakers develop better sessions around their chosen topics?
EQ: 1) Pinpoint the top 3 things your attendees want to learn most that provide them VALUE! (They might want to learn how to make bread…but that does not mean it provides professional value!) 3) Look both INSIDE your industry and OUTSIDE your industry for speakers who can fullfill the need and DELIVER VALUE with new perspectives & innovative ideas. 4) Make sure the speaker is very clear on the needs of their members. 5) Plan on having 3 review commitees for CFP – 10 Association Execs – 10 Education Team – 10 Respected Members. Set up a comprehensive criteria that they all judge on where they give points on each. In the end, you should have speakers that meet the goals of the association, it’s team, and the members!

3) how could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help attendees maximize their own learning?
EQ: It all goes back to PROVIDING VALUE! 1) Communicate the theme and topics clearly to set expectations early. 2) Make sure your website allows attendees to easily find the exhibitors and sessions that interest them. 3) Teach attendees the VALUE of planning ahead and how to engage before the show. 4) Post a survey on each session profile that will allow attendees to prioritize the speakers topics so they can deliver a great session according to their needs!

There…these are just a few ideas and I look forward to seeing what everyone else has to share!

Your friend, Michelle

Maddie Grant September 17, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Thank you Michelle! Lots of food for thought!

I’m also commenting on my own post to say thank you to KiKi L’Italien for posting these three questions on today’s #Engage365 chat. Please scan through it – TONS of good stuff there!!

Ttraining for speakers was generally agreed upon as a good idea, but more interestingly, though, Jeff Hurt, Kathi Edwards and Mickie Rops all participated in the chat and all three are “learning professionals” – and Jeff and Mickie (don’t know about Kathi) are also on ASAE’s PD council. I hope they will elaborate on their ideas here, but generally speaking it seems that associations use staff and industry experts to pick sessions but NOT PD people, who are those with the expertise about how attendees will learn from the sessions. There’s also a fantastic debate about the educational value of Pecha Kucha. Couple of other specific ideas from the chat that I LOVED:
- ask speakers for a 1-2 minute video as part of their proposal.
- “hire a meetings/lrng sherpa to focus on attendee experience & learning”

Go check it out!

Jeffrey Cufaude September 19, 2010 at 7:39 am

Maddie: I’m so glad the presentations design session was inspiring for you. Having the chance to work with all of you in such an intimate group was something I truly enjoyed.

Others have said it in various forums the past few years, but I think one of the challenges is many association subject matter experts are excellent deliverers of content, but not as great bring learning facilitators. Some can probably make the transition with appropriate education and opportunities to experiment.

Others’ true strength will always be their content, not their facilitation skills. So in the spirit of Gallup’s leveraging their strengths, meeting planners and association PD folks should partner them with facilitators and/or help them design their session blocks to include more interaction and application techniques and formats that they would feel comfortable (and competent) leading.

I’ve periodically been one of those facilitation partners with SMEs and in general, the pairing works well … so long as the SMEs understand the value of involving session participants in meaningful dialogue and exploration of the content they deliver. We accept having different individuals contribute their respective strengths in a panel session format, so there is no reason we shouldn’t embrace doing something similar by utilizing different individuals for various components of the longer sessions we want to be more engaging.

Ellen September 24, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Maddie — Great post! I agree with most of the comments included here, but would add this:

General sessions at conferences are THE most challenging to get right (and probably why they came out as a less preferred face-to-face educational format in the ASAE Decision to Learn study).

Here are just a few reasons why they’re so difficult:

– Session attendees can range from newbies to vets with everyone in between. The first rule of instructional design (ID) is to design your learning content and event to meet the needs of your primary learner. How can you do that when there are no primary learners? By default, most session leaders try to hit a mid-level so newbies won’t be too lost and vets can at least have their learning reinforced. But that’s why so many people leave dissatisfied.

– Sessions are too large. Workshop formats can be extremely effective, but you can’t do that very well with 60 or 100 people in the room. Why not let attendees register for concurrent sessions ahead of time and close the session when it hits 15 or 18? Those attending will get a real opportunity to learn and the session leader will have a group that’s the right size for relevant activities and discussion.

– Sessions are too long. Ninety minutes? Way too long. Forty minutes? Still too long. Here’s why: most people will only take away from a session one or two key learning points. Making sessions shorter will require session leaders to focus-focus-focus. That increases the possibilities for using case studies, problem-solving, targeted discussion, and providing opportunities for practicing skills.

I’m sure others have more ideas — the point is to avoid the “we’ve always done it that way” mindset when it comes to conference education sessions.

John Nawn September 24, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Having led an education group for a large association (and larger corporations) with a reputation for great education, I believe creating quality content starts with the learning culture. Are you clear about your overall program objectives (not simply course learning objectives)? Do you adhere to adult learning principles? Do you regularly conduct learning needs assessments and create content using instructional design principles? These elements have more to do with creating consistently good education and addressing the questions raised than any submission process or speaker prep. These elements represent the ‘tools of the trade’ for learning professionals. I suspect that one of the primary reason for sub-par or inconsistent education at meetings and events is that the learning professionals and the meeting professionals aren’t talking to each other. It takes a village to pull off a successful meeting. Learning professionals understand content like few others. Meeting professionals understand context like few others. Let the collaboration begin!

My slightly different take on the questions!

1) what makes a session challenging enough content-wise?

‘Challenging’ is relative for each learner. What’s really challenging is to create content that’s challenging for all, which is nearly impossible. Best you can hope for is to really understand your learners and their needs and aim for an 80% solution, which might be better than most are doing already. To get to that 80%, it comes down to culture. See above.

2) what could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help speakers develop better sessions around their chosen topics?

‘Better sessions’ sounds a little like ‘challenging’ content (above). Again, there are so many variables that go into creating ‘better’ or ‘challenging’ session content, that this is hard to control, too. Most groups provide guidance to speakers in terms of what they’re looking for. To the degree they know what they’re looking for, they’re more likely to get it. My judgment is that most organizations simply don’t know what they’re looking for – because they haven’t done their homework (it’s not a member survey, it’s called a needs assessment and it’s much more rigorous process – best done by a learning professional, but it happens to work).

Once sessions are submitted and selected, few organizations have the resources to carefully review/preview content. At some point, you have to trust your speakers to do their job. But speakers are human too, and not all of them know how to develop good content much less deliver it in an interactive, engaging format. I know that’s what they do for a living but as many of you have witnessed firsthand, that doesn’t always mean they’re good at it. The guidance meeting professionals provide are generally helpful (emphasis on generally) but unless you’re willing to invest as much time/effort into session speakers as you do general session speakers, you’re going to have to make your peace with some inconsistency. There’s simply too much margin of ‘error’.

The speaker evaluations most organizations use (if they use them at all) are notoriously weak instruments, primarily because of the Likert scales used. Behaviorally anchored rating scales are much more effective – but take a skilled professional to do well. Anyone notice a theme here? I know some organizations use a 70% or 80% approval rating as a cut-off for returning speakers. That means you’re going to have a fair number of ‘B’ and ‘C’ presenters for every 100 sessions. Only you (or your members) can decide if that’s acceptable.

3) how could ASAE [or any other association/conference organizer] do to help attendees maximize their own learning?

This is actually one of the areas of greatest promise, because we (learning professionals) already know a lot about how to make learning stick. Keep in mind that if you’re not following adult learning and instructional design principles, it’s pretty much GIGO (garbage-in, garbage-out). These principles make it easier to identify clear outcomes, apply the knowledge, skill, or ability (KSAs) back to the job, and assess the ROL (Return-on-Learning. Something I’m seeing more of is encouraging (and supporting) attendee learning journals. There are lots of simple ideas like these. Best of all, they really work.

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