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Associations Now

Interactive vs. Lecture-Style Learning

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, May 2009 Intelligence


In the left corner:
David Patt, CAE
Executive Director Association of Running Event Directors Chicago, Illinois Email:

In the right corner:
Joan Eisenstodt
Chief Strategist
Eisenstodt Associates
Washington, DC

The Crowdsourced Issue: This article was inspired by an idea submitted by Tony Ellis, CAE.
Interactive vs. Lecture-Style Learning
I see a great value in peer-to-peer learning, what we too often call "networking." People come to meetings to learn from and with each other.
But peer learning isn't always the goal. Speakers and presenters usually have more information and knowledge. That's why people want to listen to them. I think participation should be voluntary, not forced. Many people just want to sit and listen and remain anonymous.
Well, they don't have to be called on! In good interactive learning, small group discussions are safe and allow those who want to participate the time to do so. In the training and facilitation I do, norms are set at the beginning, explaining that participation is voluntary.
Even so, sometimes group discussions force participation. The group is so small that not participating makes a person stand out. Others in the group may try to draw them out. I like to participate. I have a lot of experience and I like to share it and hear others. But, sometimes, I want to hear an expert. I don't have to participate all the time. Often, meetings use group breakout sessions when they aren't necessary.
Do you mean most sessions should be "general sessions"?
It depends on the topic, the audience, and what needs to be achieved. If people are coming for information, a loose lecture format works. The speaker is expected to be an expert but should make it possible for people to interact.
What is a "loose lecture format"? And how would you then see the interaction?
I attended a session led by successful turnaround executives who were going to explain how they turned around their associations, but they broke into small groups. I don't care what other people would have done. I want to know what these folks did.
So take that and redesign it here. How would you have structured it?
A loose lecture: the speaker has information, shares it, invites input, adjusts material, if necessary, to respond to audience concerns. I would have done away with the group discussions. They were unnecessary. We came to find out what these three people did in their associations. A meeting of experienced turnaround executives, however, would be different. That should be totally interactive—experienced folks sharing their stories.
You'd have done it that way? No audience interaction in small groups, just in Q&A?
The question is: Is it a workshop for solving a turnaround problem, or is it learning how successful turnaround execs succeeded? In this case, it was about how they succeeded. That's why the group breakouts were unnecessary. They injected a format that didn't fit the apparent goal.
Do you know if others got something from the interactive group stuff?
I don't know. I left when they broke out and went to a different session. I've led turnarounds and I wanted to know how these guys did theirs, not how others would have done it.
So, it wasn't for you, but you don't know what the outcomes were.
True, but I know what I expected based on the description of the session.
I don't think we are that far apart in what we believe. I think that we need options at meetings for different kinds of learners and presenters. One has to look at the audience needs, styles, learning facilitator style, room set, etc. I'm an aural learner and generally cannot sit in a lecture session. I would love to see smaller sessions after a larger general session where the topic could be addressed by specialists in the field.
That's a good idea. Association Forum [of Chicagoland] often does that, with keynoters leading smaller group discussions.
And why does it all have to happen in a session room? Let's take the subject of contracts: in a session room, one could listen to a lecture and then, for kinesthetic learners, write contract language. For we aural learners, set up a time when we could meet in any space to discuss the issues we've experienced with a guide/facilitator.
There's also a difference between interactive and hands-on. You can do one without the other.
ASAE, several years ago in Boston, did theatre in the round for its general sessions and I went every day. It was the set that was exciting AND that they used it differently every day.
You can have seating around tables, to encourage interaction. You can also have multiple "general" sessions so people are in different rooms and different settings each time.
I concur regarding crescent tables for general sessions, except the space issue is a big one.
Other ways to improve general sessions: greater use of video, lavalier mikes, speakers staying away from the podium, multiple podia (as props), so there is a freer feeling, but it is still not threatening to people who like traditional formats. Also, rooms that aren't box shaped. Tiered seating is good. A different environment will evoke a different feeling.
Yes, and that gets us to the problem with facilities who don't "get it" regarding education and room sets. Associations need to think more about what will make a meeting successful when they do a site inspection and contract for a meeting. They need to ask a hotel or conference center to set rooms differently to see what it feels like.
When we put candy or streamers on a meeting table, it doesn't change the format but it changes people's feelings.
I always have creative stuff on the tables. When your hands are engaged, your brain is more engaged.
We shouldn't overlook those types of details. You also have to take into account people's comfort level. For example, some people won't go to an overnight retreat, but they'll be very involved in one they can commute to. Other small but important details: comfortable chairs, amplification that works (if you need it), leg room for tall people, interpreters for hearing impaired.
I do an exercise with meeting planners about "adults learn best in pleasant surroundings," and then we discuss what that means—leg room and tushy room!! People hate to learn seated "cheek to cheek"! (You know: "ganged" or locked chairs, a necessity under fire laws.)
These are just some of the things that help people learn. They don't have to be revolutionary ideas, just accommodate people's personal needs as much as possible. But, back to the speaker or leader. That, more than anything, determines people's satisfaction with a session. Speakers should be knowledgeable, charismatic, and audience driven.
How we respond to a speaker or leader is based on our learning styles.
Too many speakers are boring. They read, they turn to look at the screen. They may know their stuff, but you don't want to learn from them. So, we also need to coach speakers more or try to do a better job of recruiting speakers.
Or, when subject matter experts know their stuff but cannot deliver it to different audiences, we can design sessions so that a good moderator interviews the experts instead.
Whatever the meeting format, it should be denoted in the program, such as "highly interactive." But meeting planners who like interactive sessions shouldn't assume they are always the best way.
Or vice versa. Once, at a meeting, a session said it was to be interactive, but the room was set theatre style and so I didn't even go in!
Some people would have reacted like you did if it was set up with round tables.
I know. Or worse. If it were Open Space they would have freaked out and walked far away!
That's why a meeting should offer both options, so everybody has a format they are comfortable in.
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  Edward Barks , May 04, 2009
Lots of food for thought here. One additional idea regarding David’s notion that boring speakers could stand a training session: Your association may want to consider asking expert speakers you have already hired for your meeting to handle this duty. You can choose to make it part of your search process up front or negotiate with a speaker/trainer with expertise in this area who submits a proposal (remember that everything in any proposal is negotiable). Don’t hesitate to ask speakers to add this to their list of responsibilities. If you are working with pros, they are also savvy businesspeople/ consultants and will have no problem amending the proposal to better fit your needs. Another benefit: Speakers capable of this type of double duty are friendlier to your travel budget. Of course, they must actually have the talents you desire. If you try to get by strictly on the cheap with someone inexperienced in teaching/training, your members lose.

Ed Barks
Author of The Truth About Public Speaking:
The Three Keys to Great Presentations
Chair, ASAE Greater Washington Network's
Content and Facilitation Action Team


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