I’ve been to a spate of conferences recently and frankly, come away reeling.  I’ve witnessed a bewildering array of inspirational speakers who have all amazed me with their energy, their enthusiasm, their fluent patter, their jokes and, of course, their grasp of their subject.  All these inspirational speakers shared two characteristics; they talked at us and they assumed we would learn from a monologue.

Now, I fully understand the temptation, when given slot of an hour or so, to sock it to ‘em. I’ve succumbed many times myself and taken the easy option of delivering a lecture. The gratifying thing about this (assuming you do it well enough) is that most people seem to like it. It is low risk for the audience – they just have to sit there relatively passively while the speaker does all the work.  Throw in a few anecdotes and the ratings go sky high.  Sheer entertainment – and, quite understandably people like to be entertained.  But (you knew there had to be a ‘but’ didn’t you?) if the objective is to help people learn, is a one-way tirade good enough?

My answer is an emphatic no.  Of course, we do learn from the one-way process of listening to someone but we’d learn much more if, in addition to listening, we had the opportunity to engage in some two-way behaviours – things like questioning, challenging, debating, using someone (the nearest person will do) as a sounding board to bounce half formed ideas off; anything to crystallise our learning.

Failing to provide opportunities to indulge in these behaviours during a conference, blithely assumes people can cope and/or will conduct learning reviews in their own time. Both assumptions are suspect.

I have developed my own conference ‘survival’ routine which goes like this.

1  I set myself the specific aim of identifying three potentially useful ideas from each session.  This puts me in purposeful mode.

2  At the session, I listen like hell making lots of notes.  I do this non-judgementally – not worrying whether I am learning or not.

3  After the session – preferably within two days – I read through my notes, underlining key words/passages and highlighting potential ‘lessons learned’.

4  Finally, I select just three useful things and work out what I will do better/differently as a consequence.

In a perfect world, conferences would build in structured learning reviews rather than expecting mere mortals to organise it all for themselves.  People need time to ponder things and crystallise their learning, time to articulate what they have learned and time to work out how to apply it.  Without this, too much learning stays vague and is unlikely to be translated into effective action.

Unfortunately all this means that the learner has to work far harder than the speaker.  The saying, ‘to teach is to learn twice’ reminds us that the speaker’s learning is pretty well guaranteed. But, why should they have all the fun?

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