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How to Design an Educational Event That Encourages Actual Learning

This guest blog post is by Kelly Clark, Manager for Online Marketing for Naylor Association Solutions

Hosting an education-based conference or meeting can be tricky. Attendees come with multiple learning styles, diverse educational goals, and wildly different attention spans. But it’s possible to host an educational event that satisfies everyone’s checklists. Jenn Sioteco, director of operations and Kayal Rajendran, director of content, both of Digital Summit, offer these strategies for designing an educational event that encourages actual learning:

Limit sessions to the minimum length necessary

Educational sessions should get down to business right away. You don’t want to bore your attendees with drawn-out speaker introductions or silent, awkward question-and-answer portions. Allow just enough time for the presenter to give a meaningful talk without any fluff. This exact amount of time will vary by the type of education your event aims to provide. A technical talk might require more time than a discussion about a current trend, for example. Review your current session lengths and how attendees rate those sessions. Is there part of the typical presentation flow you could tighten or eliminate to make the meeting more impactful? Reducing the length of sessions can have the side effect of leaving attendees wanting more from subsequent events or ancillary resources you publish in relation to your event.

Digital Summit has decreased the length of their education sessions from 45 to 30 minutes. Thirty-minute sessions force their speakers to immediately address the topic at hand. Under the expectation that they’re teaching tactical skills attendees can use as soon as they go home, speakers don’t have time to blather on about their background and accomplishments. (An emcee gives a 2 minute-or-less speaker introduction, so the audience still knows their credentials.) They get to the substance of their talk right away, which is what attendees want. 

Help speakers plan their sessions

It’s more than okay to set a high bar for session content. Help your speakers achieve those standards! Digital Summit offers a speaker resource page with detailed information about the content it expects from speakers. The page also lays out the content submission timeline. Consider making a webpage or speaker hub like theirs to encourage transparency between your organization and your educators.

Holding presenters to a high caliber of educational content helps better position them as a thought leader while preserving or improving your event’s reputation. Your organization and presenters ultimately answer to attendees. Their perception of your event’s educational offerings is what counts. Attendees choose their sessions, often from competing concurrent sessions, because of their interest in the topic and how it will help them work smarter or be a better professional. They don’t want to feel like they chose wrong because of a speaker whose content doesn’t deliver value. 

Keep session topics highly focused

For educational content to break through the clutter of daily life we all have swirling around in our brains, it must be highly focused and actionable. Unless the session intends to cover a fundamental or introductory topic, broad content doesn’t translate well into a memorable lesson. Instead, the session topic should be granular and detailed. A topic such as “How to create a content strategy” is too encompassing to offer any immediate takeaways. But a distilled session about how to put together a content calendar sets the expectation that attendees will know how to competently complete that specific task after attending.

Know what kind of educational content your audience wants

Give the people what they want. Attendees are forking over their time and money to attend your educational event. Put sessions they want to attend on the agenda. When planning your educational tracks, ask likely attendees what they want to learn about through surveys, focus groups, phone calls, or emails. Track session attendance numbers to gauge what topic areas are most popular. Track usage of any extra information you make available post-event.

Based on hundreds of online surveys and session evaluations, the Digital Summit team has discovered their attendees don’t want sessions about marketing fundamentals. Their audience is manager- or director-level marketing professionals who already know the basics. They want to learn about complex, cutting-edge and higher-level topics they can’t as easily learn about through other channels. So that’s what Digital Summit offers, because catering their educational offerings to audience requests will result in more satisfied attendees – and hopefully repeat guests.

Try a different approach to fundamental content

The no. 1 complaint Digital Summit receives about its education sessions is that the content is too elementary. But interestingly, during the past year of conducting their conferences online, Digital Summit offered some fundamental courses anyway and saw those sessions thrive. They think some attendees who don’t want to be seen walking into a session about basics they’re expected to already master (or basics they think they should have already mastered, even if that expectation isn’t true for their specific role) used the cover of anonymous online attendance to fill those knowledge gaps. The lesson here? Sometimes, the success of your educational offerings has less to do with the topic and more to do with the venue or social norms. If you think a certain type of education would go over well even when it seems counterintuitive, try giving it a different label.

Allow just one speaker per session

If your goal is to put together an educational agenda, allow just one presenter per session. It’s much harder to deliver a tactical speaking session with a co-presenter because the tone can easily shift from pure education to conversational entertainment. In addition, attendees focus more on who is speaking and what their backgrounds are instead of concentrating on what they’re teaching. Unless you’re hosting a debate of a hot topic where the goal is to showcase competing viewpoints, stay away from panels. Panels, even “education panels,” are almost always less about hardcore learning and more about slightly fluffy conversational topics.

If your conference features an abundance of education sessions punctuated by a keynote address, you could host a Q&A session as part of that keynote. Just be sure to bill it as “a conversation” and not an educational part of your gathering.

Attendees are eager to log off Zoom and rejoin the in-person educational conference world. Many are looking forward to seeing old friends while sharpening their skills. Use these strategies to ensure your organization is ready to welcome attendees back with an educational event that’s better than they remember.


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