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Flipping the Script on Conference Education: 13 Lessons Learned

By: Aaron Wolowiec | Oct, 27 2023
Education Strategy & Learning Design

happy colleagues working together

One of our clients – a decidedly more traditional group in many ways, particularly when it comes to education – recently ventured into unfamiliar territory. At a signature annual event, and in response to past attendee feedback, the planning group elected to depart from its usual 90-minute panel presentations to experiment with a new and highly interactive learning format for about 125 people.

All general sessions were shortened to either 45 or 60 minutes each, and three of the six sessions over two days began with brief instructions and a topical contexting from the stage, and then facilitators came down into the audience, forming smaller discussion groups, where they facilitated a dialogue on their assigned topics, drew out audience insights, captured key takeaways, and then recapped and weaved together concluding thoughts from the stage.

Overall, I think this was an important and much-needed change that most people really enjoyed. Of course, there remains room for improvement both in planning and in implementation. Following represents a list of my 13 lessons learned, many of which you might benefit from in the design and development of your own interactive learning sessions:

  1. Most people really did appreciate the interactive format. Although the planning process was met with some resistance, and indeed there were some folks onsite who weren’t overly excited by the interactive format, I think the change was mostly welcomed by participants and met its intended objectives. 
  2. Identify your change champions early on. Not everyone will be on board. And, honestly, that’s okay. Change can be difficult for many. But it’s helpful to have a planning committee, including chairs, who understand the vision, can communicate it to others, and can defend it, if/when necessary. Being stuck on an island as the only advocate can be a lonely endeavor and is likely not worth it in the end.
  3. Select facilitators who are open to the new approach. In this case, we were really looking for facilitators (rather than speakers) who had a mix of traits – both in terms of personality and subject matter expertise – who could strike the necessary balance from the stage and in their breakout sessions.
  4. Take the time to orient your facilitators in advance. Any time you spend orienting your facilitators to expectations will pay off in the end. Whether in writing or by phone/video, help your speakers understand the intended outcomes, how this is different from past sessions, and a high-level script for them to adapt and adopt, as needed.
  5. Communicate changes with participants early and often. Although they may not read them, we did begin to signal changes to the session format in the marketing materials, know before you go campaign, session descriptions posted to the mobile app, and opening day remarks. This allowed us to point back to these communication channels, if needed.
  6. Properly orient participants at the start of the session. The first session of the day using this new learning format was facilitated by a past president. She clearly indicated what was to come. And it was a mix of her clout and the no-nonsense/humorous way in which she oriented participants that seemed to effortlessly bring them along for the ride.
  7. Breaking participants up into smaller groups was relatively easy. We chose not to pre-assign tables or participants into smaller groups to make it seem more relaxed and to allow for participant choice. And, honestly, this went smoothly. Using big gestures and landmarks in the room, we were able to break the larger room up into three or four smaller groups in about five minutes.
  8. Consider a room setup that will best meet the needs of your participants. Folks don’t really need tables for these types of discussions. So, you may want to pre-set circles of chairs or simply have open space around the perimeter of the room for participants to move to. In our case, many participants also preferred to stand.
  9. Work with your AV team to mitigate sound issues. The biggest hiccup for this learning format was the sound. Although many indicated they could hear without a problem, and we did encourage participants to move to better hear their facilitator, there were still those participants who had trouble engaging. In the future, I might try separate breakout rooms with microphones or personal listening devices like you often utilize on a self-guided museum tour. 
  10. Handouts will support participant learning and engagement. Especially, but not exclusively, for those individuals who had difficulty hearing, a list of discussion topics, key background information, facilitator questions, and the like – formatted as a digital handout and uploaded into the mobile app – could have further improved participant engagement.
  11. Getting facilitators back on stage is akin to herding cats. At the end of the session, with about 10 minutes remaining, it was relatively difficult to get facilitators back on stage to close out the session. They were sidetracked by participants and conversations ran long. This was easily resolved by dropping by each small group and inviting them back to the stage with some level of urgency.
  12. Mix and match your learning formats for an optimal experience. While we thought having all three interactive sessions on the first day would help support our conference networking goals, particularly for those attending for the first time, it turns out the repetition became predictable by the third session. Moving forward, I recommend mixing up the session formats each day to add variety and interest.
  13. Finally, it’s important to remember this is an experiment. If perfection is expected out of the gate, you may be setting yourself up for failure. But if everyone can agree from the outset that we’re trying something new, some of it we’ll like, and some of it we’ll need to improve upon in the future, combined with actual attendee feedback vs. a couple of anecdotal detractors with loud voices, I think you’ll be making positive progress forward.

If you or your team has recently flipped the script on your conference education, please share with us your tips, tricks, and lessons learned using the comments below or by emailing us at [email protected]

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