5 Things That Kill Attendee Learning (And What To Do Instead)

5 minute read

Ask three different people why they attended an event, and you’ll probably get three completely different responses. You may hear answers like “to meet new people” or “to feel inspired.” And, chances are, at least one person will answer with a blunt “to get away from the office for a few hours (or days).”

 

But while the overall motivation for event attendance can vary a great deal from one person to another, you’re also bound to find at least one common thread. Whether it’s just a general awareness they didn’t have before or a meaningful piece of information they can tell their boss about (and use to justify their attendance as having been worthwhile), most people want to leave your event feeling like they’ve learned something.

 

According to a report from the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, learning matters to 91% of attendees. Clearly, as an event planner, it should be one of your key priorities. More learning means greater attendee satisfaction. Which makes them likelier to attend your next event and – perhaps – bring a colleague along.

 

Attendee learning involves several moving parts. Great speakers, relevance and interesting subject matter are a given. But there are also other aspects which, without careful planning, may derail the learning process.

 

In this post, we’ll run through 5 things that kill attendee learning and show you what you can do to encourage it instead.

 

1. Not Creating Enough Engagement BEFORE The Event

 

Having an active audience during the event itself is crucial. However, engaging your attendees beforehand is equally important.

 

Learning doesn’t just happen because you’ve put your attendees in a room with a good speaker. Their minds have to be receptive to new knowledge to start with. You can do a lot of the groundwork for this in the run up to the event.

 

What to do instead:

Creating engagement before the event builds a sense of excitement and anticipation. This will make your attendees more receptive to new knowledge from the get go.

Here are two ways you can do this:

Create a segmented email campaign based on registration data

Email is a great engagement tool because it’s attention-grabbing. Where social media posts tend to get lost in people’s news feeds, an email sits there in their inbox; and it won’t go away unless they actively open it or click the delete button.

Of course, getting your attendees to open your emails is half the battle. Which is where segmentation comes in.

According to a study by MailChimp, email open rates are 14.13% higher when a campaign is segmented. Use this to your advantage by grouping your list according to the sessions they’ve signed up for. You can then send tailored content such as bite-sized background material, introductory videos or even signup suggestions to related sessions.

Use a survey tool to crowdsource questions or ideas for discussion

Asking attendees to come up with questions or to list specific issues they’d like to be tackled works on two levels:

  • It gives them a say on the content, scope and overall direction of a session

This makes your attendees feel like active partners, rather than mere passive recipients of information.

 

  • It makes personally valuable issues part of the discussion

We usually tend to take much more interest if something is directly relevant to our day-to-day lives, so this will make your attendees feel much more invested in your event’s outcome.

 

2. Using The Traditional Talking Heads Model

All too often, the learning process at events looks like this:

 

  • A speaker delivers their talk from a stage.
  • The audience sits down and listens.
  • If there’s enough time left at the end, the audience may be allowed to ask questions.
  • Rinse and repeat.

 

Sounds mind-numbingly boring, right?

 

Well, that’s because it is.

 

It’s also incredibly ineffective. Research shows that the rate of retention (that is the rate at which people retain knowledge they got from lecture-style learning in the long term), can be as low as 5%.

 

What to do instead:

While we all tend to absorb new knowledge differently, various studies have confirmed that there are certain things we can do to enhance the learning process.

 

Firstly, interaction forces us to focus. This makes it easier to understand new information and to remember it in the long term. With this in mind, encourage your speakers to regularly field questions throughout their sessions, rather than blocking time for them at the end.

 

Speakers could encourage interaction by using a clicker-style audience response system such as Data on The Spot to poll answers anonymously. Or, you can energise your attendees and make sessions more memorable by holding discussions and throwing Catchbox to whoever wants to contribute.

 

More to the point, according to Jerome Bruner’s Theory of Development, we tend to learn better and remember more if we discover knowledge for ourselves. So, one of the best ways to promote long-term learning at your events is to use puzzles and other activities that require attendees to synthesise what they’ve learned and consider how they’d apply it in day-to-day situations.

 

3. Keeping The Same Pace Throughout The Event

Using back-to-back lectures as your primary method of information delivery also has another problem: it fails to account for the natural peaks and valleys in human concentration.

 

Researchers tend to disagree on how long is exactly too long. Some have found that attention tends to drop after about 52 minutes. On the other hand, Francesco Cirillo  – creator of the Pomodoro Technique – found the human attention span to last closer to  25 minutes.

 

Irrespective of which theory you subscribe to, one thing’s for sure. Keep up the same pace for too long and you’ll lose your attendees’ attention, killing the learning process.

 

What to do instead:

The trick here is to work with your attendees’ attention span, not against it.

 

Firstly, schedule time for warm-up activities instead of diving straight in. Call out a relevant word and get your attendees to free-associate. Or pose a hypothetical real-life problem and toss Catchbox to whoever wants to try their hand at solving it. These kinds of activity are a fun, attention-grabbing ways to ease your attendees into a session.

 

Sharing a joke or using the element of surprise at regular intervals is also a great way to get your attendees to refocus. As a plus, lightening the mood makes attendees feel good, which floods the brain with dopamine. This process has been shown to stimulate learning.

 

Finally, make sure to schedule regular breaks in which attendees aren’t exposed to any content at all. Regular downtime is just as important to learning as the sessions themselves, because it gives the brain time to process information without overtaxing itself.

 

4. Getting The Room Layout Wrong

Varying learning methods and pace will only take you so far. The learning environment itself has a positive or negative effect on your attendees’ emotions. In turn, this can influence their ability to learn and retain new knowledge.

 

Many events tend to use a theatre-style layout, usually because it maximises the amount of space in which attendees can be placed. The flipside is that this kind of layout reinforces the idea of a passive audience, which discourages interaction.

 

However, putting your attendees around a table isn’t necessarily effective either. It may force some of them to crane their necks or strain to hear what’s going on; and the discomfort associated with paying attention may lead them to lose interest and switch off.

 

What to do instead:

Making a room’s layout work with your type of session does require some planning ahead. That said, it can have a hugely positive impact in terms of achieving learning goals, so the extra effort is worthwhile.

 

Splitting your attendees into small groups or creating a living room-type setting, for instance, creates an informal atmosphere which encourages interaction. It also makes it easier for speakers to walk around, which makes them seem much more approachable than if you placed them on a stage.

 

Another alternative is the fishbowl technique, in which your attendees regularly switch between active participation and passive listening. This works particularly well with larger groups, because it makes the discussion more manageable by limiting the number of attendees who can talk at any given time.

 

5. Overloading The Programme

Have you crammed two days’ worth of activities into a half-day event? Or perhaps you’ve tried to get as wide a cross-section of speakers as possible involved?

 

You might assume giving your attendees loads of choices and packing your sessions with information increases the opportunities for learning and makes your event more valuable. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

 

The brain is an organ, not a machine. All those different discussion panels and talks you’ve organised might create the illusion of learning. But you may be actually preventing real learning from happening by overloading your attendees with way more than they can handle.

 

What to do instead:

When it comes to learning new concepts, less is usually more. It’s better to focus on covering two or three topics in depth, instead of trying to be as comprehensive as possible in a short amount of time.

 

You can choose which areas to focus on by brainstorming topics connected to the event’s overarching theme, then narrowing things down. Mind mapping is a really useful technique for doing this. Once you’ve decided on the key points you want your attendees to take home, you can design your event schedule around them.

 

In the words of Dr John Medina The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.” With this in mind, design your programme so that different sessions build on each other, instead of flooding attendees with a huge pile of information all at once.

 

It’s also important to review key points regularly throughout the event by blocking out time for breakout sessions and other activities that reinforce new knowledge. The Edutopia blog has some great learning activity ideas you can use to achieve this.

 

What do you think of our list? Are there any other pitfalls you think you should absolutely avoid in order to maximise learning at a conference? Tell us in the comments section below.

 

And if you’ve found this post useful, spread the word by sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. The more everyone knows about maximising attendee learning, the easier it will be to plan and execute more effective and worthwhile events.