September is back to school time for kids but it’s also the start of the fall conference season. Adult education and professional development is not so different from our younger days of learning and, for conference planners, there’s still learning lessons to be learned from elementary school:
- Defined Learning Outcomes: School curriculums are built with long-term goals in mind. At the end of a school year, students need to take away a foundation of skills and knowledge to allow them to succeed in future years and advance their education. Conference programs should be approached the same way. Take stock of what’s happening with your organization and your industry and identify the direction things taking (or you want to see them take). Then assess the audience to determine what skills and knowledge they’ll need to ensure success and advancement. Create programming to help people build strength in in these areas.
- Lectures Mixed With Practical Application: Science class would be a lot more boring if we didn’t let students pull out a microscope or beaker once in a while. History classes are a simply a series of case studies. Odds are that a student won’t learn computers by reading a book or hearing someone explain typing methodology. Some subject matter is well-suited to oral presentation while other subjects are perfect for hands-on learning. Plus, there’s a wide variety of learning styles and different people will learn better in different teaching environments. So look for variety in delivery and presentation style in your conference program: Mix lectures with case studies and workshops. Let people get hands-on with technology and tools, when possible.
- Storytime: As a rule, parents don’t read their kids textbooks at bedtime and students are attentive at story time. Everyone likes a good story. A good plot generally holds our attention longer than simple statistics and a good story-teller can capture our attention and make facts interesting. The more engaged we are with a story and the more it creates an emotional reaction, the more likely we are to remember it. When choosing speakers, look for those who can turn theory, numbers, and facts into a tale that people will want to listen to.
- Attention Spans are Limited: A school day in Canada is around 6 hours. As adults we have greater capacity to concentrate for longer periods but there is still a limit. Keep school hours in mind and avoid scheduling long days of educational content. People will tire and stop paying attention. Likewise, don’t schedule sessions to last much longer than an hour (45-50 minutes is most comfortable) or people will stop absorbing new information. For workshops or sessions where it can’t be avoided, be sure to offer breaks that give people time to stretch and absorb what they’ve just learned.
- Recess: Some people love to sit in the school yard and talk while others want to participate in structured games or activities, but everyone appreciates the chance to get out of the classroom. And they serve a functional purpose letting kids get some fresh air and a healthy snack to keep their energy up. Plan conference breaks purposefully, too. Space them out to allow people a respite when they might be tiring, and offer snacks and refreshments that will boost their energy and learning capacity. If weather cooperates, fresh air will also give people a boost but the ideal setting would not let them wander far from session rooms (or nice weather could tempt them to play hooky!) Offer structured activities for physical exercise and networking, but don’t force people to participate. Facilitate unstructured networking and relaxation with comfortable seating areas.
Adults learn differently than children but some of the fundamentals of elementary school planning remain important to adult education. Just as school administration does, conference planners need to build programs in consideration of education goals, variety of learner styles, and attention spans.
Panel sessions are a popular format because they are interactive by nature. But you need to clarify what kind of interaction you want to create. Do you want to inform an audience with short-format presentations to contrast perspectives? Or do you want to create a formal dialogue among a select group of individuals? Or perhaps you want to offer an the audience access to a group of experts for questions and discussion? Once you know the outcome to be achieved, you can source the right panelists and provide the right guidance.
When approaching people to sit on your panel, give them a complete picture of the message the session should deliver, and let them know what perspective or part of that message they should portray. Tell them who is confirmed or will be approached to sit on the panel. They may be uncomfortable sharing a stage with certain individuals, they may have ideas on other potential panelists, and they will better understand how the message will come together. You will also need to articulate how the session will be structured and how the message will be delivered.
If you are looking to inform the audience, maximize time for presentations and minimize (or eliminate) time for questions. Ask panelists to prepare a short formal presentation. Slides or other visuals may be expected. The role of the moderator is closer to that of an emcee – they will make introductions and provide segue between speakers. If you choose to open the floor to audience questions, the moderator will need to time this carefully so the program stays on track.
If you are creating a formal dialogue, presentations are likely inappropriate. You may choose to give each panelist an opportunity for opening remarks but this is not always the case. Work with the moderator to craft questions that draw out the message you want and share the list of questions with panelists so they can prepare. The role of the moderator is to facilitate a conversation, not just ask a series of questions. The moderator may also manage questions from the audience but sometime this format is a closed conversation.
If your goal is to offer a forum for audience discussion then presentations should be minimized or eliminated. It is appropriate to give each panelist an opportunity for opening statements or to formally present their standpoint but emphasize keeping this short so there is lots of time for audience interaction. It may be a good idea for the moderator to give time prompts to keep speakers on track. The moderator’s role is to facilitate discussion between the audience and the panel. There should be a list of prepared questions that the moderator can use to start the discussion (the audience may be timid at first) or fill gaps between audience questions. Good questions will stimulate thought and elicit follow-up questions.
Regardless of format, here’s a few thing to keep in mind when sourcing panelists:
- Look for variety on your panel. Panelists should be credible subject matter experts who represent different areas of an industry, utilize different approaches to achieve results, or represent different players in a process.
- Invite panelists who are engaging. Panelists should be comfortable in front of an audience, have good presentation skills, and be able to think on their feet as questions come up and the direction of conversation shifts.
- Get a moderator who can go with the flow. It is helpful for a moderator to have an understanding of the subject matter but not a requirement. Equally important is someone who is a good facilitator, can shape the conversation and will keep things on time.
- Give the panel a chance to connect in advance. Hold a conference call or informal meeting prior to the event so panelists and the moderator can discuss how their perspectives will mesh to create the desired message.
Panel sessions are a great option for events. By nature they are interactive, encourage consideration of differing perspectives, and stimulate discussion. But a few people with microphones at the front of the room does not an engaging panel make. Take the time to think about the experience you want the audience to have and the message you want the audience to receive. Then get your panelists on board with those goals.