Are You a Student or an Attendee?

Thanks to the efforts of Jeff Hurt (among others), those of us who speak frequently in the association world are well aware of the principles of adult learning, particularly those around frequent, active participation, engagement, being solution-oriented, providing content in small chunks with ample opportunity for practical application, etc.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who works to incorporate those sorts of things into presentations, even warning people at the beginning of sessions that they’re going to be highly interactive and sharing an agenda up front that includes active learning exercises, only to get dinged in evaluations for not standing there and talking at the room for an hour.

“But everything I know about adult learning tells me they want and need all that interaction and activity! Why don’t they?!?”

This morning on the subway, I was reading a recent New Yorker article profiling author Jennifer Weiner. One of the events it covers is a presentation she gave for the Renfrew Center Foundation, so the audience would likely be mostly clinicians who treat people with eating disorders. But her presentation, which was reported to have gone over very well, was of the inspirational life story variety. Which struck me as odd. Wouldn’t doctors want scientific presentations? Also, Lauren Hefner and I presented the Membership Development course for ASAE’s Association Management Week yesterday. The course intentionally incorporates some adult learning principles, the two of us worked in even more, and, by all reports, it went over well.

Putting the two together, I had a small epiphany: what if it comes down to the difference between between being a student and being an attendee?

What difference?

Students are there to LEARN. Attendees – at least some of them – are there to BE ENTERTAINED. And if what you’re expecting is to sit there for an hour and be told a nice story, and the person in the front of the room is asking you to engage and think and interact, that session is not meeting your expectations. A little over a year ago, I had a total crash-and-burn, salt-the-earth speaking experience that foundered on exactly this problem.

What does this mean for conference organizers and the speakers they line up? I think it’s important to try to figure out which type of audience you have, and choose/inform your speakers accordingly. And what if events offered “passive” and “active” tracks, in addition to subject area tracks? We’d probably have to come up with a better name for them, though. Maybe “traditional” and “interactive”?

Frequent speakers, what do you think? Am I on to something here? If so, what do we do about it?

8 thoughts on “Are You a Student or an Attendee?”

  • I do think you’re on to something with your focus on individual expectations and mindsets. One mistake some people make as presenters is to equate interaction with verbal, extroverted-bias activities. In addition, some present it as something they are going to do TO participants instead of WITH. Calibrating the right mix of interaction in an order that draws people in instead of turning them off is always one of the things I find most challenging in presentation design.

    I think we might be best served by focusing on mindsets, expectations, and understanding how participants go about their work and what learning they might find valuable more than trying to apply a distinction between students and attendees. I’ve heard classroom teachers complain they feel they need to entertain their students and as a presenter I’ve experienced attendees deeply focused on sucking every ounce of learning from a session.

    One of my presentation mentors taught me to try and learn where the people in a session fall on the Must Know – Nice to Know continuum as they show up prepared to engage different in being active learners. That simple advice has saved me many times.

  • Oh, nothing more sophisticated than asking people where they fall between those ends of a continuum in terms of need to know related to the program I am doing.

    People who are in the Must Know are potentially eager (or impatient) to get their questions answered, to move quickly form theory to practice, etc. They have a high stake in the workshop producing something that meetings a strong need they have.

    For Nice to Know learners, they often are just happy to get a different way of looking at something, one takeaway, etc. They may be more willing to do an activity for which they don’t immediately see the utility, etc.

  • Elizabeth:

    Yes, I think you are on to something.

    While many of us were students in school, we got used to having information being given to us. Our teachers/professors never asked us to do anything except write reports, pass tests and possibly complete a project. So our experience leads us to believe we learn by passively sitting. We are used to “being spoon-fed,” even though that really doesn’t lead to learning. We assume it does.

    So when a speaker asks us to do something, some of us get offended. “I came to hear the expert, not others in the room or myself,” is often an excuse thrown at speakers. That person is really saying, “I don’t want to do any work here. Give me the right answers.”

    Let’s face it, thinking is work. Anytime a speaker ask an audience to do something other than sit and listen, there will be some resistance. We have to explain why it’s important to do whatever has been asked. And as Jeffrey pointed out, we have to provide variety of activities including reflection or writing something down that is less threatening for introverts.

    There are times that a motivational or entertaining message are right. And the longer we attend a conference, the more tired we become and the more we want to be entertained.

  • As best as possible, know the desires of your audiences before you stand before them. And recognize they will usually include a mix of learning styles. You’ll never get everybody to be happy with you. Present in the way you think is best – don’t just follow what you think is the current fad.

    Some people learn by listening. They don’t want to participate. Even knowledgeable people often simply want to hear a scientific presentation.

    So, don’t force people to be “highly interactive” unless you know they’ll want to and you really think that’s best for that subject, that audience, and that situation.

  • Patricia Frame says:

    I always try to include the words ‘interactive’ and warnings like ‘bring your brain and a pencil’ or other verbiage to help people focus on that fact that I will be involving them, using exercises, or whatever. It does help some. Not that everyone still visibly/actively participates but it does set the tone. And, of course, I have learned to not over-react to those who are not deeply in love with me every moment on their evaluations 🙂 But see some good ideas above in comments too.

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