Sections Instead of Breakouts

A few ASAE calls for proposals have hit recently, and it’s gotten me thinking about conference sessions.

On the one hand, associations want to recognize the expertise and knowledge our members hold and give them a platform to shine and a chance to share that knowledge and expertise with their peers.

On the other hand, we all gripe about conferences we attend where all the speakers are volunteers. Some of the speakers aren’t very good, and a lot of the content is shallow or too basic, people seem ill-prepared, the slides are bad, etc.

I’m calling myself out here, too – I’ve been the griper, and the under-prepared speaker that’s being griped about.

Preparing all these proposals got me thinking about learning experiences in my own life. Which got me thinking about grad school, where I taught political theory to freshmen.

What if we dumped breakout presentations in favor of university-style sections?

What would that look like?

You’d start with a fairly traditional presentation by a recognized PAID expert in a given topic. Everyone who was attending would be required to do prep work, familiarizing themselves with a common canon (books, articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, whatever), allowing them to operate from a shared base of knowledge (that would NOT be restricted to the book s/he just wrote that the presenter is shilling). Which means your PAID expert could actually speak at a high level and have some chance of being understood.

After the “lecture,” the larger group would split into discussion sections, which would be led by expert VOLUNTEER MEMBER facilitators, with knowledge of both the topic at hand and how to keep a discussion moving, whose job would be to ask interesting questions and keep the conversation flowing at a high level. And since all the attendees would enjoy that shared base of knowledge from doing the prep work and from the high level presentation, they’d actually enjoy substantive conversations about important topics, as opposed to devolving into the “this is how we do it at my association” (dare I say it?) drivel that usually results from the table exercises at our conferences.

What would that learning experience look like?

10 thoughts on “Sections Instead of Breakouts”

  • Sounds great! A similar model could also be used in a breakout session (hopefully, longer than 75 minutes).

    An expert would deliver material and a facilitator (a different person – with no bias) would manage discussion.

  • Your post is most timely. I just pulled this off with about 80 OWG utility folks 2 weeks ago with our Annual Conference. One 'keynote' speaker to kick it off, then seven 'discussion tables' each topic lead by one of our volunteer leaders. After 30 minutes, folks moved to another topic. The catch? You only got to visit 3 of the 7 topic tables. A general summary session was held at the end for everyone's benefit…lead by our guest keynote speaker. The reviews were off the charts positive. The reason? Change of pace, engagement by nearly everyone, and our members truly appreciate learning from their peers (municipal utility industry). I wouldn't do this format every year, but it certainly does add some spice to a worn out conference agenda. There are a couple of tweaks I'd do next time, but overall the complete non-traditional conference format like this was worth the risk.

  • Add me to the list of folks saying “Love this!” I especially like the prep work in advance to ensure there's a level playing field for the discussion.

  • Love it, and it's been done as others have noted, but it never seems to get widespread acceptance. It's really nice for a half-day or one-day event. Years ago Association Forum did something like this with Pine and Gillmore (The Experience Economy) as the sages on the stage and the sections c0o-led by association profs and consultants, each focused on a particular functional area: marketing, etc.

  • As others have said, it works. Here's what current education research is showing though…the lecture is best divided into shorter segments no longer than 10 minutes each. Actually 5 minutes is great. Then attendees discuss the point in two-minute pair sharing sessions. Then the lecture starts again.

    Current research shows that if an expert lectures for 20-60 minutes and the discussion is held until the end of the lecture, less content is actually retained and learned. It's actually better to break up that lecture many times.

    Here's what won't increase learning though…if the sections are 10 or more people discussing the content one at a time instead of pairs or triads.

  • Add me to the list of “me too's” of loving the concept. I know that something similar was done by the US Chamber of Commerce for their Institutes of Organizational Management program. Great learning,but the “pre-conference” reading was often missed by the attendees. I believe they stopped requiring – or even suggesting – the readings.

    I agree with Jeff Hurt's comments about length of lecture before interaction. Too much content presented makes the attendee forget what was said at the beginning. We are getting more and more used to the “8 second message” which, I have been told, is the average amount of time it takes to read a tweet.

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