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?