By Scott Berkun (with Vanessa Longacre)
For a few years I worked with Vanessa Longacre planning training sessions and educational events at Microsoft. We covered topics such as project management, leadership, design and usability, and used every training format, from large 500 person events, to lectures, to small group workshops, to anything else we could think of. We learned tons along the way and being teacherly in spirit, we’d like to share some of that with you. Please note: this essay is more about larger training sessions than about how to actually teach something. That may come in the next essay.
It’s important to know for starters that we worked as a team, with me as an evangelist and educator, and Vanessa as the project manager and event planner. We spent many afternoons brainstorming, designing and planning together. Through all this we learned that there are two essential ingredients in great learning experiences: A team of smart energetic people committed to doing something good, and a thoughtful plan, crafted with creative energy and smart logistical planning. This essay has two parts: the spirit, attitude and philosophy of good training (strategy), and the logistics and tricks for making it happen (tactics).
If you attend conferences more than you run them, you might also want to read how to get the most out of conferences.
The main problem: No one learns anything when they’re bored or unconscious
Through years of suffering through the American education system, I was implicitly taught that learning, and therefore training, required large numbers of people sitting in neat little rows, listening to dispassionate people ramble away on mediocre and predictably boring lessons. While there were a handful of exceptions, I was led to believe that learning was a spectator sport, an act of endurance, where the student’s merit is determined by their patience, aptitude for memorization of endless trivia, and ability to endure long stretches of boredom. It seems most of us know this at some level: it’s the reason people tend to sit in the back of classrooms or lectures, it’s why people check email during training, and it’s why most people loathe conferences and other forms of training events. To our general detriment as a society and industry, training has generally earned its reputation.
However, despite all my complaints and misgivings about many of my learning experiences, there is more to consider. When I started teaching (not just lecturing and giving talks, but teaching) around 1999, and had to stand in front of classrooms or lecture halls of students and try to make something happen, I quickly realized how difficult it is. Often there are layers of politics and bureaucracy that have to be managed, typically constraining what and how things can be taught. People and organizations become very conservative when it comes to learning, and many great and creative teachers and trainers in the world are working with handcuffs on. Perhaps more troubling, many students come to training for the wrong reasons. Often they think they want to learn, but really just want to confirm what they already think they know (and are insulted or defensive when you offer alternatives to their notions). Other times they just want to be away from their jobs.
Teaching of any kind, especially with adults as students, is a constant struggle of ego management (the student’s and the teacher’s), psychology, and group attention maintenance. And then finally, after all of this exhausting and often emotional work, most teachers and trainers are not rewarded well for the efforts. (So please, if you work in training or education, I hope the rest of this essay, or the previous paragraph does not insult you. You have my respect and I think I understand. Alternatively, If you are recipient of any kind of training, please keep this paragraph in mind next time you take a course. As I’m sure someone else has said somewhere, try it yourself before you judge).
Anyway… here is the core principle: you have to invest in ways to keep people engaged, interested and involved. This doesn’t require learning to juggle or do magic tricks (though those things might help), but you do need to respect the sensibilities of those that you are training. How you do this is up to you, and there are many different approaches to take, some of which I’ll explain below. But as a rule, it is not enough to put rows of chairs facing a podium in a big room, and then simply ask lecturers or teachers to talk at them with their slide decks or lesson plans, and expect anything interesting (such as learning) to happen. Mirroring the 7th grade classroom and the freshman college 101 lecture hall will serve only to copy their mediocrity.
Instead, the goal has to be to do something better, each and every time you try to teach something. Have a goal of providing something worth paying attention to. Realize that some of the teaching methods you may have grown up with are obsolete, or in need of serious retrofitting. People’s attention spans are shorter, they may work in demanding and sometimes engaging jobs, and if the training sessions they attend don’t stand up well against the rest of their lives, they won’t be paying attention for very long. We have been trained through exposure to television and instant messaging to consume certain kinds of information very quickly, and can comprehend context and attention shifts much better than the previous generation (Watch the tv show by Bill Nye the science guy if you doubt this). It may be fair to complain about the dedication of students to the task of learning, but this only goes so far. Before people can eat, you have to set the table for them.
Don’t assume old models work
It’s common for conferences and training events to use the same exact formats throughout the day: lectures, panel sessions and workshops. It’s also common that most people complain about most aspects of most conferences they go to. These facts are related. If you want to improve the quality of something, change (and risk) is required. If you ever gone to a conference, I’m sure you’ve complained about how limiting the sessions were, how boring and dull the speakers were, or how hard it was to meet anyone. Don’t assume the old models work. You have to think through what your goals are for the conference, and actually think through what formats, styles, and incentives will achieve what you want.
Know your audience and engage them early
There is one principle that applies to all audiences: they like to hear interesting things, from passionate creative people. Yes it’s true that you might need to shape your event differently if it’s for musicians than for lawyers, but there are essential truths about all groups of people. Generally, people like to smile. They like to laugh. They like to listen to people that are not insulting their intelligence, that talk to the audience as peers regardless of their knowledge, and show consideration for their time. It’s all about respect. People in the audience, who have typically paid good money to attend (or perhaps more importantly are spending their time), deserve to feel that their time is being used well, and that the level of discourse is at a level of quality that is worthy of their attention.
The best way to establish respect with and from the audience is in the first session. Often this opening act is called the keynote (as in, the note in a musical number that allows every instrument to get in tune. Think about that). Many conferences invite speakers in, because of their reputation or knowledge of a subject. Unfortunately, they may or may not be interested in or qualified to set the emotional and personality tone for the day. That first session, however long or short, is an opportunity to form a first impression. If the session is concise, smart, lively, fun and interesting, it sets a baseline for everything else that follows. If 3 or 4 short key points are made well, with a few laughs in between, and the other speakers are in attendance (which they should be), those points can be echoed and reused throughout the day by other speakers. If the opening speaker has a broad style and can be open and humorous, it enables every other speaker a little more room and informality to come out. Alternatively, if the opening speaker is dry, stuffy, boring, or pompous, it gives every other speaker less momentum to work with.
Give them a reason to show up and a reason to stay
Everyone I know that has attended more than one conference or training event has left early at least once. They felt bored, wanted to avoid the traffic, or desired to go see the sights if the conference was out of town. I’ve done this on many occasions. If I know that the sessions are simply live versions of the papers in the proceedings, or other things I can obtain later, what exactly is my motivation to stay? I think people leaving early, or cutting out of sessions is an indicator of a problem. It means that something unique and hard to miss isn’t happening. (btw: Those are often the people to catch on their way out, and politely ask what could have been different that would have made them want to stay).
The largest event we ran at Microsoft, Design day (500-600 people), saw the introduction of several different formats to break up the monotony of lectures and panels. Using an idea I’d seen elsewhere, we created a session called 99 second presentations. We had open submissions (which we selected from) for people to speak at the conference on any topic for, you guessed it, 99 seconds. This had three effects. First, it drew people in. They’d never heard of this, and since it sounded like a potential disaster, many people came to watch. Second, there are lots of smart knowledgeable people who don’t have the interest or time to make 45 minute presentations. But a 99 second presentation everyone has time for. So many voices at Microsoft that hadn’t been heard before were encouraged to surface.
And finally, for the audience, the 99 second time limit allowed for them to hear 20 or 30 different short talks in an hour. If one talk was boring, they didn’t have to wait long for it to end. On the other hand, if they heard something interesting, they knew the name or URL for the person that spoke, and were invited to follow up with them and actually have a conversation and learn in a more social way. I believe there are dozens of other interesting ideas that haven’t been done yet, or that I haven’t heard of. They will never happen until people try them out and learn how to organize them well.
(Side note: I was also told that some people with fears of public speaking signed up for this, since they wanted to work on overcoming that fear, but wanted an easier step.)
While the 99 second format was successful, we did make mistakes. This comes with the territory when you try new things. The timer we used didn’t work out so well (ok, it sucked), and the transitions between speakers wasn’t as smooth as I had planned. But the packed crowd and the high review marks made clear that the session worked anyway. If ever anyone tries to run this session again, they’ll be able to make it even better. The only way to progress is to try new things: so even if this had failed, it was worth it. I’d have learned something more about what might work at next year’s conference.
You can’t please everyone
Here’s a law for groups of people: No matter what you do, someone will complain. The more people involved the more people that will complain. If you make sessions longer, because some folks complained last year, it’s guaranteed that someone will suggest that you make them shorter. If you spend more time teaching X, some people will ask why you didn’t teach more about Y. As far as I can tell, this tendency to complain is an intractable quality of the human species, and the larger the group, the worse it gets. All you can do is work to understand what the needs of the people you’re teaching are, make good decisions, and stick to your guns. Never expect the complaints to end: they won’t. Only worry when there are no complaints at all: your audience might be need medical attention.
The thing that is more important than how many people complain, or what they’re complaining about, is whether you had the right goals, and if you achieved them or not. If your goal for the session was to teach X, and you succeeded, complaints about Y are possibly irrelevant. First, why did they expect to hear about Y, if your event was about X? Did they not read the descriptions? Was there any logical reason for them to expect Y? Did they not understand what the event was for? Unless there was a marketing or design problem with how the event was described or promoted, some blame falls on the students. Sorry, it does. If they showed up at a pizza place asking for sushi, they’d get laughed out of the store. Always listen to customers/students, and return to the goals to see if they’re still appropriate, but don’t abandon what you’re doing simply because someone complained. There are lots of bad, stupid, ridiculous reasons that some people choose to voice complaints. Wise people, and wise group managers, know this.
More importantly: if you go into event planning and training with the goal of pleasing everyone, you’ll reach a mediocre compromise (which explains why so many conferences are so dull. They’re often trying to eliminate all complaints, or negotiate decisions through bureaucratic committees, which are mediocrity prone). A better indicator of success, and quality, is how many people come, how long they stay, and how happy and attentive they seem while they’re there. And to achieve those things with most of your attendees, you have to take on the likelihood of disappointing the rest of them.
In reality, the best metric for training is what happens when they return to their jobs. Has anything changed? Do they make different decisions, say different things, or consider new ideas? If there is no change in behavior, then the training didn’t really improve anything. It might have increased the potential for something good to happen in the future, or given people some refreshing time away from regular work, but odds are, as days go by after the training, the power and the positive emotion around what they’ve learned may fade. This is why it’s often leaders and managers that need training more than line employees do (Often what’s ideal is intact team training, where the whole 5 or 10 person team gets the same training at the same time. In my experience, this is waaaay more fun to teach as well). It’s the leaders and managers who have the power to change the rules of the working environment, and pave the way for the team to make use of what was learned.
Think of the best experience
Who was your best teacher? What about how they taught made you feel this way about them? I’ve asked several people this question, and the answer tends to be one of 3 things: They made learning fun, they were visibly passionate about what they talked about, and they seemed to care that students were paying attention by going out of their way to involve and listen to students. In many cases, people told me about friends, parents, or uncles, not necessarily school teachers. Keep your mind open to where good learning experiences are happening.
I believe that these three things (fun, passionate, caring) are the recipe for good learning experiences. Think of the last few conferences you’ve been to, and rate them just on these 3 things. Now think about what could be done differently towards achieving these goals. Poof. You’re on your way to a better training experience.
An event requires a design process
Just like managing and building a good piece of software or website, you need to have a process for setting goals, generating ideas, writing a plan, and executing. Start off with a small group of people who will be organizing the event (preferably creative/open minded leaders who are committed to the event), to define a set of goals that will drive the project. If defined properly, the goals will ease the decision making process throughout the project. Here are some common goals to use:
- Create opportunities for people to meet and exchange ideas
- Provide a forum for experts to lead and share knowledge
- Enable memorable and unique experiences
If you have these goals, before deciding on how many talk sessions to offer, or how many panel sessions to have, you’ll probably find yourself asking the question “Is a talk or panel session the right way to satisfy these goals?”. On the other hand, with no goals, you’re likely to go ahead and accept talks and panel sessions as the only way to create an event.
Intermission / Part 2
Greetings. You are now at the midpoint of this essay. How you doing? Remember how long movies used to have intermissions? Well, lets just say I’m glad you made it this far without giving up (Or maybe you scrolled past all of my hard work to get here, hmmm). Anyway, what follows are more tactical things about training and events. So like I said in the intro paragraph, here’s part 2.
Quality control for your presenters
Many famous people became famous for things other than their public speaking ability. Despite this, many famous people are asked to speak at events, and they suck. In the case of most conferences, it’s not famous people, but experts in some field or domain who do most of the speaking. It follows that many of them, where public speaking is concerned, might also suck.
If you’re running the conference or “Day O’ Training”, and you’re selecting people to speak based on their reputation, books they’ve written, or papers they’ve submitted, you’re vulnerable to having them show up and do poorly in public speaking. You can protect yourself from this in several different ways.
- Your acceptance criteria should match what you are asking them to do. If you are asking them to speak, ask for submissions that show a sample video clip of them speaking. Ask around people in your industry that might have seen the speaker, and ask for their review (Would you accept a chef based on his ability to dance?). This takes more time, but if lectures and panels are the primary thing at the conference, it should be worth that investment.
- Provide training for all speakers at the event. Give them a short course on presentation skills and common mistakes to avoid. The earlier you do this, the more time speakers have to make adjustments to their presentations. Minimally, provide coaching at the event itself. You could require all speakers to show up early for a summary of tips, and for 1-on-1 coaching. Even a one pager on presenting do’s and don’ts ups the quality dramatically. From the academic and professional conferences I go to, many speakers, even experienced ones, still make basic mistakes.
- Review their presentation materials. You can often, but not always, judge a presenters comfort level with speaking by examining their materials. Since often it’s the materials than live on past the event, quality control for them will pay off, even if the speaker doesn’t do so well. I often asked for draft slides from speakers I’d never seen speak before.
- Collect feedback from the audience on the speaker’s performance, and pass this on to the speakers. You can choose to summarize and filter it, or you can give them the raw survey information. This is another way to provide quality control. It’s not the best, since it happens after the event, but it does set you and the speaker up with a baseline to use in the future. Some speakers hate real feedback, even those in the usability/design sector (can you say hypocracy three times fast?). At the bottom line it’s your event: if they can’t handle your rules, don’t hire them or ask them to speak.
Support different learning styles
Instructional design research tells us that individual’s differ in their ability to learn knowledge, depending on the medium in which it is conveyed. Some people learn faster by reading, others by listening, and most, by doing. To succeed at creating a healthy learning environment, you have to use different mediums and formats, and create different kinds of opportunities for learning to occur.
- Interaction: Make sessions interactive. Require speakers to save time for Q&A, or better yet, to integrate the audience into the discussion. A good speaker will do this naturally, using the audience to help guide his/her direction through the material. But even less practiced speakers, if asked, can put some level of interaction into their sessions.
- Listening: This is typically the dominant learning style supported in conferences. Any situation where you have large numbers of people sitting together, facing in the same direction, is listening dependent. Even with the best speakers, attention spans are much shorter than they used to be: which means, lectures shouldn’t last longer than 20-40 minutes. (Really. Think of the last lecture that was longer than this that you attended. How much of it do you remember 5 minutes later? If you force speakers to use their time wisely, they tend to exercise concision, and everyone benefits. Thus the motivation for 99 second presentations).
- Reading: Some folks, myself included, like to read. Handouts and printed materials can reinforce topics discussed during the day, can provide references to common resources mentioned, and can give people bored in lectures something useful to look at. I think there is also a psychological bonus to giving people something they can hold physically that represents their learning experience. Taking notes, writing down people’s names, or books mentioned, all contributes to the attendee’s experience. It’s well known that even if people don’t refer to notes later, the act of writing things down helps people to remember them.
- Doing / Practicing: This is the ultimate learning experience. When a person actually does something, and experiences it first hand, they are more likely to remember it, to be capable of asking meaningful questions about it, and to consider changing their attitudes and behavior about that activity. This is often the hardest learning style/teaching format to create, since we have so little experience with it within most of our educational systems. It requires more resources: a lecture has a 1 to 200 teacher to student ratio. To do directed exercises or projects, usually means 1 to 10 or maybe 1 to 20. It’s way more expensive, and it’s harder to find people skilled in doing it (I know it took me awhile to understand how different it is to teach this way, than a lecture) Conference workshops are in the right ballpark, but they to tend to focus just on talking about doing things, which is very different from doing them in a directed way, under the guidance of an expert.
- Playing: Most professions take themselves way too seriously. It’s not surprising that conferences are often serious things, where people invest in establishing and defending their reputations within an industry or society. This creates a stiff and uptight atmosphere, which as I’ve mentioned, is contrary to the free and fun spirit needed to learn. The keynote plays a decisive role here, but more can be done. Provide games or simulations that are intentionally silly, to give people a chance to let down their guard, and experience something, without having anything at stake (Interactionary had built in silliness for this reason). If those games and entertainments are lead by well known experts in the field, then everyone will feel inclined to follow along.
Next time you attend a training session or event, see how many of these different learning styles the instructors or organizers take advantage of. As far as learning what your own learning styles are, there are online questionnaires that do a decent job of it. There are several academic institutions that study learning styles.
Food / Location / Time
Just like throwing a good Friday night party, underneath all of this fancy planning are some basic logistics. If you have a bad location, with cramped, poorly lit rooms, with lots of background noise, it’s unlikely that any learning (or partying) will take place. A good location for a mid to large size event offers you rooms of different sizes, the opportunity to rent needed equipment, and nearby provisions for food or catering services. If you’re doing a smaller event, you may need to provide for all equipment and food needs on your own.
Food and location are often the most expensive parts of an event. It’s not uncommon for these two things to take up 50-70% of an event budget. Most attendees never even think about the costs of these things, but it’s the truth. The reason is that while great food and location won’t make your event (unless it’s a food or architecture conference), they will definitely break your event.
On locations: Depending on the size of your event, you can often find good deals at non-traditional conference spaces. The local museum, church, YMCA, or historical building may have large rooms or conference areas that are available. I think that while some logistics might be hard, the unique location creates a special experience for attendees. If your looking for many built in services, hotels, especially business class hotels, is the place to start. They often have package deals, and are prepared to rent you most of the services you need. However unlike non-traditional spaces, most hotel conference centers feel exactly the same (just like the hotels they are housed in). Even on the cheap, it’s often worth going somewhere other than the hallway conference room. Basic psychology: if you want something new and different to happen, increase the odds of people having open minds by changing their surroundings. When people are a little unfamiliar, a little off balance, they are also a bit more curious, and with the right leader/teacher, a bit more adventurous.
On food: There’s no easy way around this one. Food is just expensive. Some catering services to do offer good deals if you’re willing to sacrifice some level of pretension. Sandwiches or pasta buffet service can often be much cheaper than the alternatives, and most people don’t mind the gap in culinary class if the food is good: good sandwiches are better than mediocre entrees. Another tip is to always provide a variety of food and balance of junk food, which people crave, and fruits and healthy stuff, which people often ask for (but often don’t eat anyway – see what I mean about frivolous complaints?) Lastly, depending on your schedule, make caffeine easily available. At Microsoft we had the budget for portable latte carts in the conference area (Being in the Seattle area, coffee addiction headquarters, this is sort of expected at things that start early).
On time: There are two schools of thought on using time. On the one hand, people are busy, are often attending on the company dime, and want as intense an experience as possible. They don’t want long breaks, or for things to sprawl out across many days. On the other hand, a good learning experience includes downtime, includes the opportunity to have chance encounters with other people or things, and takes the locale of the event into account as part of the experience. (This is why doing training at a space away from your office makes so much sense. People can’t even think about sneaking back to their offices to check their email or other non-urgent things).
I think the best advice is to make the schedule flexible. Provide detailed information about what will happen when, and then let people decide. If you’re doing it well, most people will opt in most of the time, for most of the things your doing. And for those that don’t like what you’re doing at a given time, you probably don’t want them hanging around complaining anyway.
Remove barriers to interaction
Most people don’t like to introduce themselves to others. Just because they want to meet people, doesn’t mean they will go out of their way, even at a conference, to say hello and start a conversation. This is doubly so for speakers and presenters. There is nothing more intimidating than a commanding speaker, who has just amazed an audience with his subject knowledge and speaking prowess, standing 5 feet away. Most people will run away, or watch as others step up and say hello (which speakers always appreciate).
As an organizer, you need to invest energy in creating an environment that makes interaction natural. Here’s some ideas;
- Use round tables, even in large conference rooms: We are trained not to interact much in classroom style (rows and columns) seating. But if you put round tables in a room, the dynamic changes. People will tend to have to look at each other, and to talk. Place some interesting objects on each table: lego, puzzles, rubic cubes, nerf toys. silly putty. Give people something to do that has nothing to do with what they are supposed to be doing. I guarantee you’ll find people chatting and talking with people they’ve never met before during all of the interstitial time between sessions. You might not be able to fit as many people, but it’s worth it. If you have one large room that is reused several times throughout the day, it’s a great candidate for this approach.
- Make the presenters stay for the day, and ask (or tell) them to introduce themselves to people. If your conference or event is focused on presenters, then they are, in many ways, the heart of your event. If they set the right tone by engaging in conversations with attendees, and inviting discussion, it will echo and amplify throughout the day. If they disappear, or hide in the corner, there will be an artificial separation between speakers and attendees, that defuses the potential energy of the conference. If you are paying the speaker to speak, it’s within your right to request that they participate in the day: they’re working for you.
- Make workshops, small discussion groups, based on submissions or assignments, part of the format. If possible, do this before, or as the first session of the conference. A workshop gives 10-12 people an intimate format to discuss an area of mutual interest and expertise. If it goes well, they will have formed relationships that can be built on through the rest of the conference. Running a good workshop is another essay altogether: facilitation is a tricky thing. Though much of advice above applies well to workshops, not just events.
Do one experiment in every conference
To learn and progress, you have to take risks. If you always use the same formats, the same speakers, the same rules, you are guaranteed to have the same outcomes. If you’re risk adverse, or feel pressure from the sponsors not to do anything crazy, pick one area of the conference to try something new. Identify this up front, and sequester the risk. It’s a basic technique for driving innovation: if you create a sandbox you allow yourself to be creative without fear of ruining everything else. You can even make it public knowledge that you’re doing something experimental. Sometimes this will invite a different kind of participation from students.
Cheat when necessary
When you are worried about an idea or activity working, do not hesitate to plant shills. Hand pick people who will volunteer to ask the right question at the right time, who will sign up to participate in a new session format, or strike up a conversation at a certain table at a certain time. This is not wrong or disingenuous, it’s just setting the right tone. Once people see someone else demonstrating something, and see them rewarded for it (or minimally, completing the thing without getting laughed at or hit with tomatoes) others will often follow. It’s kind of like asking your friends to go out on the dance floor at your wedding. No big deal really, but what a difference it can make.
Collect feedback and use it with care
The first time people see feedback on a presentation or an event, they’re often alarmed at how critical and one sided people can be. I don’t know if it’s ever been proven, but I’ d bet a dozen real NYC bagels that people are more apt to respond to a self selecting survey if they have a complaint, than if they have a compliment. Not sure why it is, or if I’m just being cynical, but from doing this for several years I’m convinced it’s true. (Note: the opposite is true for what people will say to your face. Guess this makes me even more cynical).
What’s important then is to collect feedback regularly, and make comparisons year to year, from event to event. Once you have a baseline for what a good event is like, future feedback becomes useful, regardless of how biased it is, because you now have a basis for comparisons. The surveys themselves tend to be what you make of them. If you only have likert scales, you’re going to miss lots of great suggestions and ideas. If you ask biased, leading or negative questions, you’ll get biased, led or negative answers.
More valuable that the open surveys might be a group of trusted representatives that you ask to give you candid and direct feedback throughout the conference. Maybe you pick them randomly, or perhaps you choose people you know and trust to give you honest information. Either way, invite them to chat with you, or to send you their own personal feedback. Share with them your goals for the event, and ask them to comment on how each session they participated in lived up to them.