How To Take Your Conference Education Sessions To The Next Level

By Michael Mackay

It’s always a challenge to keep conference attendees engaged through an hour-long training session, let alone eight straight hours of them. Conferences and educational summits are great places to learn new skills, develop current skills, and network with people who value your skill sets, or offer value to your association. So what can we do to ensure we keep people’s’ attention throughout, while still getting a point across? Here are some ideas that will help keep attendees engaged and make sure everyone learns something along the way.

  • Make it fun
    • Don’t take yourself so seriously, and stop making your training so darned boring. You may have an important and impactful topic to cover, but you won’t get buy-in from your attendees if you present it in a dry manner.  People at these events are expecting your best all the time, and not a typical lecture.
  • Identify the W.I.I.F.M.
    • What’s in it for me? This is an important question to answer from the perspective of the attendee. They have paid to come to the event and, amongst all the other seminars, chose to spend their time in yours. What’s the benefit of them paying attention to what you have to say or show, and how will they use it directly in their role or association? Make sure your session outline and its takeaways are clear and simple.
  • Narrative
    • People have learned through narrative for as long as language has existed. From simple nursery rhymes to children’s books, to big budget movies. The narrative allows people to better identify their role in the content. It also allows us to make use of allegory and metaphor to break down complex information  Use this philosophy in your session planning to ensure your narrative is strong. A start, middle and end are the key components to a narrative, and attendees should feel like they’ve moved along the plot with you.
  • Self-directed
    • Generally used in e-learning settings, allowing people to tackle training in their own timeline, and using their own motivations give the learner a sense of autonomy and control over their learning journey. This also works well in session format. With you, the speaker as a leader, allow attendees to guide themselves through the content, and offer insights at select times to help in this process.
  • Get them involved
    • Involve everyone, every time. This seems impossible, but keep in mind that each individual will have a different definition of what involvement means to them. Some will want active engagement with the facilitator with questions; others will just want the opportunity to ask when they feel the need. Still others will want to work in groups to bounce around ideas to understand complex problems. Be ready to change your plan based off of attendee interaction on different key points. Don’t be afraid to go off-script if it makes sense to do so. Keep in mind that, as a facilitator, feedback is invaluable to making the training better and more engaging for future learners.
  • Gamification
    • Use rewards, badges and game-based mechanics in your session. Using these types of validation can help keep engagement high by taking advantage of most people’s desire to receive regular feedback, and their need for completionism and competition. This is particularly effective in sessions that require a great deal of attendee feedback and comments in order to be fully realized.
  • Keep things specific
    • Drill down your topics to the key takeaways. If you are finding there are more than a few major takeaways, then break these up into smaller training sessions. Don’t deviate. Snip questions that lead away from the core learning quickly, and leave them to the end of the session if there is time, or be sure to send out your contact information for future discussion. Build the focus around a specific learning objective and build your content around that one key point.
  • Create a hook
    • Get the audience involved at the start and you’ll have them along for the whole ride. All sessions should start with a short, effective hook in the first 30 seconds that both describes the session and reveals its relevance to your attendees. Provide something fun or catchy that people will remember and perhaps bring with them to their next session.
  • Game based learning
    • People naturally rely on play to learn complex principles. These same principles are sometimes easier to understand in the context of a game. Games allow us to use trial and error to learn what does and doesn’t work to solve a problem. Concepts like finance can be replicated in a board game, with cards or as a video game, which allow people to quickly simulate the long-term impact of their decisions. Depending on your session topic, a simple thing like a few packs of playing cards could enhance the understanding of attendees.
  • Know the audience
    • Though most sessions don’t last longer than 30 or 60 minutes, it’s important to take a moment to survey attendees. You can then commit a quick evaluation of the existing skill and knowledge of the audience taking the training. You can then better tailor your content to the audience, quickly reviewing concepts they likely already know to allow for more time to discuss concepts that may be new.
  • Make it pretty
    • People at conferences attend many sessions. They are going to see many different slides. Make sure you use a variety of visual examples of your content to keep people interested and excited. Mix pictures, video, and infographics whenever possible. Generally, people process information at a faster rate visually than they do audibly. Use this to your advantage by involving images, infographics, and videos in your training. Mix up the visuals so that groups don’t get bored with the same layouts and colors throughout the training. You’ll not only stand out more, but attendees at your session will also retain more information.

Michael Mackay is a Sales and Marketing Associate at Spongelab Interactive. He works with not-for-profits, associations, and other organisations to design and build platform technology to handle educational, training and organisation needs.