Many conferences are a series of PowerPoint talks interspersed by the occasional panel discussion.
The audience gets a little time to ask questions, but they get absolutely no time to reflect or interact with each other besides in the coffee breaks or over lunch.
Not allowing time for conversation is a missed opportunity for the conference delegates to engage with the contents of the conference and learn from each other.
It is a missed opportunity for the delegates to become participants rather than an audience.
It need not be this way.
Death by PowerPoint
Over the years, I have attended, spoken at, or chaired many conferences and apart from a few notable exceptions I have been appalled at the design of the events.
Although occasionally there are mini-workshops and other interactive sessions, the dominant format is the deathly “PowerPoint presentation.”
These presentations typically take the form of a talk followed by a Q&A session. Usually, each session is scheduled to last for 30 minutes followed by 10 minutes for Q&A.
Sometimes, the torture lasts longer with 1-hour sleep-inducing talks with say 50 minutes for the talk plus 10 minutes Q&A.
Speakers are often not sufficiently briefed or disciplined; they have far too many PowerPoint slides, and a weak chairperson lets them run over time.
This is exacerbated by the fact that there is little or no slack in the schedule and insufficient time is allowed for coffee breaks and lunch and no time has been built into the day for reflection, conversation or networking.
This results in the erosion of the time for coffee breaks and lunch. It is “serial death by PowerPoint!”.
The victims (the audience) are often seated in neat theatre-style rows, reminiscent of the worst of classroom teaching. This style of seating is deliberately designed to minimize interaction between people. Even when seated at large round tables of 8 people or more, it is still difficult to engage in conversation given the separation distance. I have a rule-of-thumb that says you need to be in touching distance of a person to have a good conversation with them.
And then in some cultures and more formal conferences often no time is even allowed for questions. Keynote speakers arrive moments before they are due to talk, deliver their speech with no Q&A and rapidly depart after a brief “feting” by a few members of the audience.
What’s worse is that so many of conferences are about education, learning or knowledge management – no one is “walking the talk”!
In addition to this, the research shows that the lecture compared to other more active approaches is an ineffective way of teaching/learning. Donald Clark, a British educationalist, in a lecture (he notes the irony) says this:
Show me a Professor of Education … who lectures, and I’ll show you a hypocrite who doesn’t read the research.
Credit: Donald Clark
But there is a simple improvement that can be made. It is to make the talks conversational. This approach is far from perfect and does not make a conference as interactive and engaging as it might be, but it is a small step in that right direction that is of low cost and minimal impact on the conference.
In a conversational conference, the dominant style of talk is the conversational talk. Each speaker presents for a period – usually 20 to 30 minutes – and concludes their speech with a question to the audience.
The audience is typically seated at small round tables, 4 – 5 people per table but the format will work with larger tables and even in lecture halls or banked auditoriums though the smaller grouping is far more conducive to conversation.
The audience then quietly reflects on the talk for a minute or two individually, before discussing the speaker’s talk and the question in small groups before going into a traditional Q&A. In a lecture theater, it is not too difficult for people to form groups of 3 or 4 by turning to their neighbors.
The conversation is seen as more valuable than the Q&A and usually 10 – 15 minutes is allowed for the conversation and only 5 – 10 minutes for the Q&A.
This format is not intended to replace fully all PowerPoint talks. Keynote presentations delivered by a professional, engaging speaker with provocative content are still effective and can be run in the traditional manner. TED Talks are a good example.
Some Video Examples
This video although taken at one of my Knowledge Cafe’s and not at a conference demonstrates the degree of engagement and interaction that is generated by a talk followed by a powerful question.Even in a lecture theater where people turn to each other in twos and threes, conversation can work well. It works well even in a larger lecture theatre such as this one after a talk I gave at ECKM 2017 in Barcelona.
We teachers - perhaps all human beings - are in the grip of an astonishing delusion. We think that we can take a picture, a structure, a working model of something, constructed in our minds out of long experience and familiarity, and by turning that model into a string of words, transplant it whole into the mind of someone else.
Perhaps once in a thousand times, when the explanation is extraordinary good, and the listener extraordinary experienced and skillful at turning word strings into non-verbal reality, and when the explainer and listener share in common many of the experiences being talked about, the process may work, and some real meaning may be communicated.
Most of the time, explaining does not increase understanding, and may even lessen it.
Credit: John Holt
Turning a traditional conference into a more conversational one takes minimal extra effort. It means a change of mindset in recognizing the real value in the conversations that take place.
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