How low is your conference bar set these days? What does it take to make your experience "worth it" anymore? Is it 1 good keynote and 1 good session? Is that enough? Maybe it's a solid pre-conference workshop and two good sessions. Or is it even less?
I go to 30-40 conferences (led by educators) each year. Typically I present a keynote address, a few workshops, or possibly a pre-conference session, but I certainly have plenty of time to see and hear a lot of other presenters. This also means that I end up eating lunch or an occasional dinner with dozens, if not hundreds of strangers. So, I've been doing some research around the gambling that takes place at conferences. No, not dice in the back of the kitchen or inviting strangers back to a hotel room...(Those are the tech conferences.) I'm talking about the conference session roulette that everyone takes part in. Come on lucky session #4...daddy needs a new educational game!
Some conference attendees "double down" on their bets. Good move. I watch as more and more often, session participants sit in the back of the room. They give the presenter(s) about 3 minutes to "hook" them. If there is no "hook" then out the door and off to another session they go! Two for one sessions - nice! And, most conference presenters are making it hard too. It seems that the "catchy title" is the order of the day, regardless of whether or not the session will actually provide value. Sprinkle in Web 2.0, or YouTube, or Serious Game and you've got a session title that will make people do a double take! Come on Serious Games for YouTube and Facebook via Web 2.0 in the Classroom...Daddy needs a new assessment idea!
In my extremely unscientific research, here is what I looked for. Great sessions (regardless of the identified mode), meaning keynote addresses, workshops, pre-conference, poster, and panel sessions were all game. I looked for a few simple indicators to determine a successful presentation.
- Great content - this is usually determined by the "buzz" after the session and often corresponds with the number of questioners who stick around to talk. (My personal research seems to indicate that 3 people will stick around regardless of how good or bad a session is.) This also includes "buzzing" conversations that follow the session to lunch.
- Great presenters - these are definitely harder to find, but my indicator here was pretty simple. Who, or better, how many (in the audience) was paying attention to the presentation?
- Great interaction - this one is tough for me. A lot of conferences are demanding audience "participation" these days. My problem? Often the audience members are not subject matter experts, they are simply professors who enjoy sharing their opinions (which is why we're professors, right?) or worse, they simply want to play devil's advocate throughout the session. So, in both of those situations, other audience members come away feeling like the session was useless. However, when interaction with multiple audience members takes place regularly (not simply because an audience member forced a question in), it should be noted.
So, after months of tallying on my iPad or iPhone -I love you Evernote - I have some informal numbers. This is from 22 conferences, 103 sessions, and includes a lot of conference goers...I have no idea how many. I should also mention that if I didn't go to the presentation, but simply heard about the presentation after the fact, it was not included here. (I wonder sometimes if those conversations are legitimate...it's like the guy in high school who was always trying to convince you the swimsuit models showed up to every party JUST after you left...) Anyway, here you go:
- 92/103 sessions had poor content, which means 11 sessions had great content.
- 99/103 sessions had poor presenters, which means 4 sessions had great presenters.
- 99/103 sessions had no audience interaction, which means 4 session had great interaction.
- 2 sessions had both a great presenter AND great content (although no interaction).
For those of you scoring at home, that does not even begin to approach an 'F'. Even in aggregate, less than 16% of the presentations I attended were...well, quite frankly they were pretty bad.
Let me give you one fresh example from a conference I attended in December. There were 75-100 people in the lecture style, tiered room. I was in the very back, at the top, looking down on the presenters and audience members (I was preparing for my session in that same room, which was next.) Let me describe for you the middle row of about 25 people.
- 3 were visibly asleep
- 4 were checking email on their laptops
- 6 were checking sports sites - mostly fantasy football on their laptops
- 10 were using their phones (texting for help perhaps?)
- 1 was writing on a notepad
- 2 were passing notes back and forth to each other
It doesn't seem to matter what the topic is, what kind of conference it is, or who the speaker / audience members are, these sessions don't seem to be very helpful. When I attended my own discipline's Communication conference last year, with people who explain to college students how to effectively communicate a message, there was no difference. When I went to a K-12 conference with teachers who certainly need more energy and enthusiasm to reach younger people, it was no different. When I went to International conferences, it was no different. (In fact, it was often worse as many of those conferences are made up of "conference papers" - essentially a person sitting in front of the audience reading a research paper out loud...seriously.)
OK...so, enough of the agonizing landscape. You get it. In fact, many of you are probably starting to develop a twitch as I've reminded you of things you would prefer to forget. But here is my big question.
Why is it a surprise that education is having such trouble reaching students?
Apparently, we (educators) have a difficult time communicating with each other. How can we possibly expect to communicate effectively with our 1, 2, and sometimes 3 generations younger students? Why don't we apply what we know to work? Why don't we use what we know to be helpful?
Tell, Show, Do, Review, and Ask in a multi-modal, multi-nodal way and we'll reach a LOT of people. Why don't we do that? Use ethos, pathos, logos, and mythos (if you're dying to think about it old-school) and we'll reach a LOT of people. Why don't we do that? Incorporate serious games, focus shifts, multimedia, and interactive strategies and we'll reach a LOT of people. Why don't we do that?
I truly believe that we are our own enemy here. I KNOW that there are some really creative, innovative, strategic instructors out there who are doing great things...but when they get to a conference to share it, they get very uptight. The idea of presenting to peers is quite intimidating for many, so those ideas never really get a chance to shine.
Then, there are the conference submission boards who miss out on great stuff. They don't seem to read or review survey results from previous conferences, giving preference to people who get super positive comments, having thereby illustrated that they have great content, are a great presenter, or include interaction effectively. I watched a professor at Online-Educa Berlin present a fantastic workshop on rubrics. She was poised, dynamic, and her content was top notch. When I told her that she should give that session at some conferences back in the USA, she explained that she tried over a dozen times and never got accepted. Something about the presentation just wasn't "sexy" enough for the committees, even though I watched her knock it out of the park in Germany.
So let me finish with this. Let's change the way conference presentations currently run. Let's all take a pact. When we're given the opportunity to share our clever, creative, innovative, effective, or useful ideas from our classes with our colleagues...let's not blow off the performance until the plane ride. Let's not forget what goes into a good presentation - effective nonverbals, logical reasoning, and passionate verbals. Let's include some of the "cool" factor when we can, to illustrate the concept. Let's not forget the power of story. Let's agree to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances READ our notes or (worse) READ our PowerPoint to the audience again!
We can do this. It's not like we don't know how audiences respond most effectively. We know that the lecture is one of the poorest ways we can communicate if we want our audience to retain, comprehend, and be engaged. We KNOW what it takes. So, let's just change it. Yes, that simply, let's change our conference behavior. Let us never again imply that what we say and what we do are not supposed to be joined at the hip.
Good luck and good teaching...and good conference-going!
(BTW - did anyone notice the ironic metaphor for education here? Boring lectures, audience members not paying attention, little audience interaction, etc? Hmmm...I guess that's another blog.)