Sharknado Conference Design: Tame the Fury

Are you facing a conference sharknado in your association? Let’s find out.

1. Is your conference content selection dominated by:
a. Call for proposals
b. Content curation

2. The learning objectives you collect from speakers are:
a. Printed in the conference guide and/or app
b. Used to design and assess sessions

3. The learning design of your sessions is facilitated by:
a. Speakers who design their own sessions
b. Staff instructional designers who work with speakers to design sessions

4. Session evaluations collect data to determine:
a. Whether attendees liked stuff
b. Whether attendees learned stuff

5. Session handouts are typically:
a. Slide decks, if we are able to collect them
b. Resources, tip sheets, job aids, or application tools

If you answered “a” to two or more of these questions, you’ve got a shark problem. Tame the shark fury by viewing your event through the strategic lens of product development.

A wager: I bet there are no other products developed by your organization that rely chiefly upon your consumer to create and deliver with little to no guidance for how the product will be developed or assessed.

Am I right?

Leaving education design to chance means you’re leaving your learner-customer loyalty to chance. Which means leaving business success to chance.

Scary isn’t it?

So where do we start to tame our sharks?

Shark 1: Design your conference based upon your pre-determined content priorities, tipping the balance toward curation and filling the gaps with a specific call for proposals. Create intentional learning pathways for your member segments that build upon one another to help your attendees deepen their knowledge and build new skills and competencies.

Shark 2: Employ session learning objectives in guiding the design of the session to achieve them. This means our objectives must be measurable. They must describe the change in the learner – not bullets about what will be covered during the session. Connecting the dots between the objectives and the design forces speakers to think more deeply – shifting learning objectives from a required field hurdle to qualify to submit a proposal to the underlying structure of the learning experience they intend to deliver. Ensure the learning objectives are also addressed in the evaluation so speakers receive feedback on how well they executed on those promises.

Shark 3: Invite learning design into your meeting planning. If learning is a goal of your event, you must design learning spaces and sessions for how adult brains learn. Theater set is conducive to information delivery and mass transit – not learning. Pure lecture is conducive for information dumping, not meaningful and memorable learning. Relying on faculty to design sessions will give you the same product that does not inspire change in learner’s behavior or skill level when they return home. You’ve got to forge a pathway together providing new expectations for channeling their expertise that will elevate the learning experience. Design your product for your intended outcomes.

Shark 4: A word from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Now brace yourself: Your attendees do not need slide decks. They ask for them because they want to win the lottery of finding a model, insight nugget, or process summary that they can apply to improve their lives. This is part of the value of attending your event – take-aways they can use. They want tools. They want resources to dig deeper into the subject. They want job aids they can share with their team. So collect handouts from your speakers that distill the insights from their session vs. slides meant to support their oral presentation. (Slide decks are not meant to be read like documents.) Bonus: These resources are not only useful for your attendees – they’re useful for associations to collect in an online, shareable repository as well! Stop giving attendees horses when what they need to transfer insights to the workplace is a car.

Shark 5: And finally, measure what counts. Measure what you need to know to make better decisions about improving your event. Employ evaluation tools that are valid measurements for the data you want to collect so that it is meaningful and reliable. And don’t forget to measure that learning is happening. “Liking” scales don’t measure learning. Find out whether your sessions are doing their job by rethinking your evaluations.

Our annual conference is often our flagship education product – but too often we’ve allowed the crowd to design it instead of inviting collaboration upon our design, providing a framework that will accomplish your association’s education priorities. Tame your sharks to craft memorable education and connection events that will make learning last.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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