Most of the time I receive replies after I publish my blog post, but this time the post is linked to a question I received some time ago. The question comes from my colleague Lorne Morrow who attended my presentations in Toronto a few weeks ago.
His questions are about the “sit- and-listen” formats of the presentations, i.e. of almost all presentations I ever attended. And also about the lack of engagement of the paying attendees.
I think it an excellent question about which I have been thinking a lot too. I give quite a lot of presentations and try to make it worth the money.
Here are just some thoughts about the possible presentation formats.
Since we turned from Homo sapiens into Homo economicus, we learned to put a price tag on most things we do or have. And we learned to make the economic decision whether it is worth it, even if the worth or value is only a perceptional issue.
In other words, organizing a congress or seminars cost money. Organizers try to attract as many attendees as they possibly can accommodate, and at least as many to break even. A failure to do so will lead to not continuing the congress or seminar series since no organizer is doing this to end up with a loss. So one wants as many attendants as possible, 200 are better than 150 and far better than 100.
But it is obvious that the character of the event changes as soon as more people attend. It seems that the larger the group the higher the threshold for questions or comments from the audience. Only a few “daredevils” dare to stand up and ask questions for a forum or roundtable discussion.
Why this is? Probably part of human nature. Asking questions is a kind of exposure with the risk that the audience might think: “how can he ask such a dumb question”? or “yeah right, this guy is just trying to sound smarty again”.
There is an effect in psychology, which I always find very intriguing, the so called “Ringelmann effect” which states that the larger the number of subjects that have to do a task, the smaller the individual contribution becomes.
If we apply this to a task called “group discussion”, we can easily see why there are more questions and participation in smaller groups, let’s say 10-20 persons, then in large groups such as an audience of 150-200 people. But when more people would ask questions, time to answer them would be very limited and the answer very superficial too.
Is there any other format we can think of? I am afraid that there are none, and not for lack of trying. Often in smaller groups, we pose one or more questions or statements, the audience splits up in smaller groups for discussion, and come back with their answers that are discussed in a plenary session again. The usefulness of this depends on the topic and the size of the audience. Asking questions to the audience, as I do sometimes, often leads to a dreadful silence; nobody wants to give the “wrong” answer in public or look “dumb”.
A better solution could be: split the audience up in multiple smaller workshops, which most of the time are the same presentations for a smaller audience. Let’s say 10 workshops of 20 people, but here is the problem: in order to attend all the workshops, each workshop has to be very short and again superficiality is a risk. Or one can make a choice of 2 or 3 workshops of reasonable duration. But when the organization has succeeded in finding 10 very interesting topics or speakers, one wants to visit at least more than 2 or 3 workshops. However I also often hear people complaining that they visited the ‘wrong’ workshop. Making choices is difficult for coaches anyway; we cannot go home with the idea that we missed something important in another workshop.
So here we are again: no real solution from my side.
But…..it is all about transfer of information, hard data, soft data, ideas, concepts, or inspiration.
For myself, I go well prepared, I see what I can find about the speakers beforehand, read their articles, or books maybe. When I listen to them, I ask myself the obvious questions: what did I already know and apply, what not, why not, what am I missing, where do we agree, where do we disagree, how come, what does he know that I don’t and ……. how fast can I go home and improve myself on that point.
There are other ways of learning, reading books, articles, blogs, visiting the speaker himself or herself, be in mail contact with them or Skype even to ask questions, spend time with them like an internship. This I how I got to know many scientists, who even were delighted there was some follow-up on their lectures!
For me a congress or seminar is just the first step towards learning new things, a motivation to improve myself in the new things that I learned, a research, a book, an article, an idea, a concept, a way of looking at things. I will not be looking for an earth-shattering revelation that will rock my daily work, nor will I be looking for that “magic” exercise or the “secret” formula that turns my athletes into superstars overnight. No, a congress is just a springboard from where I need to take off, it’s a tool to dive into the huge pool of new knowledge, experience and sometimes some wisdom., no more, no less.