April 21, 2010

Twenty-five years ago, I led a team of people experimenting with melding traditional meeting and event planning with multi-media production within one organization. We had a loosely structured model we applied to corporate events as appropriate. We opened with an impactful general session to communicate the overview of our client’s message to the audience. We used a few tools including stage sets, 35mm slides, 16mm film, performers and speakers as appropriate to keep the audience attention-because we knew that retention of what we read or heard was enhanced by visuals.

In addition to that all-important overview, various breakouts allowed for attendees to access the details of the larger perspective they witnessed in the general session. In both cases, that communication was one way – with our client telling the audience what they thought the attendees should know.

This was very common at the time – whether production and planning was a collaborative effort shared by multiple companies at the direction of the client, or delivered by a single-access multiple service resource like us.

One point of difference at the time was our frequent inclusion of the product expo and/or social event that followed the general session – carefully themed to reinforce the message conveyed within the General Session- which gave the audience a chance to see and touch the client product. We instinctively were adding the opportunities to touch, smell and taste to help us create memory joggers that ultimately linked to the message for the needed change in behavior and it gave the attendees a chance to talk about the message among themselves. We got results. But only now, 25 years later am I really beginning to understand why!

Although I have remained an advocate of the adult learning model over the years, only recently- because I may have an opportunity to take on the development of the educational track for client conference and trade show- have I launched a targeted quest to update myself on latest theories and applications. And as I have thought, and researched, read, and dialogued with the experts, I keep thinking – there is so much out there today, why have those of us that understood the basics of learning all those years ago, been distracted? Why haven’t we followed this as it developed, and continued to introduce change into this industry gradually, instead of today having to call for a revolution?

Perhaps we were so invested in what we were doing at the time, we were not open to new ideas. Perhaps we were simply captivated by the rapidly-emerging technology for more bells and whistles that we could demonstrate the next time around. Perhaps big shows in the general session let us play with new tools and feed our own sense of curiosity, so we lost track of our purpose and of the audience needs. Whatever the reason, the fact remains: as advances were made in the understanding of how the brain works and how we learn, we have dug in and held on to something that does not work. And now we need to make it right.

It occurred to me this morning that had we not ignored this evolution of learning, the CIC might not be launching their latest study to stave off criticism and produce the story of why our industry is an important and good investment in the current economy.

So I challenge every single one of us that boast we are purposeful, message-based, and outcomes-focused, to look at learning theories today and join together to innovatively reshape our approach, improve the reputation, track record and return of our events, meetings and conferences. We owe it to our clients, the attendees, and to ourselves.

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