Planning With PurposeDecember 11, 2018

Designing Education Sessions is a Thoughtful, Deliberate and Scientific Process By
December 11, 2018

Planning With Purpose

Designing Education Sessions is a Thoughtful, Deliberate and Scientific Process

 The when, where, why and how of education sessions has changed, and innovation keeps coming. Much of the current philosophy related to delivering content has evolved not from education theory but from the world of design, particularly “design thinking,” popularized by David Kelly, founder of IDEO and Stanford’s design school. A primary tenet of design thinking is putting the user at the center of the experience.

We asked six experts for their take on trends, innovations and successes in content delivery. Their insights provide a blueprint for designing education sessions that engage attendees and deliver on stakeholder goals.

To start, prioritizing goals and objectives and understanding audience demographics and needs is critical. You can’t design a session without first answering important questions.

The Questions

Carol Norfleet, MBA, CMP, DMCP, strategic account manager with PRA Nashville, says there are four questions she always asks:

  • What is the goal of the meeting; why are we having it?
  • What do we want participants to do differently when they leave the meeting?
  • What are the participants’ demographics, and how do different groups learn?
  • Where are we? The physical space (city, venue, meeting room) can help support learning or it can be a hurdle to get past.

Norfleet says even the term “attendee” is no longer viable and that, too, impacts education sessions. “We have participants today — not attendees. People coming to our meetings and events want to be part of the education experience, not passive listeners. You have to involve them, and you have to customize the experience for each one. Personalization in learning is becoming more mainstream.”

Lisa Meller, CMP, CED, CIS, managing director of Meller Performance Events Group in Irvine, California, uses the ACE acronym to put a plan in place: Audience, Context, Engagement. In terms of context, she says, planners must ask, “How does this event relate to other important elements in stakeholders’ lives, personally and professionally? Does it make sense? What do attendees and stakeholders at all levels need to accomplish as a result of this meeting? Then design around how you can deliver it,” she says.

“We like to say, ‘The way you set/design a room is the body language of your meeting.’ If you want participants to collaborate and innovate, you need to design the room for that.” — Sarah Michel

Sarah Michel, Velvet Chainsaw’s vice president, professional connexity, in Fort Collins, Colorado, says planners must answer not just the big-picture questions but also those related to details, including, “What do you want your participants/attendees to be doing during the session?”

Karen Kotowski, CMP, CAE, chief executive officer of the Events Industry Council, also notes planners must understand how session design can facilitate participant sharing and interaction. “Adult learners have as much to share as they have to learn. Provide an opportunity for them to be part of the education process,” she says.

Michael Costa, general manager of PRA New York, references many of the same questions and adds another: How many participants is the right number? Planners, he says, “must keep the number manageable to create an environment that encourages active participation.”

And of course, planners must also ask themselves how they can create what they need within certain parameters. Kristi Casey Sanders, CMP, CMM, DES, HMCC, director of community for MPI, puts budget and other restrictions and limitations among the top four considerations for creating education sessions.

The Trends

Education delivery isn’t static; it’s impacted by evolving trends and perceptions.

Overscheduling as a negative was noted by several experts. “People are paying more attention to the neuroscience of learning and utilizing techniques that help people retain information and be more participatory in their learning,” Sanders says. “Many MPI Academy professional certificate courses are now structured so information is ‘chunked’ and surrounded by breaks for interaction to incorporate group work and give participants time for reflection. Those techniques reinforce learning and memory.”

Michel says the brain actually shuts down when it can’t process anymore, which makes “chunking” content and allowing time for reflection and connection imperative. “When we schedule people all day with only 10-minute breaks and no time for reflection, we overstimulate the brain, and it will shut down. That’s why many afternoon sessions are empty.”

Kotowski likes to ensure “hang time” for participants. “So many programs are overscheduled in order to fill in as much content as possible in the short time available. Adults need to process what they’ve learned and make sense of it so they can apply it to their daily lives. This happens most effectively when you allow time in the schedule for participants to recharge and connect.”

Norfleet agrees. “I’m a big proponent of programmed ‘white space,’” she says. “We required our participants to walk out of one session right into another and then another without giving them time to process and absorb what they heard and experienced just 15 minutes before. We think if we’re not filling every minute with education that time is being wasted — and this expectation comes from the event owner down. What’s missed is that if there were time to reflect and review ‘a-ha’ moments with fellow participants, information retention would be greater, thereby causing a stronger ROI in the end.”

Another trend Norfleet sees is the “death” of the talking head. “It’s a whole new day for presenters. Anyone relying solely on a PowerPoint deck is missing their own opportunity to grow. Presenters, and especially lecturers, are having to step up their game as educators,” she says. “Educating through edu-tainment (education + entertainment) is trending. I saw Vinh Giang at PCMA in January and was so taken with his use of magic as his metaphor. His session was engaging and educational.”

“Also, I’m a big fan of story­telling as a way to expound information,” Norfleet continues. “If I hear a relatable story, I am more likely to connect with the message and remember what was said rather than reading a slide of words or hearing a list of facts recited. Weave me a story and I will connect.”

Meller points to crowd sourcing, among other things. “More and more, we’re seeing crowd-sourced content incorporated into meetings; whereby, the audience’s sources of knowledge and experience shape and influence conversations with the speakers.Lecture-style, passive content delivery is growing more abbreviated and concise to allow time for attendees to digest the material, actively engage in meaningful conversation and apply it to their lives,” she says. “Room formats are also changing to allow for more dynamic movement (around) the room during a session, and time is divided into smaller chunks that allow for diversity in how it is spent during a session or a day.”

She says there are a multitude of ways to facilitate crowd-sourced content into meetings, meaning that education isn’t relegated just to education sessions.

“At MPI’s South Coast Edcon 2018,” Meller says, “we designed Ted-style general assembly topics allowing for deeper dives into the subject matter in workshops that allowed attendees to exchange peer-to-peer and attendee-speaker ideas, work through personal challenges in the solution-center room and focus on actionable next steps. We changed up the format to bring non-traditional room sets into the general assembly, expo hall and workshops.

“We encouraged use of fishbowls, rotations among tables by topic, dotmocracy voting for end-of-day topics and sponsor-moderated educational discussions as ‘watercooler chats’ in the marketplace,” she adds.

Crowd knowledge and experience, Michel notes, impact the role of speakers, as well as the design of learning spaces.

“With the information age we live in, the speaker is no longer the smartest person in the room. The collective wisdom of the room is much stronger than one voice. The speaker role is shifting to facilitator, guide and ‘sense-maker.’ We’re designing ‘participant-centric’ learning spaces where the focus is on the learner/participant instead of the expert/speaker,” she says.

Costa notices increased visuals in presentations. “I see more video-based presentations, using real-life and current events as examples of points presenters are trying to convey. It all boils down to creating a presentation that attendees can relate to,” he says.

Even if content comprises statistical information, such as financial metrics, he adds, “It should be presented in a clear, concise manner with emphasis on visuals. Visuals are an important tool to avoid losing participants’ interest. No one wants to sit in front of a series of slides full of words that the session leader is reading to them.”

AI & Other Trending Technology

The future is here — and still coming. Technology greatly impacts the meeting space, and its impact on education will only increase. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just one example.
“AI allows us to move far out of the physical environment and into places we couldn’t otherwise experience,” Meller notes. “We can stretch our reach considerably into other realms, other worlds, in a way we could previously only imagine.

“Now we gain perspective, too, from others of different cultures around the globe and even in fantasy worlds like never before. The use of AI can help us discover more about ourselves in a roundabout way.”

Sanders says use of AI is limited — for now.

“Chatbots allow for interesting real-time interactions where people can learn things by texting back and forth with an AI-enabled bot,” she says. “Interactive polls can create word clouds from audience input. You can put an AI robot in the room and let people have conversations with it. You can have people use Google Translate to communicate in different languages and some other translation services, like Stenopoly, that can provide real-time, closed-captioning in dual languages.”

Keeping up with technology may be the most challenging aspect of designing successful learning environments because it changes so rapidly, and some audiences have expectations that the latest technology will be in use.


Interactivity remains a meeting focus, but how much is the right amount and can you have too much?

That depends on the content and makeup of the audience, Meller says. “If we’re talking about interacting with other people as the question, yes, there could be too much for very introverted people or people who don’t feel safe sharing ideas or in interpersonal situations. We need for people to feel safe, secure and open.”

Interactivity isn’t just people-to-people, she points out. “Interactivity with animals, with equipment, with technology, with food in the kitchen or with arts and crafts materials are other ways to incorporate ‘interactivity’ for a hands-on experience.”

It’s often about options. “If a presenter doesn’t give people permission to opt out of what isn’t comfortable or tries to get everyone to participate, the interaction become too much for some,” Sanders says. “Depending on the topic, the audience may want a sage on the stage dispensing pearls of wisdom, and if they don’t get it, they might feel cheated. But there’s a lot of room between a lecture format and something that’s 100 percent group work to crowd source solutions. Know what your audience needs and that will help you program what’s appropriate.”

Kotowski says participants still want to hear from experts. “That’s why they’re coming to the event,” she says. “However, they don’t want to be lectured at. Designing sessions where an expert shares some content followed by an interactive segment can highlight the expertise of the speaker and allow adult learners to fully engage.”

But interactivity must have a purpose. “Breaking up a lecture with an activity should be part of getting the educational message across, not just something to take up time,” Norfleet says. “I present a session on ADA accommodations. Rather than lecture about what needs to be in a venue for ADA compliance, I take participants on a field trip around the venue, having each one take turns on crutches and in a wheelchair. That activity resonates much more with them than if I just talked about it. The activity is critical. Is taking five minutes to discuss ADA with your neighbor useful? Maybe not.”


Seating set-up is the element demanding out-of-the-box thinking.

“Space matters,” Michel says. “We like to say, ‘The way you set/design a room is the body language of your meeting.’ If you want participants to collaborate and innovate, you need to design the room for that. You might need lightweight furniture that’s easily moved around the room or multiple types of seating and tables. We need to allow collaborative participants to transform the space themselves, moving things around. We need to allow them to create what they need for the experience that they’re having at the moment. Collaboration and innovation need we spaces, not I spaces.”

Norfleet believes, “Getting off of the traditional ballroom/meeting room chair can add energy and adventure to an event. When participants see the room set in a different way, they know the educational experience is going to be different. We’ve used yoga balls, hay bales and quilts on the ground. Soft seating in living room arrangements continues to be popular, adding a sense of coziness often missing in business meetings. Yes, this is business but we’re people first, and when we connect on a human level, we’re more open to learning.

“If you have to use banquet seats in rows,” she says, “at least angle the rows in a chevron so participants are looking straight onto the stage area rather than turning their head all day. It’s the little things that count.”

Meller likes mixed seating. “Pods for theater seating, others as couches and chairs, and interesting groupings or combinations of high communal tables, hi-boys and cocktail rounds can be fun. We set the room to give attendees options for what they like in order for them to learn and comfortably attend,” she says. “I’m a kinetic learner, for example, and I’d rather stand and move than be seat-belted into a theater-style chair. I’d gravitate toward high-top tables perhaps in the perimeters of the room that allow me to do it my way. Additionally, setting stages in the center of the room with AV all around so every vantage point offers visibility and nearly equal views resonates with many groups. It’s not generally expected and is exciting.”

Sanders references a successful environment at WEC 2017. “We had a room where the Velvet Chainsaw team curated deep-dive sessions to help learners think differently about how they encourage attendees to connect, learn and play at their events. The room was set so people rotated to different activity stations to fill out worksheets, experiment, discuss and play with different concepts. Much of the learning was self-directed through these action stations. You could feel the energy in the room, and the ratings for a couple of those sessions were among the highest we got that year,” she says.

Non-linear set-up works for Costa. “Circular/oval arrangements seem to work well as these enable everyone to have eye contact without straining to do so. They also put everyone at par with each other — no one is at the ‘head of the table,’” he says.

As for the old-school classroom set- up, there’s still a place for that, too, but in limited situations, such as presenting “one-way” information to beginners or presenting highly technical information, abstracts or briefings.

As Meller notes, “I think there’s also a place for paper and pen. We just can’t rely on this as the sole factor in an environment, but it can be a grounding point for more dynamic interaction.”

Best Practices

How can planners create the best educations sessions?

For Sanders, it’s about nailing down basics. “Know who you’re serving, how you want them to feel and what you want them to do. Then look for educators who can collaborate with you on designing the optimal learning environment,” she says.

Costa emphasizes the audience. “Know your audience in advance, understand the demographic and tailor the session to that audience,” he says. “If the demographic varies significantly, find those common denominators and capitalize on them.”

Kotowski encourages planners to envision how they want participants to feel after the event. “Let your imagination run wild then back into the ways you can work to create that atmosphere. Listen to all ideas and stay connected to your education or content team,” she says.

Meller suggests planners get out there to see other programs and session formats in person in order to have an arsenal of ideas they know firsthand work or don’t. “Think about your attendees and who they are as people. Ask them what they want and need and put yourself in their shoes,” she says. “Life is fun. So are events. Think of how you can make your attendees happy on the inside as a vehicle for learning, and the results will come.”

And it comes full circle. “Go back to asking, ‘Why?’” Norfleet advises. “Why are we having this educational opportunity? Why do people want to come? Why are we setting the room the way it has always been set? Most of all,” she says, “Be brave! Be brave to try something new … a presenter, a room set, a meeting format. They all may not be successful but at least you tried — and I think more times than not it will be a success. Just trying something new is a win.” C&IT

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