I’ve been reading a lot about the shake-up going on in learning, learning effectiveness (or lack of it), and how everyone wants to see learning events like conferences and webinars transformed. And for some time, I’ve been seeing variations of this somewhat-plaintive question: how do we get our conference speakers to stop lecturing and start engaging?

I’d really love to invent a magic wand that with a single touch would transform subject-matter experts (SMEs) into the ideal “facilitator of learning” role we all want them to have. I’d make a fortune selling it to associations and corporations that want their conference sessions and other learning opportunities transformed from, as I said in my TED-style talk a few years ago in the Learning Lounge at PCMA’s Convening Leaders event, “ho-hum” to “oh, wow.” Speakers would lead amazing sessions, participants would always get what they need, and conference organizers would be very happy indeed. Sadly, we don’t yet have that magic-wand-building technology.

Discovering SMEs. A big part of the work I do now and have done over the past couple of dozen years centers on helping SMEs move towards that coveted “facilitator of learning” role. In working with hundreds of SMEs across dozens of professions and industries in both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations, I’ve learned a few things about what makes them “tick,” what motivates them, what concerns them, and what it takes to transform them into facilitators of learning. It’s not magic, although the results can be magical.

SMEs all have one thing in common. Of course, it’s that they know their content (to sometimes varying degrees). At least, they know that content in relation to the work they do. They are typically very good at that work, which is why they are invited to speak to others about what they do and how they do it…about their successes and lessons learned. People want to hear success and failure stories in hopes of either emulating or avoiding what the speaker has experienced. Hearing the voices of others who have trod your road before you can be very powerful.

The thing is, just hearing about such experiences doesn’t mean you are learning.

Learning is a partnership. Effective learning is collaborative. It’s engagement. It’s the sharing of knowledge and seeking meaning and application that makes sense for the learners’ situations. It can and does happen organically, yet a “guide on the side” can offer value learners alone may not achieve. There will always be a role for subject-matter experts in effective learning…that role is clearly changing, though, as the world becomes more connected. Continue reading →


This year has really flown by, hasn’t it?

For me, a contributing factor is likely the travel I’ve enjoyed the past few months. In conjunction with client work, I’ve been to Minneapolis; Alexandria, VA; Seattle; Allentown, PA; Atlanta; Washington, DC; and Wilmington, DE…some of these cities more than once. Tucked in the middle was a trip to San Antonio for a family celebration of life and a too-short visit with some friends.

The highlight of the year (so far!) – and my first international client engagement – was a week-long trip to Singapore at the end of May. I had the pleasure of facilitating a three-day workshop for 24 of this new client’s in-house trainers, who came from eight different Asia Pacific countries. I always enjoy leading SME workshops; it is great fun to see the “light bulbs” come on as these folks discover how to increase the effectiveness of the training they lead. I always learn something from participants in workshops I facilitate, and Singapore was no exception! I discovered a lot about learning in other cultures even as I led the group – who spoke English far better than I spoke any of their languages – in exploring how they could make their training more effective. Continue reading →

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If we know that adult learners want active engagement in learning opportunities, why do so many webinar speakers still just “talk at” participants?

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes webinars successful, for a couple of reasons. In some recent conversations about learning, I’ve heard use of webinars almost tossed aside as a viable learning tool because of their one-way, lecture format. That caused me to do a double-take; I know webinars can and should be very engaging.

As for anything worthwhile, it takes some focused planning and preparation to create a good webinar. It’s easiest to lead a webinar as a lecture…for the presenter. Not so great for the learners, though, when you consider that one of the most basic adult learning principles is that adults want to be active and engaged. As John Medina says in his book Brain Rules, “we don’t pay attention to boring things” (rule #4). Bored learners get busy doing other things, and your webinars suffer as a result.

A while back, I wrote a white paper for a learning technology provider about helping webinar speakers actively engage their participants. As a result of that paper, I led a webinar for the company’s clients and prospects, in which we looked at ways to increase the webinar engagement factor. And we didn’t just talk about the tools; we played with them a bit too! We also used Twitter for conversation before, during, and after the webinar using a specific hashtag.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you see a place for one-way webinars? Or do you think the way to go is planning for every webinar to be an engaging learning experience?

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