I love tracking how Adult Learner Theory has evolved since then. The Boomer generation had it the worst of the modern era. Back in the 1970s, they had no choice but to sit politely whilst a handy-dandy slide deck clicked and ticked off the hours. Thankfully, they were patient, tolerant, and had no idea there could be more to learning than this.
Enter the breakout session! Wow – you mean we could have a choice? We could go to this session or that session? Ah-mazing! Now we’re getting somewhere. The seeds of individualization were planted.
Generation X (my people!) grew weary of dealing with slide projectors and decided a PowerPoint® presentation was a grand solution. Things could whirl onto the screen! Slides could fade, twirl, and bounce! Wouldn’t it be grand if 47 different animations happened in one slide show, to keep the audience enthralled! Yet still, there was an undercurrent of general dissatisfaction with the monotony of lecture, and the animation of bullet points was no cure-all. Then came Generation Y – the first to grow up with a smartphone and an attitude of unbridled individualism. By watching and learning from this generation, we realized that all Adult Learners are true individuals, demanding and deserving of an individualized Adult Learner Experience. The days of the single Adult Learner Theory were officially over.
Today, Americans are used to highly individual experiences at StarbucksTM, Amazon®, Subway®, and Netflix®. They’re used to Coca-Cola® Freestyle® machines that offer over 100 combinations to customize their sodas, and NIKEiDTM shoes personalized down to the swoosh color and tread pattern of their choice. Cookie cutters are no longer even “cookie-cutter” anymore!
What are the implications of all this individualization on our modern meeting formats? Well, for starters, there are some basic groups we can cater to:
Night owls and early birds. Why do most conferences start at 8:00 am and end at 5:00 pm when we have people who don’t fit that mold? Some people would welcome 6:00 am sessions, while others might like an evening session. Have you held an event in Hawaii? The poor East-Coasters are up at 3:00 am looking for coffee and something to do, and they’re dead tired at 7:00 pm. Why do we continue to apply the same conference mold to different people and time zones, instead of molding the conference agenda to fit them?
Introverts and extroverts. Why do we have networking functions that treat them the same way?
First-time attendees, industry newcomers, and industry veterans. Do you think these groups learn differently and have different conference experiences as attendees? You bet they do.
Left-brainers and right-brainers. Left-brainers (right-handed people) tend to be more analytical and like data, charts, demos, and poster sessions where they can watch and absorb as much information as possible. Right-brainers (lefties) tend to be more visual and tactile, preferring experiential learning environments.
Schedule-oriented vs. freeform types. Some people thrive on a schedule of planned sessions. Others prefer to wander amidst sessions and demonstrations without official start and end times, and have an unplanned experience.
Type A vs. Type B. You can usually spot the Type A people in a session – they’re the ones tapping their feet to get their leg jitters out, checking their email, and counting the minutes until the next networking opportunity. If they had their way, the conference breaks would be an hour long (and why not?).
There are so many other individual learner types out there today – if you have 300 attendees, you can assume 300 different learning styles and preferences.
- For starters, I’ve found as a speaker that the highest rated sessions are the ones where I allow the audience to create their own outcome. This means that I speak for only a portion of the session, explain the subject matter, and then set up an entire scenario for the participants to experience the subject matter themselves. When they are in charge of their own experience, how can they be dissatisfied? Talk with your speakers. Seek out those who are highly collaborative with the audience.
- Try Un-Conferencing. I know you’ve probably seen it done wrong, but it can be done with a high degree of success. This is where the audience is entirely responsible for creating their own session, or even their own entire conference. A good facilitator can curate the right topics and lead the group to success.
- Experiment with different session start times, lengths, and formats. Depending on your audience, try longer breaks – 45 minutes to an hour!
- Offer some structured networking for the introverts and first-timers to fit in easier.
What different learner types do you have at your events? How can you individualize their experiences? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Shawna Suckow, CMP, is a veteran planner and the Founder of SPIN:Senior Planners Industry Network (www.spinplanners.com) and The Hive Network (www.thehivenetwork.org). She’s the author of Planner Pet Peeves and Supplier Pet Peeves, both available on Amazon. She is an award-winning speaker to audiences worldwide on audience engagement, supplier-planner relations, and other meetings industry topics.