by Jeff Hurt | November 6, 2013

Today's audiences expect more from a speaker than the traditional lecture. They want to be inspired, motivated, entertained and learn relevant takeaways that they can apply immediately. They are not satisfied with sitting passively listening to monologues and panel platitudes. They want to participate actively in an education session.

The end of the expert era
For the past 10 to 20 years, the focus of conference education sessions and keynotes has been on the speaker. They acted as performers on the stage. They were the center of attention. Conference organizers spent considerable amount of time securing speakers who could wow audiences with their oratory skills. We marketed their names and expertise. We felt that speakers attracted our audiences.

We now know differently. It's not the speaker who drives registration. It's whether the content solves the attendees' problems. Don't get me wrong, there will probably always be a place for one or two inspirational, motivational speakers, but they are limited.

The shift from speaker to facilitator won't be easy
The emphasis is shifting from a speaker-centric, expert-emphasis conference to an attendee-emphasis, learner-centric conference. This shift is not one that will be easy for most speakers, especially professional speakers and professors who are stuck in traditional lecture models. It is not the way most of us were taught in school. And it's not the way most of us usually present.

Some professional speakers will denounce these methods of shifting to a facilitator and exclaim that the old ways will still work. As Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and author of the indispensable 2012 Thinking, Fast and Slow, says, "The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of quality of evidence, but of the coherence of the story the mind has managed to construct."

Other cognitive psychologists like Dr. Daniel Willingham call beliefs based on experience "conformational bias." And trust me, many professional and industry speakers will denounce this needed change based on their flawed conformational bias.

Speakers have to shift from being the focus to being a facilitator
Audiences are demanding that speakers shift from being great orators and entertainers to facilitators of learning experiences.

Speakers as facilitators must:

1. Let audiences become participants and allow them to do more learning tasks. These speaker-facilitators don't come to sessions with scripted presentations and everything planned. Instead, they come prepared to allow participants to do the work of learning.

2. Do less telling so the audience can do more discovering. Speakers are notorious for spouting too much content at audiences. They say what they are going to talk about, they talk about it and then they recap it. This much telling is a vicious cycle. Speakers spend extraordinary amounts of time preparing their speeches. They do all the learning themselves and mistakenly think they can hand that knowledge to audiences.

Instead, speakers should be asking, "Why am I telling them this? Have I bought into the myth that I can distribute knowledge from my mouth?"

3. Focus on instructional design work more carefully. Instead of organizing the content that will be spoken, speakers as facilitators spend time and effort designing activities that engage adults as learners. They focus on creating significant learning experiences that are different from how audiences listen to a lecture.

4. Design learning experiences that motivate participant involvement and participation. The object is to draw adults into the content so they are energized before they realize it. The adults do the work instead of just reciting what the speaker said. These experiences take audiences from their current knowledge and skill level to a new place of competence. These learning experiences develop content knowledge and learning skills at the same time.

5. Explicitly model how experts learn. Facilitators demonstrate how experts approach learning and tasks. Presenters specifically discuss learning processes they use when solving problems, discovering new content and confronting difficult issues.

6. Encourage adults to learn from and with each other. Attendees value peer-to-peer learning and group work. They place their beliefs in the evidence that peer learning and group work increases knowledge retention and application.

7. Promote evaluation that leads to learning. Speakers as facilitators are not satisfied with smile-sheet evaluations and butt-time lectures. They realize the importance of providing feedback during peer and group work. They look critically at their own work and ask audiences for feedback as well. They care about constantly evaluating the session to see if their participants are really learning and understanding.

How can conference organizers help volunteer committees understand the shift from expert-centered to learner-centric education sessions? What types of resistance do speakers and some audiences display towards a more participatory conference education session? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

Dallas-based Jeff Hurt is executive vice president of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. To read more from him, visit