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Interaction vs. one-way communication

So a funny thing happened at ETech...
I was doing my tutorial on Monday when Gina, in charge of all the O'Reilly conferences, walks in to the room for the first time. It just happened that at the moment she came in, we were in the middle of a group discussion exercise. In groups of six, all 130 people were brainstorming on ideas for things they could teach their users. The room was really lively except for me, standing around at the front writing some notes.

Gina walked up to Bert who was managing things from the back of the room, and she said (with apparently great concern), "What is going on in here?" Bert didn't know who she was and said, "Oh, we're doing a tutorial." She gave him the equivalent of the "duh" look, and said, "I know that, but why isn't Kathy talking?"

Bert realized how it must have looked (out of control chaos), and laughed and told her that group interactions were part of the tutorial. She looked again, realized what was happening (and that it was a really good thing), smiled and said, "Ohhhhh...."

Twenty minutes later in walks conference chair, Rael Dornfest. Again, we're back in a group exercise. Repeat the Gina scenario all over again.

Bert and I laughed about this later, and then realized that their reaction must have meant that this whole group interaction thing was not normal for the conference. And that brings up a key difference between the notion of "teaching" vs. "presenting" or "speaking". I was referred to as a speaker/presenter, but to me--my job was to help the attendees learn. And that means I can't just stand there for three and a half hours and push information out of my mouth and into their heads. (See my earlier post learning isn't a push model)

I figured 130 of the smartest and most interesting people on the planet were there, and I wanted to make sure that they could get ideas from one another, not just me. Yes, the wisdom of crowds : ) 130 different ideas was too valuable an opportunity to waste.

But it did strike me as funny a few times when I'd be in a session that was specifically about interaction, community building, moving from a one-way broadcast to a network model, etc. and then I'd realize that the session was strictly a speaker-talks-attendees-listen model. Definitely one-way push, at least until the formal Q&A at the end.

So why does this happen? Why aren't sessions more interactive? Three main reasons:

1) It's just not the way it's done.
2) The speaker doesn't have the kind of classroom-management skills needed to pull of group exercises, especially in a large room.
3) The session is really more of a briefing than an actual learning experience or tutorial, so it's not really appropriate.

When I do a 45-60 minute talk, I rarely do full group exercises. There's usually not enough time when people are coming specifically to get new info. Still, as a teacher, I cannot imagine even a 15 minute talk that wouldn't involve some form of attendee participation. I almost never explain something big without asking for others to contribute what they think. So it's still interactive, but between me and them rather than the attendees interacting with one another. But it's still better than a pure I-talk-you-listen thing.

Again, that requires some experience/skill at managing the group--we've all been to talks where the speaker lets one person in the room dominate the discussion or lead it off track. You're all sitting there wishing SOMEBODY would tell the guy to shut up and let the speaker continue. Teachers handle this without thinking, but not all speakers are teachers (or professional "presenters").

Some of this just comes down to my role in all this. There are people at ETech or other conferences who are there because they have something valuable to say or because of who they are... you just want to hear them talk (like George Dyson : ) But for me, I was there because I have something to help people learn. In other words, it wasn't about me. It was about what happened between the ears of the attendees, and that was less likely to happen if I did all the talking, than if I helped them interact, brainstorm, share ideas, debate, question, and create the start of a plan.

And just to somehow bring the whole women-at-conferences thing back in one more time, I did notice that Shelley Powers (who is a wonderful writer with a lot to say, although I disagree with most of her view on this issue) had a really interesting and I think valuable take about why the SXSW (South By Southwest Interactive) festival happening last week had more women:

"In fact, I think the same could be said of the entire SxSW conference — it encouraged participation, even from the audience. Lively discussions in the hallway aside, O’Reilly’s ETech conference is fairly passive. People sit in rows and listen to a speaker. People go to birds-of-a-feather sessions for interactivity, but these are an aside to the whole experience."

Maybe some women aren't going to tech conferences because they have a higher standard about whether the experience is good for their brain : ) Because interaction is virtually always better for the brain if learning is the outcome.

Again, that's not necessarily the purpose of all conference sessions. So it's important for speakers/presenters/conference organizers/panelists/teachers to try to define the real goal of their session -- if it's a briefing, to convey as much new data/info as possible, then low interaction is probably appropriate. But if it's meant for real learning--to produce a change in the brain of the attendee, than one-way push is a much less effective choice.

Ask yourself, "am I doing a talk or... something else?" I think too often people (including teachers) do "talks" when they should be doing "interactions". I'd love to hear ideas for how others are using interaction in their presentations/classes/whatever, and tips for how non-teachers can use this effectively even in a shorter format. I'll add my tips a little later.

Posted by Kathy on March 22, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I'm curious what type of feedback you got from your attendees considering your different approach.

By the way you have often said here that you can't write. I however must disagree, when I read your stuff it's like I'm sitting having a conversation with you, I get the feeling you write like you talk, I think being able to do so is a real gift.

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Mar 22, 2005 10:34:15 PM

The exact same thing happened to me at the IA Summit the week before (though my class was smaller than yours). When I asked them to do the first group exercise, many looked at me like "what, we have to do something". I swear the participants were expecting me to talk at them for 4 hours! I thought it may be a difference in cultural expectations - all the workshops I attend and present in Australia are interactive - maybe it is because they are generally smaller.

It worked well in the end, but participants certainly weren't expecting to do anything.

Posted by: donna maurer | Mar 23, 2005 6:26:42 PM

It's this kind of interaction that makes the AYE conference so fun... everyone who wants to, participates, and some are also hosts.

( www.ayeconference.com/ )

Posted by: keith ray | Mar 23, 2005 10:21:07 PM

My team and I are asked to give many technical presentations at department meetings at work. These groups can be quite large (200+) and we always have trouble getting interactivity. Seems that, in these large groups, people don't want to ask questions or open their mouth.

Any tips for getting the conversation started? If one or two people start, then maybe the group will open up - so plant some "friendlies" in the audience?

Posted by: Terry Bone | Mar 24, 2005 5:26:02 AM

An important point to remember in this discussion is that you can have an "interactive" session and still have no learning occur (A night out with your friends, for example).

And on the other end of the spectrum, you can have a non-interactive session (a good documentary movie, for example), where a great deal of learning occurs.

The key is that information itself is structured according to a "cognitive guidance" approach - educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer has done significant research in this area the past 13 years.

Once information has been structured in a way that aligns with the way the mind works, the use of any media tools or the addition of interaction simply adds more layers of effectiveness to a strong foundation.

The problem in most conferences is that the entire event has not been structured at a "big picture" level that aligns with the key learning that is intended; from which individual presentations and interactive exercises provide support. If the entire conference itself had a "cognitive guidance" structure, then it would be a much more enjoyable, understandable and engaging experience that works at the level of "cognitive interaction" as well as the level of "interpersonal interaction."


Posted by: cliff | Mar 26, 2005 12:40:11 PM

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