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April 4, 2008

Elling Hamso: An experiential learning curve for meetings

I attended a two-day educational conference some time ago. The organiser was a highly reputed commercial conference organiser and the audience counted more than a hundred meeting planning professionals, keen to learn how to create better meetings and events for their employers.

During the two days we had 520 PowerPoint slides and more than 1,600 bullet points, one presentation following the other in quick succession. The conference had been sold as a great peer networking opportunity which was all together left to random encounters at coffees and lunch breaks. Nobody measured the delegate return on investment, I am sure, and if anyone did, I am sure it was negative.

Some time later, I was invited to attend a two-day annual corporate kickoff event of a multinational financial services company. More than a thousand senior employees were brought together for the annual stock-taking with a dose of inspiration for another year in the service of the shareholders.

Blast from the past

It started off with a blast of video featuring some senior management personalities exercising the new martial art of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Good topic, great opportunity to define the concept of CSR and develop its ramifications within the company culture, something for the managers to get their teeth into.

Then, like Jack-in-the-box, a motivational speaker popped up on stage and proceeded to deliver a talk on creativity. He did his 45 minutes like he had done a thousand times before, his excellent performance and message underlining why he is one of the most expensive motivational speakers in the business. As it turned out, he was the first in a string of seven motivational speakers over the two days, all of them excellent, all of them with a good and worthwhile message, all of them keeping the attention of the thousand managers lined up in their chars across the ballroom.

Sure, the CEO did an excellent summary of the previous year and shared his visions for the future with a dynamic and impressive PowerPoint presentation highlighting the marvels of the company's IT department. The annual award dinner created new heroes and company values were shared and reinforced by their heroic achievements over the past 12 months.

But CSR never once raised its head again, just as every other topic it was overpowered by something else, and for the full two days the large audience of expensive managers were passive listeners in what everybody agreed had been yet another "best ever" annual kickoff.

Some basic questions
The frightening thing about these two examples is that they are not unique, they are the norm rather than the exception. They were both enjoyable and seemingly meaningful events, but of little or no consequence. Nobody could have asked the questions: a) What change in behaviour are we trying to achieve and b) How will the audience learn, remember and use their newly acquired knowledge?

Confucius understood how people learn, more than 2,500 years ago when he said: “Tell me and I will listen, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.” But we don’t have time for involvement today. Confucius anno 2007 runs more like this: “Tell me and I will listen, then send me the PowerPoint and I will study it later and understand.”

Every teacher knows that new knowledge has to be applied immediately after learning. We need to relate what we learn to what we already know in order to understand and remember. We need time to reflect and discuss, or we will not remember. We need to play an active role in the learning process in order to learn.

Going experiential
But with experiential communication being the new hype, there is hope for the future. Maybe we are eventually coming around to Confucius. I walked into a good example at Stockholm Central Station some months ago where Microsoft were launching Vista. Right there on the forecourt they had built a living room, an office and a teenager’s bedroom. I sat down on the sofa and enjoyed Vista as I could be doing in my own living room before moving on to the office where I could try out the new applications. Certainly a touch and feel marketing experience. The message itself was not experiential, it was pretty much the boring facts of new screen layouts and buttons to press, but it was communicated through the experience of the product in its intended setting. The difference between communicating the product experience, rather than the features of the product itself, should not be confused with the mode of communication which can or can not be experiential in either case.

So what does experiential mean for our every day meetings and events? It could mean a lot of fancy re-designs of the entire event and an out of this world learning experience, but it does not have to be. And we don’t have to re-invent anything either as there are many good examples to learn from. How about just changing the format of the event to allow for a bit of Confucius, time to reflect and discuss, relate new knowledge and impressions to existing information and attitudes, that is experiential communication as good as any.

Elling Hamso is a meeting management consultant and managing partner of the European Event ROI Institue.

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