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Designing Learning Events

Intentionally designing learning events sits at the core of what our team at Modern Learners does on a daily basis. Events are a component of what Modern Learners believes to be the future of learning. This component needs care and attention because when organization’s miss the mark on this, people are snoozin’ and losin’! You’ve seen the memes about professional development, right?!?

In the midst of COVID, I recognize that people are exploring all sorts of scenarios that create confusion around what an event is, so for the sake of this post, Modern Learners considers a learning event to have a beginning and an end with a specific date and time. Where the event takes place or what the content is doesn’t matter.

I also recognize there are lots of ways to measure the success of an event, and the most important measurement of event success at Modern Learners is the number of attendees who report they want to learn more. If they want to learn more, it is likely, they will engage in your community and content beyond the time constraints of an event. It also means your organization will be able to interact with this person again. That is a good thing. While the event has a beginning and an end, learning with you or your organization does not.

A hallmark of an event that inspires people to learn more is the amount of agency a learner has during the event. I explained at length what it means to have agency of learning in this post. To sum it up in the context of events is simple so here it is.

Designing so the attendees have agency at an event means designing an experience with clear goals, lots of options, and a variety of ways to engage and contribute to the experience. The attendees are encouraged to determine their own journey through the event. Attendees decide what elements of the schedule to engage in and what conversations to contribute to. When organizers set out to design an event that embraces the agency of the attendee, they feel less need to control things they can’t control.

Event designers are continuously asking themselves, “Will this experience inspire the attendee to want to learn more? Will they want to learn more during the event? Will they want to learn more after the event?”At Modern Learners, we support learning organizations in designing learning events, and we think of the process in three phases:

  • Goal setting
  • Experience Design
  • Event Reflection

Let’s explore these phases, and I’ll help you uncover some great questions to consider as you design your next event.

Goal Setting

Designing an event always begins with goal setting.

Why are you gathering people in the first place?
Why will people attend?
Why does gathering people for this purpose matter to your organization?
What do you hope to learn?

The goals help organizers know who should be invited to the event. Contrary to everyone’s desire to create super inclusive events, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, encourages people to create an event to be exclusionary in order to be more inclusive. She writes this, “If everyone is invited, no one is invited—in the sense of being truly held by the group. By closing the door, you create the room” (p. 38). Knowing who the event is for and creating clear boundaries around that creates an event that is psychologically safe for attendees. In a post-pandemic era, events are likely to be smaller in scale and more intimate. Parker goes on to say, “Excluding thoughtfully allows you to focus on a specific, underexplored relationship” (p. 48). Organizations that pay closer attention to the subgroups have a greater chance of creating a more inclusive community overall.

I like to help people think about the goals in a wide context. The organization has goals, the sponsors and partners have goals. The attendees have goals. The work and the challenge is to design an experience that meets the objectives of all the stakeholders and leaves people wanting to learn more.

When defining the goals, sometimes it becomes evident that the goals are too lofty to be achieved during the time constraints of the event. To solve this problem, I encourage organizers to make a chart with three columns. The point of the chart is to identify the goal and consider how the goal will be met during the event and how the organization will support meeting this goal after the event. This allows organizers to consider the content in bite-sized pieces and have a container to hold space for what’s next. This helps us keep the goals tight, and it usually results in a full list of ideas for upcoming community content and events to ensure the organization has a plan when attendees leave the event wanting to learn more.

GoalsDuring the eventAfter the event
attendees want to learn moreCommit to learning moreOffer opportunities to learn more
Attendees will share voice with confidenceMindset awarenes and 3 exercise to improve vocal qualityLearn and practice improving vocal range to command an audience
Differentiate between policy and practiceCompare and contrast policy and practice with real life examplesRecognize impact of policy changes on practice by examining cause and effect relationships

The chart really helps organizers be considerate of attendees’ cognitive load. It diminishes the need to fill every minute of the event with something when in reality, attendees need space in the schedule to connect with each other, contemplate new ideas, and sort out what they want to learn more about.

Keeping the focus on the goals is really important for every aspect of the event. Keynote speakers and session presenters are encouraged to consider the goal of their presentation and what they want the attendees to do next? At Modern Learners we want people leaving events wanting to learn more, so it is everyone’s responsibility to tell attendees how, when, and where they can learn more.

Finally, it will be important to set goals and intentions for what happens after the event. Yes, thinking about what attendees will do after the event before the event is necessary.

Have you thought about how many people are taking the next best step?
Have you guided them in the event to continue taking action?
Were you effective in getting them to take the next step?
How will you know?

Experience Design

Once the goals have been established, it is time to design the experience. The design process must allow for flexibility in an effort to meet the variability of the people attending. As with any design process, experience designers must be empathetic and attempt to design from the attendees’ perspective while meeting the organization’s goals.

Designers must be able to anticipate barriers to learning inherent in the experience and provide predictable supports in an effort to eliminate the barriers. Organizations must come to understand that their design work must create the conditions for attendees to learn. They must create an environment attendees can thrive in. The barriers in the environment can be addressed by providing predictable supports. Organizers know where to put the supports because the need for them can be predicted.

Barrier to learningPredictable Support
Schedule is online but lots of web pages open all at once or video conference is on the screenDownloadable or Printed learning guide
Electronic devices used non-stop to research or take notesCharging stations
Speakers talk too fast or too softcaptions and speaker handouts
the room is bigamplification system for speaker and people asking questions
Speaker is offering Q and A timedisplaying questions asked on-screen with the speaker as the question is being asked
Lots of people everywherequiet lounges to escape too

The chart is just a small sampling of the potential barriers and predictable supports organizers must consider. Please recognize the barrier is always in the environment and never in the attendee. Organizers can’t fix attendees; they are not broken. However, organizers can provide support to attendees for environmental barriers. Supports become predictable when the attendees can count on them being available for their use if they need them.

One last thing about barriers and predictable support.

Access + Use = Benefit.

Making sure attendees have access to the supports is one thing. Helping attendees use the supports is another. If they have access to supports but don’t use the supports, there is no benefit. Organizers should consider using signage indicating supports are available, providing verbal cues in the emcee’s script to use the supports, and sending an email before the event specifically about the supports are all helpful and will increase use. These supports will likely have a huge impact on the feedback you get in the surveys following the event.

And…these predictable supports are key to creating an inclusive environment.

Event Reflection

The biggest mistake I see organizations make is not intentionally thinking about the event after the event.

What did you learn? What did the attendees learn?

I tell organizations that this phase is actually the beginning of the first phase of the next event. The event debrief is essential.

The event reflection should review the goals and explore evidence to determine the extent to which the goals were accomplished. Gathering both anecdotal evidence and analytical evidence is important. Collecting all the data from all the sources will be challenging and worthwhile.

Again, when I work with organizations doing this, I recommend using a table that looks something like this.

GoalAnalytical EvidenceAnecdotal EvidenceExtent to which the goal was met
Attendees leave wanting to know more
Attendees share their voice duirng the event

As you work through the debrief, don’t be surprised by the questions that arise. Be sure to document them somewhere and use the data and anecdotal evidence to answer the questions. Also, be sure to ask yourself what is not being represented in the debrief. Is there data missing? Are specific voices not included in the anecdotal evidence?

My favorite part of the event reflection meeting is taking time to think about what’s next. Thinking about what’s next is a reoccurring theme when I work with teams to design learning events, and that is because the learning doesn’t start and stop at a single event. Learning is ongoing.

And our goal is always… to inspire people to want to learn more.

Your Next Steps

This post was not a listicle of the the 100 questions to ask yourself when designing an event. Maybe I’ll write that post in a few weeks. However, if you made it to this point, you may be thinking about things related to event design you hadn’t considered before.

Our team at Modern Learners would love to help you think about designing an event through a learning lens. Reach out and our team will help you get the process started.

If you have questions, drop them in the comments. I’ll be happy to answer them there.

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