I need to apologize to any conference presenters reading this.
Back in the day (you know, about a year ago?) whenever I went to a conference, I loved hanging out at the vendor booths. I enjoyed learning about new products and techniques, found the people selling them interesting and, truth be told, I couldn’t stand sitting in a room for an hour’s lecture.
So if you were presenting at a conference I went to, I’m sorry. And if I did go to your session, and you saw me walk out at some point, please doubly hear my apology and know that it wasn’t you or the material you labored so intently on.
OK, maybe I was bored.
You see, training is tough and not real fun for a lot of people.
What’s the problem with training? Lots.
Let’s start with something that’s basic to our human nature that most training ignores. Humans are not made to sit. We’re made to move. But what does most training require? Sitting — whether it's at a conference table, a lecture hall or in front of a video screen.
And what’s our mode of thinking in our brain while we’re sitting? It’s passive! The typical training session is just absorbing information that’s parsed out by a lonely human at the front of the room — whether they’re on a screen or at a lectern.
When you’re passively learning, your retention goes down. If we really wanted to be passive, and we could do it, we’d pop a memory chip in the side of our head and be done with it. At our best, humans are active learners.
Training bruises our ego. You go to training because you’re lacking something and need improvement. How many people really enjoy hearing that they need improvement? It’s the mental equivalent of going to the gym — you know you should go, but since you don’t go all of the time, it kind of hurts when you do.
Besides, you don’t have time for training. Training is often seen as an “extra.” When you have the next mailing to get out the door, your biggest donor just called, and your board chair wants a report by day’s end, who has time for training?
Training takes up too much time! An hour-long video, really? First, when do you squeeze that in? But second, and more important, what can you recall from the start of the hour by the time the end of the hour comes along? If you’re sitting in a lecture hall, you might have been texting instructions back to the office on the latest program crisis. If you decide to watch a video — maybe at home when you have time — chances are, there will be some interruption, like the dog whining for your attention or a child that won’t go to bed.
There are a lot of reasons why traditional professional development is the way that it is. Convenience. Tradition. Laziness. Believe me, I’m not blaming the good people who sacrifice their time to bring us conferences and professional education, especially if they’re volunteers.
They’re busy, and whether it's online or in-person, organizing any training is a massive undertaking. I’ve been on these committees, and if there was a template to follow from past activities that made the job easier, I voted for doing it again!
But I don’t think I’ve been on a conference committee where I’ve heard the words “let’s make learning more effective this year.” At best, I read the Call for Presenters document using the words “interactive” and “engaging.” And any mention of fun? No. Fun is for AFTER the training sessions, which means that training must be work!
What guidance can we give to anyone to take training out of the work realm, and make it fun? Here are 10 tried-and-true tips:
1. Incorporate Shorter Presentations
Let’s start with time. Why are most training sessions an hour? It's how we learned. From high school on, a “class” equaled about an hour, and it’s convenient. We carry that onto conferences and online to webinars. If you asked for someone to talk for 20 minutes, they could do it, and the learners would get more out of it. Funny, too, that the television networks learned this a long time ago. How much content is in a half hour show? About 20 minutes.
2. Invite More Speakers
Twenty minutes also allows some positive risk, such as inviting more new speakers. Yes, we all like the famous, established names. I won’t forget the sessions where I was entertained by fundraising guru Jerry Panas, or first heard of moves management from its creator, David Dunlop. But there are some great presenters with new ideas out there today. We just haven’t heard about them yet — because nobody’s given them a chance to speak!
3. Encourage Movement
Get ‘em standing — and no, not at the end with a standing ovation. Can you make your audience move around once or twice during your presentation? It may actually help them remember — and yes, you can do this online, too.
4. Allow for Socialization
One way to get them up and moving is to have them meet whomever is around them. Humans are social creatures. We attend conferences to learn, network and meet others. Have them get up and introduce themselves to everyone sitting around them.
5. Explore Different Voices
Break up the session with a different voice. Yes, they’re there to hear you… but briefly engaging a different voice to back up a point makes what you say more credible. Plus, it jars their brain, so they don’t tune you out.
6. Provide Opportunities for Interaction
Create small groups to encourage interactivity. As much as you say you want an “interactive” session, it's impossible in a hotel ballroom with 100 people in front of a presenter or a webinar with just as many. If you really want “interactive and engaging,” cap the audience to a number that the speaker can address personally, and think about doing multiple sessions.
7. Entertain Your Audience
And while we’re on “interactive and engaging,” in the Call for Presenters document we’ve mentioned, replace the words for what you and your audience really want: entertaining. Let’s face it, people want a show, and a show doesn’t have to diminish the learning.
8. Understand the Power of Humor
Don’t be afraid to pepper in some humor. No, you don’t need to run a stand-up comedy hour, but there’s plenty to laugh at in the nonprofit sector. Talking about planned giving? How about a short list of euphemisms for dying that gets people more comfortable with the subject? For some reason, when I say, “when someone’s will matures,” I would get a chuckle from some of the learners. Of course, that only happens when you die, but they never thought of it that way.
9. Endorse Self-Initiated Training
Don’t make training like medicine, or worse yet, punishment. Yes, there are some training sessions that you must take, to keep a license, for example. But the best training is self-initiated, where the learner wants to find out more to help their career, start a dreamed-of program or simply because it's interesting.
10. Recognize Long-Term Learning
And perhaps most importantly, training can’t be a one-and-done experience. Have you ever taken a “drip” course? It's when you’re parsed out small bits of information over time, rather than fire-hosed all at once. It’s much more effective for learning, and a significantly better use of your time.
It can also be a lot of fun as you anticipate “the next episode” in your learning adventure. You can even create your own drip course by scheduling online content on the same topic at the same time each week. It’s a habit that pays off.
So, can we make professional development fun? Absolutely. Believe me, I don’t want to apologize. I want to stay in that session. I want to anticipate the next webinar or video learning time I scheduled. My brain, like yours, wants to be engaged. But just like yours, it will click to the “off” position in a heartbeat (literally) if I’m not having some fun learning what I feel is important to me.
Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the U.S. and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses, an on-demand, e-learning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers, with hundreds of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.
He’s the author of "The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting," and "Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers," and a contributing author to "The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management."
Over his 30-year career, Matt has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College and the University of the Arts. In these positions, he raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.
Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a B.S. from Juniata College and an M.A. in philanthropy and development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Matt has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.