An Incomplete Education

When it comes to real-world execution, most meetings’ education programs could do a better job of closing the loop.

Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw, introduced me to Will Thalheimer, Ph.D., during PCMA Convening Leaders this past January in Chicago.

Jeff recommended that I attend Will’s session later that day, when he would apply his research — linking learning to on-the-job performance — to the meetings industry.

I was glad I went. His findings made the traditional conference-education program — which offers no follow-through mechanisms to help attendees retain what they learned and implement it on the job — seem outdated.

As a learning expert, Will knew how to keep us engaged with real-world scenarios and quizzes. We hung on his every word — partly because it was really hard to hear him in the Learning Lounge, an open-space learning environment where sessions and demonstrations were going on all around us. Even so, no one left.

I followed up with him, and interviewed another learning expert, Peter C. Brown, co-author of Make It Stick: The Science of Learning, for this month’s CMP Series and cover story on strategies to help learners finish the work they start at meetings (p. 44). My experience that day also led to our May issue’s cover story on the challenge of noise at meetings (

Five months later, I attended another presentation by Will, at the PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale, where he focused on attendee evaluations. We were in a very quiet meeting room, but this time he didn’t seem to have as rapt an audience as in January.

I chalked that up to several things. First, designing feedback evaluations that will yield the kind of insights that enable us to create better future sessions is somewhat of a pioneering field; his concepts were harder to grasp in that they lacked concrete examples. And second, his message — that there is no one-size-fits-all attendee-feedback survey that will do that job — seemed to frustrate some in the meeting-planner audience. I got the sense that they were looking for a template that they could just plug in when they got home. Will’s point was that it’s more complicated than that. (Stay tuned for Convene to explore this topic in the near future.)

I thought back to that session while I was working on this month’s cover story. Perhaps the audience — meeting organizers who were themselves the attendees — would have been more invested in the session had they known that there would be ways in the coming months (via scheduled webinars, online chats, and/or podcasts) to build on what they had heard in that room so they could master the subject. And how illuminating it would have been, having gained that perspective, to put their planner hats back on.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.