ast year, when Smart Thinking was published, Art Markman, Ph.D., added “book author” to an already impressive resume: editor of the journal Cognitive
Science, writer and blogger for Psychology Today, University of Texas professor of psychology and marketing, and consul- tant to large companies such as Procter & Gamble. With all of his accomplishments — and experience attending and speak- ing at conferences — in the field of cognitive psychology, you would think Markman would have a lot to say about how to design meetings that foster learning. And you’d be right. (Smart thinking!) When I spoke to Markman over the phone last month, he
had just returned from getting a haircut, during which time he had mulled over the interview questions I had emailed to him in advance — not unlike the way that he believes attend- ees need to approach meetings: with a prepared mindset.
In Smart Thinking, you criticize the Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting’s 15-minute-presentation format. One of the concepts that I spend a lot of time talking about early on in the book is this idea of what I call the “Role of 3” — which is basically that you are going to remember approxi- mately three things from any experience you have. From the standpoint of speakers, there is a tendency — when you finally have the opportunity to get up in front of this fantastic audience — to think, “I have to blow them away, by giving them everything.” Well, everything you have is going to be 12 or 15 different points. If you are trying to get something across in a short period of time, you are never going to do that effectively, or develop any of the ideas. It is really much more effective to get up in front of the audience and to give them those three things that you think are crucial, relate all of the pieces together, and really give people a single unified whole — to follow that old set of instructions, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.” This is particularly important, because you have to
remember that your audience is sitting through a whole day of these 15-minute talks.
How else can the program format help meeting attendees absorb information? I think it is really important to encourage people to spend a minute or two after each talk absorbing what just happened rather than launching into the next talk. The typical strategy for these kinds of meetings is you give a 15-minute talk, you have five minutes for Q&A, and while you have the Q&A going, the next speaker is getting their slides loaded up. Then you introduce the next speaker and you move on.
What that means is the audience has no opportunity to review what just happened. They are immediately launching into the next thing. The talks at conferences at best have a
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general theme in common, but they are not usually designed to flow seamlessly one from the next. We need to give people the opportunity to take a step back
and think about this [presentation] for a second and then get into the next one, rather than just running headlong from one thing to the next. Because I think that there is a tremendous amount of fatigue that sets in. I also think that varying up the format a little bit can be really helpful. If you have a keynote speaker who gives a one-hour talk,
that one-hour talk is not necessarily going to provide the same degree of content as four 15-minute talks or three 15-minute talks with question-and-answer periods. On the other hand, the more leisurely pace of a one-hour talk — if you have a really good and engaging speaker — does give people the opportunity to spend some time for themselves reviewing what they are hearing. While a single 15-minute talk is a brilliant way of presenting information, a whole bunch of these in a row can be numbing. A speaker who has an hour can show a little video, can pause and tell a little joke. It’s about changing things up to give the audience a chance to shift their mindset a little bit.
What other ways can planners help participants shift their mindset? When you are learning something, everything that is being thrown at you is also being associated with the context that you are in — which could just be a giant auditorium that the conference is being held in. After a while, you may begin to feel a very literal sense like the talks are all running together, because the context is exactly the same from talk to talk to talk. One of the things that I recommend for people is that they
actually sit in a different seat throughout the day in a confer- ence. We are creatures of habit. If you walk into a conference and you sit in the fifth row on the right side of the room, when you first walk in at the beginning of the day, your tendency is going to be to go back to that same seat every single time for the rest of the day, because you do not really want to have to think about where you are going to sit. But if you change up where you are sitting throughout the
day, you are actually creating a different context for yourself. It is a different vantage point, things look different, they sound different. It will actually help to make the talks feel a little bit more
distinct from each other. If [planners] can switch up the [meeting] rooms or the seating arrangement, you can pro- mote that through the environment.
Where do breaks fit in the overall learning scheme? Having the chance to catch up with somebody in a reception