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Large Group Presentations Don’t Have to be Boring

This past week I attended the annual meeting for a national member association in the healthcare industry. It ranked among the top 5 training moments I’ve ever experienced, and I didn’t even present anything.

Some Background

The meeting was attended by about 200(ish) doctors, executive directors, technical managers, board members and frontline industry staff. It consisted of the typical annual meeting fare: a series of general session presentations as well as a handful of concurrent breakout sessions and a keynote or two.

I attended the same meeting last year and I knew that every presentation was put together with a similar format: squeeze as much information as possible into the time allotted (ranging from 20-90 minutes), make sure all of that information is stated on the PowerPoint slides, and be sure to read most of the information on the slides to the audience. Not the most riveting 3 1/2 days for most people, but many accept this as a necessary evil to stay on top of industry trends. For me, this format and endless series of lectures is my worst nightmare. It doesn’t have to be this way. And two of my colleagues decided to shake things up.

Engaging 200 People in 20 Minutes

About two weeks prior to the meeting, a colleague came to me to ask for some help with her presentation on applying lean management principles for process improvement. She showed me her slides. She knew the content. She had all the information the audience needed to know. Our challenge was to figure out a way to put all of this information together in a 20-minute presentation that wouldn’t put the audience to sleep.

Two small tweaks made all the difference.

  1. She came up with a specific example of a huge mistake that our organization made several years ago. This story, told in the first 3 minutes of her presentation, helped to set the stage with a specific, tangible way that lean management principles impacted our organization in terms of time and money saved. It brought her content from the realm of the conceptual, “huh, that’s an interesting idea but I’m not quite sure how I’d actually use it” to a concrete way to solve real world problems.
  2. A handout with specific information on the lean process was distributed to all participants. My colleague no longer had to squeeze everything she possibly knew about the topic into her slides and attendees had something tangible to walk away with after the session in the event they wanted to try out the lean process once they returned to their offices. She also invited attendees to look over the handout as she presented a case study on how lean management principles were applied in our organization in order to transform the audience from passive to active listeners.

She also rehearsed her presentation about 10 times in the day or two prior to the presentation. Her actual delivery of the presentation was the strongest, most natural and obviously well-prepared of any of the 20-minute presentations during this annual meeting.

5 Facilitators, 90 Minutes, 200 Teachers

A second colleague approached me several months before the meeting and told me that she wanted to try something a little different. Instead of a series of 5 consecutive 20-minute presentations, instead of a panel-based lecture, she was wondering if it was possible to get 200 people involved in a large group presentation. I said it would be fairly easy… But risky.

  1. The Easy Part: This colleague shared her specific learning objectives. She and her co-facilitators were truly subject-matter experts on the topic – among the most successful people in the country.  Engaging an audience – whether a group of 5 people or 200 people – involves similar principles. Talk with, not at, the audience. Allow time for small group discussion. De-brief in the large group (and be sure to correct any errors that are shared during the large group report-outs). 
  2. The Risky Part: For 50 years, this association has presented information in a very traditional way: lecture. The format I discussed with my colleague was definitely not lecture. What if the audience rebelled against the “turn to your neighbors and discuss” design of this session? What if nobody participated?

The fact is, when given an opportunity, people like to talk about themselves and their work. This group proved to be no different. When the small group discussions began, I witnessed people sitting alone who actively sought out other groups so they could be involved. I also saw people from the same organization voluntarily leave their colleagues in order to be able to discuss and learn from people from other organizations. My colleague found that her biggest challenge wasn’t getting people to participate, it was getting people to stop talking so that they could de-brief in the large group!

Final Observations

Both of my colleagues approached a large group presentation in very different yet extremely successful ways. While many large group presenters who are subject matter experts intend simply to bestow their knowledge upon the “grateful” audience, these colleagues invested time designing sessions intended to engage their audience. They rehearsed and practiced to ensure a smooth delivery. And the room was literally buzzing with energy as a result.

It’s truly exciting to watch some of the brightest subject matter experts in this particular profession refusing to accept the conventional wisdom that large group learning simply “is what it is” (boring). It doesn’t have to be.

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