The Key to Learning at Conferences

July 28, 2007

Here’s the key to learning at any conference, meeting, training event you’ll ever attend: Ask questions.

The truth is, the one thing most of these learning opportunities have in common, regardless of field, industry, niche, topic or speaker is time for Q&A. The other thing is the opportunity to network. And, though training and learning opportunities are excellent, the other truth is, most people find some, if not all, of some learning experiences to be either disinteresting, boringly presented, or something they think they already have all the answers to anyway. They also don’t take advantage of the opportunity to question their colleagues or experts who may be sitting in the same room.


In fact, you can learn from anyone – if you can apply their knowledge, expertise or insight to you. The best way to do this is to ask questions during Q&A and tap into the expertise around you. Usually, everyone in the room or at your table can benefit from a question that’s well put and insightful. Here are a few great examples of excellent questions asked presenters at some meetings I attended today.

  • What’s the worst mistake people make when doing what you advise? This threw the speaker for a loop but provided a great outline of pitfalls to avoid that weren’t written into the presentation. The answer to this question was the biggest take home of the session.
  • How can this apply to young professionals? Who speaks at conferences? Experts, typically. People with 15 years of experience. Sometimes it’s hard to get them out of their perspective and delivering advice, ideas and approaches that anyone can use, not just someone at their level.
  • What are the ethical implications? Ethics are often left out of the conversation on many topics, and it’s always a lively conversation when people take up this topic.
  • How does the new media landscape change things? I asked this question, or a version of it, in almost every session I attended today. I was shocked that many people didn’t have an answer – or a very well-conceived one. This was very telling. But, almost every time I asked it, a series of similar questions would follow, illustrating the importance of the issue and the need for more conversation on it.

One reason these questions worked is that they generated further questions and they helped everyone in the audience learn – they’re not just self-oriented and case-specific. Well-thought out questions are also great because they can liven things up. They can put speakers outside their comfort zones and force them to think critically, beyond their Power Point slides and 3-step formulas.

But, the biggest value in asking questions is that in the simple process of forming questions to ask, you force yourself to digest the information and process it in a way that forms connections in our own mind. If you have any great conference questions you’ve heard or asked, feel free to leave them in the comments section. And, the next time you find yourself in a room full of people at a learning session, conference or training meeting, ask a question. Chances are, you’ll learn something – even if it’s not from the answer itself.


One Response to “The Key to Learning at Conferences”

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