What can an event planner learn from a couple of physics professors?
In his book What the best college teachers do, Ken Bain tells the story of two physics professors at Arizona State University who wanted to find out if all of the time and effort they put into planning and delivering their courses was really making any difference in the way their students thought about things. So they set up a very simple experiment: they would choose one fundamental physics concept and measure whether their physics course made a significant impact. They decided to focus on the principles of “motion” and their students’ understanding of how motion actually works. They pre-tested their students, did their normal 15-week semester gig and then re-tested everyone at the end. And guess what? They found that, despite all of the time and effort expended by all, when it was all over their students thought about motion pretty much the same way as they did before they took the course.
As a professional trainer and college professor myself, that story scared me half to death. If you’re in the business of planning events, you should be, too. Because it suggests that much–maybe even most–of the event experiences we create (and a classroom is definitely an event) may not be making much of a lasting impact and, if that’s the case, then we’re wasting a whole lot more of our time than we are aware of–not to mention forfeiting tremendous opportunities to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives while we have them gathered together.
What can we do to help ensure we’re having an impact? Well, it appears that one key element of effective event experience design is a variation on the “less is more” rule: make sure you’re focusing on just a very few critical points or objectives—or maybe even just one. Of course, this requires some consideration of what your most important outcomes are. What do you want to be different once the event has concluded? Which goals are must-haves, and which are just nice-to-haves?
Now back to that physics class: one lesson learned, according to Ken Bain, is that it’s better to focus on just two or three main concepts or competencies and hammer the hell out of them, and not worry so much about covering everything in detail. Often the mistake we make is to try to cover too many bases at once, because we’re afraid of leaving out something important. In the case of a college course, this can take the shape of trying to get to the end of the textbook before the semester is over, even if it means that we don’t fully lock in the most important ideas or skills along the way. There’s nothing wrong with accomplishing multiple objectives at the same time, but not if it means failing to nail the most important ones.
We live in a world where it feels like there is never enough time to do what we need to do. But remember that old time management adage: “there’s always enough time for the things that are most important.” The next time you’re planning an event program or experience, don’t worry too much about doing as many things as you can with the time you’re allowed. Instead, start by making sure you get the most important outcomes really right. Because in the end, that’s what will make it worth the time and money you’re investing!