You won’t believe what a vendor said about a speaker at a conference—when that speaker spoke the truth.


Conferences are big business in the workplace learning field.

Conferences make organizers a ton of money. That’s great because pulling off a good conference is not as easy as it looks. In addition to finding a venue and attracting people to come to your event, you also have to find speakers. Some speakers are well-known quantities, but others are unknown.

In the learning field, where we are inundated with fads, myths, and misconceptions; finding speakers who will convey the most helpful messages, and avoid harmful messages, is particularly difficult. Ideally, as attendees, we’d like to hear truth from our speakers rather than fluff and falsehoods.

On the other hand, vendors pay big money to exhibit their products and services at a conference. Their goal is connecting with attendees who are buyers or who can influence buyers. Even conferences that don’t have exhibit halls usually get money from vendors in one way or another.

So, conference owners have two groups of customers to keep happy: attendees and vendors. In an ideal world, both groups would want the most helpful messages to be conveyed. Truth would be a common goal. So for example, let’s say new research is done that shows that freep learning is better than traditional elearning. A speaker at a conference shares the news that freep learning is great. Vendors in the audience hear the news. What will they do?

  • Vendor A hires a handsome and brilliant research practitioner to verify the power of freep learning with the idea of moving forward quickly and providing this powerful new tool to their customers.
  • Vendor B jumps right in and starts building freep learning to ensure their customers get the benefits of this powerful new learning method.
  • Vendor C pulls the conference organizers aside and tells them, “If you ever use that speaker again, we will not be back; you will not get our money any more.”

Impossible you say!

Would never happen you think!

You’re right. Not enough vendors are hiring fadingly-good-lookingly brilliant research-to-practice experts!

Here’s a true story from a conference that took place within the last year or so.

Clark Quinn spoke about learning myths and misconceptions during his session, describing the findings from his wonderful book. Later when he read his conference evaluations he found the following comment among the more admiring testimonials:

“Not cool to debunk some tools that exhibitors pay a lot of money to sell at [this conference] only to hear from a presenter at the conference that in his opinion should be debunked. Why would I want to be an exhibitor at a conference that debunks my products? I will not exhibit again if this speaker speaks at [conference name]” (emphasis added).

This story was recounted by Clark and captured by Jane Bozarth in an article on the myth of learning styles she wrote as the head of research for the eLearning Guild. Note that the conference in question was NOT an eLearning Guild conference.

What can we do?

Corruption is everywhere. Buyer beware! As adults, we know this! We know politicians lie (some more than others!!). We know that we have to take steps not to be ripped off. We get three estimates when we need a new roof. We ask for personal references. We look at the video replay. We read TripAdvisor reviews. We look for iron-clad guarantees that we can return products we purchased.

We don’t get flustered or worried, we take precautions. In the learning field, you can do the following:

  • Look for conference organizers who regularly include research-based sessions (scientific research NOT opinion research).
  • Look for the conferences that host the great research-to-practice gurus. People like Patti Shank, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, Mirjam Neelen, Ruth Clark, Karl Kapp, Jane Bozarth, Dick Clark, Paul Kirschner, and others.
  • Look for conferences that do NOT have sessions—or have fewer sessions—that propagate common myths and misinformation (learning styles, the learning pyramid, MBTI, DISC, millennials learn differently, people only use 10% of their brains, only 10% of learning transfers, neuroscience as a panacea, people have the attention span of a goldfish, etc.).
  • If you want to look into Will’s Forbidden Future, you might look for the following:
    • conferences and/or trade organizations that have hired a content trustee, someone with a research background to promote valid information and cull bad information.
    • conferences that point speakers to a list of learning myths to avoid.
    • conferences that evaluate sessions based on the quality of the content.

Being exposed to false information isn’t just bad for us as professionals. It’s also bad for our organizations. Think of all the wasted effort—the toil, the time, the money—that was flushed down the toilet trying to redesign all our learning to meet the so-called learning-styles approach. Egads! If you need to persuade your management about the danger of learning myths you might try this.

In a previous blog post, I talked about what we can do as attendees of conferences to avoid learning bad information. That’s good reading as well. Check it out here.

Who Will Rule Our Conferences? Truth or Bad-Faith Vendors?

That’s a damn good question!



Conferences can be beautiful things—helping us learn, building relationships that help us grow and bring us joy, prompting us to see patterns in our industry we might miss otherwise, helping us set our agenda for what we need to learn more fully.


Conferences can be ugly things—teaching us myths, reinforcing our misconceptions, connecting us to people who steer us toward misinformation, echo chambers of bad thinking, a vendor-infested shark tank that can lead us to buy stuff that’s not that helpful or is actually harmful, pushing us to set our learning agenda on topics that distract us from what’s really important.

Given this dual reality, your job as a conference attendee is to be smart and skeptical, and work to validate your learning. In the Training Maximizers model, the first goal is ensuring our learning interventions are built from a base of “valid, credible content.” In conferences, where we curate our own learning, we have to be sure we are imbibing the good stuff and avoiding the poison. Here, I’ll highlight a few things to keep in mind as you attend a conference. I’ll aim to make this especially relevant for this year, 2018, when you are likely to encounter certain memes and themes.

Drinking the Good Stuff

  • Look for speakers who have a background doing two things, (1) studying the scientific research (not opinion research), and (2) working with real-world learning professionals in implementing research-based practices.
  • If speakers make statements without evidence, ask for the evidence or the research—or be highly skeptical.
  • If things seem almost too good to be true, warn yourself that learning is complicated and there are no magic solutions.
  • Be careful not to get sucked into group-think. Just because others seem to like something, doesn’t necessarily make it good. Think for yourself.
  • Remember that correlation does not mean causation. Just because some factors seem to move in the same direction doesn’t mean that one caused the other. It could be the other way around. Or some third factor may have caused both to move in the same direction.

Prepare Yourself for This Year’s Shiny Objects

  • Learning Styles — Learning Styles is bogus, but it keeps coming up every year. Don’t buy into it. Learn about it first. The Debunker.Club has a nice post on why we should avoid learning styles. Read it. And don’t let people tell you that learning styles if bad but learning preferences is good. They’re pulling the wool.
  • Dale’s Cone with Percentages — People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they read, 30% of what they see (or anything similar). Here’s the Internet’s #1 URL debunking this silly myth.
  • Neuroscience and Learning — It’s a very hot topic with vendors touting neuroscience to entice you to be impressed. But neuroscience at this time has nothing to say about learning.
  • Microlearning — Because it’s a hot topic, vendors and consultants are yapping about microlearning endlessly. But microlearning is not a thing. It’s many things. Here’s the definitive definition of microlearning, if I must say so myself.
  • AI, Machine Learning, and Big Data — Sexy stuff certainly, but it’s not clear whether these things can be applied to learning, or whether they can be applied now (given the state of our knowledge). Beware of taking these claims too seriously. Be open, but skeptical.
  • Gamification — We are almost over this fad thankfully. Still, keep in mind that gamification, like microlearning, is comprised of multiple learning methods. Gamification is NOT a thing.
  • Personalization — Personalization is a great idea, if carried out properly. Be careful if what someone calls personalization is just another way of saying learning styles. Also, don’t buy into the idea that personalization is new. It’s quite old. See Skinner and Keller back in the early 1900’s.
  • Learning Analytics — There is a lot of movement in learning evaluation, but much of it is wrong-headed focus on pretty dashboards, and a focus only on business impact. Look for folks who are talking about how to get better feedback to make learning better. I’ll tout my own effort to develop a new approach to gathering learner feedback. But beware and do NOT just do smile sheets (said by the guy who wrote a book on smile sheets)! Beware of vendors telling you to focus only on measuring behavior and business results. Read why here.
  • Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Evaluation — Always a constant in the workplace learning field for the past 60 years. But even with recent changes it still has too many problems to be worthwhile. See the new Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM), a worthy replacement.

Wow! So much to be worried about.

Well, sorry to say, I surely missing some stuff. It’s up to you to be smart and skeptical at the same time you stay open to new ideas.

You might consider joining the Debunker Club, folks who have agreed on the importance of debunking myths in the learning field.