How to Engage a Multigenerational Audience

How to engage a multigenerational audience

Education 0115

As meeting planners and attendees, we've all seen the following three scenarios before:

Richard, age 59, is sitting in a small group discussion at a conference. His body language is telling. With crossed arms and a frown, he isn't responding to the group dialogue. He is thinking, "I came here to learn from the experts. Why am I in this group discussion? And why do I have to use my phone to get the handouts?"

Jennifer, age 40, appears bored while attending a lecture. She is glancing around the room, looking for people to connect with. She is thinking, "Why can't I get in a group of my peers and hash this out?"

Ashley, age 26, is attending a presentation but is constantly scanning her email on her smartphone, taking notes on her tablet simultaneously, and tweeting out tips from the session. She is thinking, "Why won't this presenter ditch the PowerPoint and use interactive technology to make this session more fun?"

Today's workforce is truly a multigenerational mix. Roughly half of the workforce is composed of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) while the other half is a mix of Generation Xers (born between 1964 and 1979), and Millennials or Gen Ys (born between 1980 and 2000).

When these generations come together for a conference, organizers must understand each generation's frame of reference and learning style, and then develop educational programs that not only interest, but engage every member of the audience. Here are some tips and techniques for engaging a multigenerational audience.

1. Know your audience's influencers. A history lesson reminds us how each generation evolved. Baby Boomers grew up during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of the counterculture. Generation Xers grew up as latchkey kids with both parents working. They witnessed the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Millennials, raised by "helicopter parents," multitask on tablets and smartphones, and embrace new gadgets. Make sure you understand how each generation sees opportunities and challenges, and how their decision-making process is shaped by these influences.

2. Study how they learn. Each generation has different learning styles. Baby Boomers were raised in a formal, lecture-based environment with books and manuals; therefore, they prefer a method of learning where the instructor is the authority of a topic. Generation X members believe that learning should be fun and hands-on; small group discussions and workshops are their preferred method. Generation Y members are technically savvy and enjoy learning in an electronic environment. They also are big gamers, responding well to gamification -- electronically or in person -- in the learning environment.  

3. Look for commonalities. The question you should be asking is: What makes these generations similar? One commonality all generations share is length of engagement. Make sure your presentation is concise and properly paced. One of the reasons why TED Talks are so widely popular among different generations is that they are 18 minutes long and no more. Short lecture sessions force the presenter to focus on the specific topic at hand. Most audiences will lose interest 10-15 minutes into a presentation, so change it up if the session is longer than 30 minutes.

4. Tell a story. Think back to presentations you have attended. Do you remember the boring bullet points that were repeated by the presenter -- or the story she told and how it related to the topic at hand? Look for real-life examples and, when possible, add humor to make it even more memorable.

5. Address "what's it in for me?" As with any presentation or training session, each participant, regardless of generation, wants to know what is in it for her. Make sure to identify specifically what the audience is there to learn and hit those points. When creating your presentation, start by determining what is in it for the learner and work backward to ensure you are hitting the objectives the audience is seeking.  

6. Mix it up. Identify different delivery methods to reach each generation. Going back to the example in the introduction, mix up the presentation to reach each generation. For example, start the presentation with a short lecture to reach the Baby Boomers. Then break into smaller groups and encourage discussion to appeal to Generation X attendees. After that, create a challenge activity issued through a smartphone or tablet to reach Millennials' preferred delivery method of communication. Make sure you explain your delivery methods at the beginning to prepare the audience for what to expect.

At its core, a successful presentation will engage the audience and make them think, regardless of what generational demographic they fall into. Take time to research different delivery methods that could be incorporated into your presentation beyond the standard lecture format.

Chris Ballman, director for education and learning services at SmithBucklin, has more than 15 years of experience leading the design, implementation, and evaluation of instructional programs for adult learners in e-learning and instructor-led settings for the computer software, finance, and higher-education industries.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.