Hempling's Approach to a Successful Seminar

Successful seminars have three main ingredients: topics targeted to decisionmaking, give-and-take, and structure.

Topics targeted to decisionmaking:  Herbert Spencer wrote:  "The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action."  I have advised commissions internally in dozens of cases, on every phase of administrative decisionmaking, and practiced before them in many more. I have seen how education, or the lack of it, affects high-quality decisionmaking. This experience will help us select the range of seminar topics most likely to help your decisionmaking.

Give-and-take: I avoid lecture-style presentations that isolate students from the presenter. Attendees should not be passive recipients of information but co-contributors, linking my offerings to their direct challenges. I never let more than five minutes pass without taking a question or posing a question. The class becomes a running dialogue, structured by a detailed outline but with enough "breathing room" to allow give-and-take.

Structure: Students see and remember more trees when they know the forest. My seminar materials contain detailed tables of contents and diagrams of topical relationships, so that the students understand the structure first. No seminar can cover every detail. The key is for students to see the rich detail at key points, and then know where to find it. While I know the strength of visuals—I draw diagrams and pictures on the overhead screen to illustrate such things as corporate relationships or industry structures—I avoid the oversimplified slide-ware with which so many students have been infected by the PowerPoint plague. (For a devastating, fact-based critique of PowerPoint, including a heart-wrenching discussion of the Challenger disaster, see Yale professor Edward Tufte's monograph, available from www.edwardtufte.com.)

Instead of a parade of bullet points (or, as Tufte puts it, "one damn slide after another"), I provide students a rich text outline of 100–200 pages, using it to move between structure and detail, while emphasizing its value after the seminar. Most learning takes place from individual study; a lecturer, no matter how detailed, can provide only an overview.