I recently ran a workshop in Washington, DC called Reinvent or Refresh Your Conference! for conference organizers. In essence, how to make a conference better? We had about 20 people responsible for planning or organizing a conference for their organization. This included people organizing conferences with dozens of attendees to tens of thousands. The workshop was built around a number of peer-learning and peer-sharing concepts, meaning attendees were very engaged with each other; as the de facto “speaker,” I was really guiding more than I was speaking. There was no PowerPoint. My hope was that by seeing and doing a lot of peer work in what might be a typical breakout session, it was easier for conference organizers to envision using some of these ideas and techniques in their own meetings and events – to refresh or reinvent them.
This following conference ideas came from an exercise I walked attendees through at the beginning of the workshop. On the surface, it was pretty simple: Write down what you’re looking for to make your conference successful – and do it in the limited space of a 3×3 Post It note. I also had people tag their requests with their names. With more time, we would have used it as a networking activity to better match participants and to allow them an easier way to help each other; “Oh, you need help with X? Well, that’s something we also struggled with, but the solution we found was to _____.” As the facilitator, it also gave me a sense for what attendees wanted to get out of the activity so I could better speak to that and tailor the workshop.
The following bold text is what attendees write, followed by some commentary from my own experience. I didn’t add commentary on the conference ideas that were duplicates or which overlapped considerably with other ideas.
The prompt question was:
How can we plan a successful conference? How to make a conference better? What do we need?
How to engage attendees with exhibitors and the session – A big reason there’s a bifurcation between sponsors and exhibitors and what will call regular attendees is that exhibitors have a financial incentive to stay by their booth if they’re not going to be somewhere else where they’re making contact with attendees. The goal is to make connections and eventually make sales or partnerships or something that’s tangible. If it’s the case that most keynotes and breakout sessions are just you as an audience member sitting and staring ahead without engaging with anyone else in the room, then there’s not much value to exhibitors or sponsors who were there to make connections with people in the field. However even if exhibitors think that they May meet one or two or three or four people in a session, then there’s a better chance that they’ll go to sessions and engage with attendees beyond just standing at a booth and trying to grab people as they walk by.
Creative non-traditional session or workshop ideas – There are a lot of ways to come up with conference workshop ideas, but at the very least, I would start with the low-hanging fruit: single person presentations or panels. When it comes to creative conference ideas, this is a very easy way to spice them up: just take a break of 5 or 10 minutes in the middle of that hour-long session and have attendees chat with each other about what they’ve heard or what questions they might have for the latter part of that same session. That alone would probably make a huge difference in making a conference better before even talking about much more creative conference or workshop formats. You may also want to generate fun conference breakout sessions by using a different format: discussions, simulations, tours (be it outside the conference venue or even just within the room), a scavenger hunt, or debates.
how to attract good volunteers that are committed to volunteering and not working for free registration, etc. – Obviously it’s a hard sell to get someone to volunteer, especially if it’s for days at a time. However I might make the argument that if the event is more interesting and has more energy and is more collaborative and is more participatory, it’s an easier sell to get volunteers to spend time in that conference center or in those rooms. It’s a hard sell to get someone to give up 8, 10, or 30 hours to stand around monitoring PowerPoint presentations and a bunch of listless, ticket-buying attendees who are just checking their phones. Imagine if your favorite band asked for volunteers for their next concert in your hometown. Why would you volunteer for that? It’s fun. It’s entertaining. You feel a sense of connection. While you might not be able to replicate the buzz of the hottest concert around, you need not throw your hands up and surrender to your business conference or annual industry convention being dry and boring. In addition, if volunteers are just seen as “the help,” they’re unlikely to be incentivized. They’re not volunteering out of sheer love for you or your event. They want to be informed and entertained. But they also probably want to connect. Lots of students or early-career people will volunteer in hopes of making contacts. What can you do to put these volunteers in front of people who matter? Can you introduce them to your board members? Can you give them 1-on-1 time with important speakers? Can you include them in the networking sessions, rather than just assuming they’ll float in the shadows? Even 5 minutes with the right person can make dozens of hours of unpaid volunteering worthwhile. Years ago, I ran a non-profit writing organization and we’d enlist volunteers for a variety of tasks. One perk was being a local buddy to the presenters we brought in who were at the pinnacle of the field; volunteers got quality time with these VIPs that even paid attendees didn’t get.
scheduling lengths of sessions and breaks – There are a couple different ways to think about this. One is you could go really extreme and do something like a pure-led conference or an “unconference” where you do very little thinking about pre-planned sessions before the event and then just let the audience choose which sessions they want and how long those sessions should be. Knowing that that’s a big leap for most organizers and organizations to take at first, I’d come back to why we’re having this discussion. I think a driver for thinking about this is that sessions often feel like they get bogged down. I would say that it’s very very rare to find a conference presenter who is not a professional speaker who can really expertly use an hour and be in front of an audience for that long. I think it’s much more realistic for someone who is presenting to an audience to lead them in group discussions or have different things that are happening over the course of the hour instead of thinking of going through 60 PowerPoint slides and that being the entirety of the session.
networking with members of Congress for a hill day – Even though I’m in Washington, DC, I confess that I don’t have a good sense for what Congressional conference networking looks like. My guess is that time is very much of the essence here and I would probably want to collect a group of people quickly around a common topic to engage with elected representatives or their staff. I have a vision of a mass of people from a membership organization descending on the Hill and there are so many voices trying to get through that it’s a bit chaotic. I would think that condensing a big mass into small groups and breaking them down into little discussion pods with representatives or their staff might be an effective way to do that. Also, while we have a habit of small talk — Where are you from? Yes, I’ve been to that place. — time is very valuable here. I’d think about name tags or little signs to help attendees and representatives connect quickly on issues that are most important to them.
professional community of practice and engagement – I’m not sure what the intent of this is but I know a number of conferences will include practice sessions or birds of a feather sessions to bring together people on a common topic. However often the problem with these sessions is that there’s no clear direction as to who’s running it and that person often has no real facilitation or moderation skills. In addition, a lot of those sessions are relegated to very early in the morning or in the evening outside of the main conference gathering so they seem less important and tend to have lower attendance because, realistically, people don’t necessarily want to get up early to go to one more session as part of a very long conference day.
how to maintain high attendance – I’m not sure if this is during the conference or if it’s from year to year. I remember one conference that I went to just off of Bourbon Street in New Orleans and it was pretty predictable that the morning sessions were pretty sparse because people were out late and then people would cut out early in the afternoon to go and do fun things in the French Quarter. I’m not saying to hold a conference in a boring place but I think it’s a double-edged sword when you put it in a really fun place. In terms of keeping people at an event from the first day to the last day and from the morning to the evening I consider an agenda that builds towards something rather than the often scatter shot approach to arranging keynotes and breakout sessions. Just as an example, if the goal of a conference was to have all the attendees leave in much better health than they arrived, the first session might be a way in and a journaling exercise about what people eat now and how much they weigh and maybe we do a basic stretching and strength test. Then somewhere in the middle of that conference the agenda is built around understanding what a healthy diet looks like. Or having someone go to sessions with a professional trainer to talk about proper stretching technique. Then towards the end of the conference we might have people make a plan for how they’re going to get healthier and as a final capstone conference activity perhaps people pair up with an accountability partner to keep them on track with their diet and exercise over the next year. obviously most conferences are not this personalized and this is a rather abstract example. However you can see how you don’t want to leave that conference once you’ve gotten invested in the beginning and you want to see it through to the end and there’s a logical flow to it . you can also get excited for what’s coming next and I think that’s an important piece of conferences.
more interactive sessions – again, I think the bar is very low here so you don’t have to hit a home run in terms of interactivity for it to make a big difference for attendees and the overall success of the conference. Even adding a little minimal amount of interactivity will go a long way. I’d always give people the example of stopping halfway through a presentation and just asking the audience to chat among themselves about what they’ve heard and what questions they still have instead of forcing the audience to sit there for another 20 or 30 minutes and then having 3 minutes of questions at the end.
eco-friendly conference materials – one thing that always strikes me when I travel is the amount of packaging waste that I see at hotels and restaurants and airports. overall, I think there’s a conversation to be had with the venues about how you as a conference organizer can help them see where they don’t have to add packaging. Also for as nice as a conference booklet or brochure looks, I think a good workable app is functionally better and the environmental impact feels a lot better than printing hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of pages of booklets. also, as a general rule I think that if you deliver a conference that has great connections and great content, people will be very forgiving of a lot of the other trappings where we might see environmental waste. I think people are more forgiving of more basic food and I think they’re more forgiving of decorations and the like. I want someone to come home and be excited about what happened at the conference rather than a balloon arch.
session design not panels and balancing sponsor and attending needs – These were actually two separate conference ideas on the same card. Rather than treat them as two, I’m going to treat them as a single idea because I think they are quite related. In general, I think we can say that sponsors want visibility and they want goodwill and they probably also want to connect with the right people at the event. I’ve seen a number of events where it was clear that, when organizing a conference, the planners wanted to shine a light on sponsors. Therefore, they’d have them appear as moderators or facilitators of panels or someone who’s going to introduce a presenter or as someone who appears on a panel. All of these can be fine and good, but they tend to not work out so well. In the end someone who is a regional vice president of the big software company who is sponsoring the event can certainly read the bios of people on the panel. However, the problem is that person you’ve now designated as a moderator doesn’t actually have any experience moderating. And then, in the end, you run the risk of the audience feeling like that moderator from the sponsor actually hurt the event — then the visibility probably wasn’t all that valuable. I also think putting people from a sponsoring organization on panels is ok, but panels tend to be pretty boring because they’re not well moderated. Even a training of an hour or two hours at the beginning of a conference with all your moderators could make a huge difference there. And sponsors tend to not go to regular sessions because they know they’re not going to engage with attendees — i.e., potential clients — there. They know that it’s likely that they will just be stuck in a room watching a PowerPoint for an hour and that’s not where the value is for them in being at the event (Dare we say that the value for everyone attending the conference, sponsors or not, is probably more in meeting other attendees than sitting watching presentations.) If you flip that and make your conference breakout sessions more interactive, you should see conference sponsors dropping into those, staying, and really engaging with attendees, especially if they see that there’s a financial gain to be had from doing that.
interactive conversation debate questions – I’m not sure exactly what this is asking for but I think the idea of sparking debate is really interesting at meetings of all sizes. It’s a really compelling thing to think about when organizing a conference. Within the meeting world, there’s a recognition that we often tend towards a vanilla neutral middle ground as a gathering because we don’t want to rock the boat. However, it’s in those moments of debate or discussion where some of the best ideas come from. Priya Parker talks about this as adding heat and Stan Gryskiewicz talks about it as positive turbulence. There are a variety of different ways to add this in, but just the recognition that it’s ok to have some debate at an event is probably a first step. But, when thinking of more concrete conference workshop ideas, you could just assign people to a “red team” in a “blue team” and have them debate a topic and report back to a group about what the pros and cons might be of whatever the issue is. Should our company focus on its online offerings or not? Should our association merge with another membership organization? Are we doing enough for diversity and inclusion? Every meeting has issues to be debated; debating them can make for fun conference breakout sessions and they don’t have to look like rigid parliamentary debate either.
structured but not goofy networking – I’m totally on board with conference ideas around structured networking that is not goofy. Although I will also say that I’ve done a number of networking things that I thought would be totally goofy and no one would buy into them … and the reality is that people in a networking context are so starved for any sort of structure or helpful crutch that they welcome something, even if it does feel a little hokey. The alternative for many people is just standing around checking their phones and pretending that they have something more important to be doing than being in the networking room where they are. There are tons of different strategies that I’m really passionate about in this vein, but a really basic thing is whether there is a question or two that you think people in your audience would want to engage on — and then invite them to do that and then “time box” their interactions. That is to say it’s easier to engage with a stranger if you know you’re only going to talk for two or three minutes and then move on to somebody else. It’s very daunting to walk up to a stranger and not have anything to talk about and not know if you’re going to be able to escape from a bad, boring person.
creative session design & engaging session design – Everyone is always looking for creative ideas for conference activities, conference workshop ideas, and fun conference breakout sessions. But, when doing any sort of conference ideas planning, it’s important to remember that you don’t necessarily need a brand new, never-before-seen idea. A lot of what makes conference breakout sessions and other conference activities engaging is a simple departure from what usually happens and what attendees have come to expect. When organizing a conference, try this simple rule: don’t have attendees doing the same thing for 20 minutes straight. Fun conference breakout sessions are rarely built on attendees sitting in a seat just watching someone do a presentation, slide after slide, for an hour. Can you have people move around? Can you get them to talk to each other? Can you add a Q&A in the middle of the hour, instead of only at the end? A lot of creative conference ideas don’t actually need to be that creative!
how to get attendees to answer surveys – In pursuit of wanting to know how to make a conference better, surveys are an obvious tool. There are all kinds of explanations as to why conference attendees don’t answer surveys but let me offer a few suggestions here. First, a lot of surveys aren’t distributed until the very end of the session or workshop, when people are already on their way out. Then, the conference session often runs over and we give people one minute to fill out 20 questions; it’s not surprising that people either fill out none of the survey or they do a half-hearted job. The other thing that I would say as a general rule to get people to fill out surveys in greater numbers is to dramatically decrease the number of things that you’re asking on the survey. In this workshop, I just gave people a 3×5 note card and had them write a positive thing and a negative thing and they could add more if they wanted to. I also gave them enough time to do that. I got workshop evaluations back from I think everyone in the room and they were quite helpful. A lot of the surveys that get handed out try to be so exhaustive that they become useless. We also fall into the trap of trying to quantify a lot of things where we want to know, from 1-10, how as the workshop’s content, how was the speaker, how was the audience, etc. It’s just too much to track and I’m dubious that all the numbers you get back make conferences better next year. I would also say that it’s not crazy to try polling your audience or getting some evaluations partway through a session where you can still fix something that’s going wrong, be at the audio, the presentation style, the clarity of the explanation, or the temperature of the room.