Typically, we think of there being conference workshops or content and then a separate set of sessions devoted to conference networking. If you want to think about how to make a conference better, you should focus on these areas. As part of a creative workshop I led for conference organizers called Reinvent or Refresh Your Conference! in Washington, DC, we looked at how to come up with creative conference ideas to improve conference workshops, breakout sessions, and content.
The workshop began by listing out some general conference ideas for organizing a conference so they’re better. Utilizing peer sharing in small groups of conference organizers and event planners, we came up with a big list of ideas. Although we looked at networking and content separately, a good meeting will blur the lines between the two. In other words, attendees should be making connections in conference workshops, not just at a reception or networking coffee breaks.
The list below comes from a Brain Writing activity that we did in about five minutes. The list of conference workshop ideas is unfiltered — although I’ve added some of my own commentary. Note that this type of brainstorming sees participants building on the conference ideas that came before them. As a result, you’ll often see an idea shift or morph into something richer or different.
Conference workshop and content ideas
timely topic – A challenge with having timely topics in conference workshops, breakout sessions, or keynotes is that you need to know what’s timely – 6-12 months ahead if you follow a traditional conference planning timeline. By the time you ask for speaking proposals and book speakers, the topics that were hot may now not be. There’s also a need for “evergreen” content, but if you have the same content — evergreen or not — year after year, it stops being interesting to attendees. To allow time for topics that are truly timely, think about leaving open sessions to fill with hot topics when the conference arrives. Peer-led sessions work well for this.
add ideas for what can happen in the future to content – I’ve done a number of future-planning sessions at conferences where it’s a collaborative process between the participants and that session and it’s been really fun. I like this idea.
look at industry trends to build content – Similar to the “timely topic” idea, it can be hard to forecast topics for conference workshops if you’re starting months or years away. Allow for sessions where you let the room decide what topics it wants to discuss.
have audience forecast 10 years ahead – This is good. It may be helpful to add some parameters around that forecasting though. Instead of a blank slate approach in this conference workshop, ask people what specific things might be like in 10 years: customers, technology, market regulation, supply chains, advertising, social media, etc. You could even assign separate topics to different teams within a session.
present new ideas, not a rehashing of another conference – There are a lot of points within this list of conference ideas that basically say the same thing as this. This is very much at the heart of what gets people to think they should be refreshing or reinventing their conferences.
share the stage with partners in the field who might not have the opportunity to present their work otherwise – There are a number of ideas that are very similar to this one. I’ve been to conference workshops where it’s the end-user or the customer or someone with real lived experience who’s presenting or being interviewed. It’s often a huge hit for people that don’t get to really interact and hear from the field. While expertise is great, a lot of conferences suffer from trying to have the smartest most senior people presenting and they miss a lot of the wisdom that’s accrued lower down in the pyramid. Among a variety of formats, a “fishbowl” with real “users” being surrounded by experts can be really powerful. I was having a conversation earlier today with a colleague who works for the World Bank and we were conceiving of this for international development professionals who often fall into the trap of thinking they know best when they don’t actually have much on-the-ground knowledge or empathy.
have opposing views on stage – Something that drives me bananas about panels is when everyone on stage has basically had the same experience and is saying the same thing. Mixing it up is a great bit of advice.
debate between two political views – Adding fire or debate or turbulence to a conference can be a really good interesting thing to improve conference workshops. I don’t know that it always has to be a political question, but almost every conference has debates that simmer under the surface that aren’t aired at that meeting. Beyond just having a debate on stage, think about how people in the audience can participate in that. Maybe you have a debate for 15 or 20 minutes and then you turn it over to the audience and let people pair up or form small groups of four and have them talk through the issues and what they’ve just heard.
always add humor – It’s a hard edict to require of speakers, but if your conference currently has no humor, it’s not hard to hire someone to add humor as a starting point. There seems to be a niche of conference speakers who are engineers, bankers, etc. who’ve moved into comedy so they can speak the language of your attendees, but also be funny.
tug at people’s heart strings and emotions with content
have a comedian at receptions to get people to stay
talent show – If it works, it could be great. However, consider the “risk ladder” here. Coming to a conference with a bunch of your professional peers and then playing your guitar and singing a song can be a big leap. I like the idea as something to do, but it will take some work, at least the first time.
questions on registration site to get a sense of what attendees want – I think about focusing this ask so that it’s not overly broad and, thus, meaningless. I find that asking people something like, “If you could wave a magic wand, which one session would you create for this conference?”
do audience surveys
Post It note activities – I’d broaden this to say more things that people can move, create, and interact with versus sitting in the audience and watching a screen. Also, no one ever wastes 20 minutes fiddling with cords and cables to get a Post It note to work.
diverse speakers – As with opposing viewpoints and a range of views on panels, seeking out diversity is good for conference workshops. On top of all the other reasons, diverse speakers keep your event from feeling like it’s the same-old event it’s always been. It also gives different people a chance to shine and that has a positive ripple effect. And, to be crazy, what would happen if you invited your biggest critic to speak?
speakers who work with or talk with the audience – Other than hiring professional speakers, a challenge is always trying to gauge how well someone is going to speak as a regular presenter. You could, however, give them lanes to stay in to make them better presenters. For example, you could prohibit PowerPoint. Or, as a compromise, you could require people do really tight pecha kucha presentations. You could require that half the presentation is a group discussion. You could get all your speakers together on the first morning and give them a crash course in a few basic facilitation skills.
no speakers just audience participation with a facilitator – In a way, this is what I was trying to show the people in my workshop. Often one smart expert standing in front of a room talking for a long time isn’t a recipe for success, whereas having everyone in the room connect and talk and share and problem solve is very well received. A bonus of relying on audience participation in discussion is that the aggregate amount of time spent taking speaking proposals and judging them and slotting in sessions and dealing with all the logistics of speakers as well as all their AV needs is very minimal. Plus it means that dozens or hundreds of speakers don’t have to spend hundreds or thousands of hours preparing PowerPoint presentations and writing up speeches and practicing them when they’re only going to achieve mediocre results and not be loved by an audience. I’d also think about a compromise where you have experts who are sharing their expertise in an interview format which is not to be confused with the panels that most of us are accustomed to seeing.
out of the box speakers like a painter for a health care event – If you can find a way to connect something unconventional to the topic at hand and provide value, then it makes sense.
dancers for an economic event – I’ve done some kinesthetic learning work where people might act out things like “economic collapse” or “the wealth gap” which is in a similar vein. Of course, that can be a hard sell for a group that’s only ever sat in their seats watching individual presenters.
improv performers – Think about having performers interview an audience member about something relevant to the conference or session and then do a scene based on that. Or have the performers sit in on a session and then act out a scene every few minutes based on what they heard.
only sessions with participant engagement
group people together to get them to talk and engage even if they’re strangers
blindfold attendees as they talk to decrease distractions – I don’t think I’ve seen this, but I’ve done some activities where participants are back-to-back and it’s worked well.
no PowerPoints! – This sounds bold and scary if you’re a conference organizer, but if you put yourself in the shoes of an attendee, this doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Also, the technical and logistics headaches are cut way down at most conferences if you’re not worrying about hooking projectors up to laptops; I’m not sure I can recall an event where this always worked flawlessly.
no presentations over 20 minutes without including movement or engagement – I don’t make an announcement about this, but I try to stick to a similar schedule. The reality is it’s pretty easy for people to get bored and that’s magnified the longer they sit in one place doing the same thing.
no presentations at all; only engaging sessions
no panels – I’m not opposed to a prohibition on individual presentations or panels. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Individual presentations and panels can be great. However, we want to throw them out because we’re so used to seeing bad incarnations of them. If you fix them, then it’s perfectly ok to include those formats.
bring experts and novices into the discussion – Yes, and I think this applies not just to the voices that you may pick to be in front of the room but also what also how to include an audience with a ton of shared expertise and many experts.
invite people to speak with actual lived experience
show video clips – Using different formats and including audio and video can really help presentations. Of course, the flip side to this is that a conference that lives by technology will die by technology. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be running logistics for a conference with a lot of video happening in a lot of different rooms.
get your audience up and moving, maybe using improv – As you can imagine, it can be difficult to convince a group of serious adults in a business setting to jump right into doing improv if you haven’t broken the ice and warmed them up to that idea. But it can certainly work and I like the idea.
quick ice breaking to get everyone involved – I’m not afraid to say that I really like icebreakers. But I don’t find much value in icebreakers for the sake of icebreakers. In other words, the thing that I do at the beginning of an event to get people to connect with each other and understand who’s in the room and get into the habit of sharing should be something that ties into what we’re doing. This is opposed to going around the room and asking people what their favorite fruit is. Also, I tend to never declare that something we’re doing is an icebreaker; people dislike the idea of doing icebreakers when they’re branded as such.
use personal stories as examples – There a lot of different ways to build this into the content of a conference and conference workshops; it makes a lot of sense.
invite people who can share their story first hand
get the audience to stand or put a hand up if they relate to stories told – One of the most basic ways to engage an audience is simply to ask them yes or no question or ask if anyone’s had this experience. It doesn’t necessarily make the content a lot richer but it does keep people active and engaged in what’s going on.
use live polling – I’ve been to a number of sessions that use live polling and it can be interesting and valuable. Part of me, however, does feel like maybe this is something that has peaked and it’s not quite as interesting to audiences today. And, as with some of the other suggestions here, I’m always a little nervous about relying so heavily on technology to be the thing that makes content successful; unfortunately, the technology often doesn’t work. On a related note, there’s value in using conference tools (like Vaudience) to help presenters know what’s working and what questions the audience has – before the end of the presentation or session.
use props or signs for live polling – People don’t use signs enough. You don’t need to make an announcement or interrupt other activities to use them.
text live interactions and ideas about content – This is very powerful. Allowing the audience to build on content they’re seeing gets to the heart of how regular conference workshops can be improved.
short presentations that are interactive
training exercises outside
get people moving around if possible or varying the format to keep energy up
fun speakers – I’m 100% behind the idea of getting fun speakers. A problem though is that most presenters at most conferences have never seen someone else present at a conference who was fun. So people don’t really have a model as to what to shoot for. Partly, you can address this by training speakers or giving them guidelines. And you can also address this by looking longer term and thinking of including more fun speakers year by year so that it becomes a normal part of the culture of your event.
time for attendees to meet the speaker – I come back to this idea over and over again. Most sessions revolve around the speaker talking for 90% of the time and then, if we’re lucky, there are a few minutes at the end of the session for people to ask questions from the audience. And then if we’re really lucky, there’s time at the end of the session before people have to run off to the next session where they can meet the speaker. Of course, the problem is that 10 or 20 people all want to have 5 minutes with the speaker which means that 90% of them are going to be disappointed because they’re not going to get that time. And the speaker is also often disappointed because it means that he or she doesn’t get to interact with those people whether it’s to get new ideas, to find collaborators, or to find customers or partners. So, I think more about how that 50 minutes can be used to break people into small groups and maybe have the speaker come around and work with each small group or do stations where someone gets 5 minutes with the speaker or whatever it is. But, overall, thinking that your speaker needs to speak for an hour makes it very difficult for people to interact with him or her. If I have a speaker do a really efficient presentation – we come back to formats like a 7-minute pecha kucha – then it leaves a lot of room to play with in the remaining 53 minutes.
speakers go around to break out groups and participate in short discussions – Indeed. It’s important to reframe the idea that someone can be a speaker and still not need to be at a lectern in front of a class of people for 45 minutes straight. A speaker or an expert can interact with the audience in a variety of ways that may be more effective and better received by everyone.
good jokes – I think we can all agree that conferences with bad jokes are the worst.
connect attendees to other attendees – Yes this is exactly what we’re talking about when we say that networking is going to overlap with content and content is going to overlap with networking. Having attendees meet each other and work with each other and interact with each other works great in breakout sessions even if that’s not the model that we usually have in our head.
small discussion breakout groups
no power points
participants act out problems or solutions – I’ve done some fun work with improv like this. It can be a little tricky to get people to loosen up and volunteer and then buy into the process, but it ends up being a fun and productive session.
create worksheets – As I tried to do in my workshop, it’s valuable to give people a framework for the session. It may mean writing down their challenges or who they met in the session that they found valuable, or something else.
interactive content with blue sky brainstorming
opposite visioning exercise
polling from your attendees on what topics make sense
participants round tables of people facing similar challenges – This is a really good idea but the only caution I would have is that sometimes people take the idea of a “round table” conference workshop session very literally and they put a group of eight or 10 people around a really big table. Being that far away from other people with a big block of wood between you just isn’t conducive to having the kind of intimate conversation that we’re aiming for.