Conferences used to be a highlight on many corporate calendars as these events provided rare networking opportunities with peers and insights from global thought leaders.
These days many of these thought leaders regularly share easily digestible snippets of wisdom via social media, and peer networking activities ignore geographical boundaries.
Despite this, there aren’t many conferences that have moved on from long days with drawn-out programmes and struggles to deal with information overload, shortly relieved by predictable breaks and a tangible lack of delegate networking.
Conference delegates needs have changed, and in tough economic times organisations expect more tangible benefit from their investment in delegate registration fees. Conference organisers have to do better than just updating the speaker list of the previous year’s conference.
The first step to realise this change is by not thinking of conferences as large-scale meetings with an agenda of items to get through
Arranging a meeting requires logistics; creating a conference is a form of art. Conference organisers should create collaborative corporate theatre productions.
Think audience comfort first
It has become necessary to make it easy for delegates to stay at the venue for the duration of the conference instead of relying on their own motivation.
Obvious items such as unlimited free wifi – with connection assistance available on site – and a plug point for each seat should become commonplace. These items however incur significant additional costs, and are unfortunately not approved in many conference budgets.
Adjustments that can be made without any additional costs stem from being aware of differing levels of stimulation needed by delegates to maintain energy levels throughout the programme.
While some might be comfortable in dimly lit venue for an entire day, others might do well if the lights are turned up during speaker introductions or panel discussions. Even the type of background music and variations in levels of sound could be manipulated during the day to suit or change the audience energy.
Obvious but often overlooked items such as communication geared to not only convey instructions, but enhance each individual delegate’s experience of the conference cost very little, but make a big difference.
Delegates must be made to feel as if their needs have been anticipated, not as if they are an inconvenience crammed into what was available.
Audience comfort has to be anticipated and accommodated from registration and arrival right through to the closing session at the end of the programme.
Make each delegate the main character in an exciting storyline
Conferences have all the hype and excitement at the beginning with the host or main sponsors usually as the star. This focus needs to be changed around so that delegates form the main characters in creating a conference story that is relevant to their own individual needs.
Instead of allowing content only from speakers and sponsors, conference organisers should work towards developing an additive conference model.
Additive conferences enable audiences to contribute content based on their own insights, and incorporate it into the formal programme.
Instead of limiting delegate notes to scribbles on venue paper that will at best get filed back at the office, create participation spaces where the key takeaways from delegates can be collected after each session.
Such a participation space could be as impressive as a large wall covered with easily removable vinyl on which delegates can write, or a packet of sticky notes on which delegates can jot down “a-hah moments” to stick onto flipcharts.
These compiled takeaways, whether in video or written form, can be made available to other delegates as a post-conference keepsake. It also serves as additional conference content that extend the value of the conference past what was offered by the speakers.
Speed up the audience learning curve
Another benefit of active audience content contributions at regular intervals is that it speeds up the audience learning curve, enabling delegates to implement new ideas much quicker to the benefit of their employers.
The key to delegate participation is to not leave it only for scheduled break times, but incorporate it as part of the time allocated for each session. This will increase the amount of participation as it becomes a group activity rather than being left up to each delegate’s individual motivation.
The conference MC can spend 10 reflective minutes after every session to help delegates recall what they’ve heard, interpret it based on their own circumstances, and contribute a summary, thought, or challenge to the pool of audience-generated content.
Train the storytellers
It goes without saying that the MC leading these sessions needs to be a professional experienced in the craft. An MC is often chosen from a limited number of willing volunteers, and while this might seem like a cost effective option, it does very little to build better conferences.
Similarly, speakers are often selected from the information provided on application forms that traditionally focus on the intellectual value of the content, rather than the proficiency of the speaker in delivering valuable content in an engaging way.
Spending some of the conference budget on a professional keynote speaker is always a good investment, as these professionals are experienced in setting or matching the scene and mood of a conference, but it doesn’t mean that all speakers have to be professionals.
One of the best ways to elevate the performance of the volunteer speakers is to provide them with a video channel that features short examples of preferred styles and general public speaking tips that will be suitable to the specific conference. It is also very helpful to include a video submission section in the speaker application process to determine where additional assistance might be necessary.
Sponsors and exhibitors also form a significant part of the conference story. While the majority might be experienced conference participants, organisers can do a lot more to build better conferences by guiding sponsors and exhibitors in audience needs.
Organisers need to guide sponsors who will have a speaking opportunity to share with the audience why they support the conference and perhaps the sector, as people remember how brands made them feel, not what brands sold.
It might also be necessary to alter the logistics of sponsored items and hand out promotional items after a sponsor session or video, rather than including all promotional items in the delegate bag received during registration.
Don’t give away all the good stuff at the beginning of a conference; give the audience a chance to earn it throughout the programme.