A Dozen Ideas for Better Conferences

Revisiting and refreshing some conference design fundamentals can often enhance the value the experience provides to participants. Based on doing exactly that with several organizations this year, here are a dozen (in no particular order) opportunities calling for your attention. In exploring these areas, remain vigilant about your own possible implicit bias ... designing elements that you would like, but your participants might value less.

1. Right after registration check-in is an underutilized opportunity.
Planners spend a lot of time ensuring an efficient registration experience, but often spend no time designing what comes next.  I've checked in and now have a bag full of stuff ... now what? Consider creating a transition space where people can sit, get organized, and get connected.  Components could include light refreshments, welcome ambassadors, a genius bar, a resource area, award winners on display, and more.

2.  General sessions beg to be followed by learning labs.
Many conferences fail to realize an appropriate learning return for their big bucks investments in general session speaker fees and stagecraft. Even the most compelling keynote speech has limited shelf life if application is not examined with like-minded peers. College courses often have lectures followed by intimate learning labs and conference general sessions can do the same. Labs could be organized by job functions, organization size or budget, specific questions or issues, and more. Better yet, also build content application moments into the general session design to make that experience more active and useful.

3.  Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) still receive too little support.
SMEs comprise a large percentage of the presenters at many conferences and still need much more support to move from delivering information to facilitating learning. A basic support menu should include an online resource center, webinars, before and after session design examples, peer coaching, and special attention related to diversity and inclusion commitments.

4.  Create conference core values to infuse identity and intention into your choices.
If I was to watch your conference in action or examine any of its artifacts (marketing, program guides, apps, et al) would I immediately sense how it is different than a competing organization trying to attract the same audience? Applying clearly articulated core values can increase the odds your conference experience has a distinct identity, one amplified and extended in participants' word-of-mouth marketing. I'll address this topic in-depth in my next post in this series.

5.  Attend to the flow as you sequence conference elements.
A great conference experience is subtly orchestrated by carefully sequencing individual conference elements (and individual segments within them) for their effect on learning, connections and community, energy and attention, cognitive overload, and much more. In your design, be sure to consider how moving any individual element affects the overall flow as well as these individual factors.

6.  Some major conference welcoming events are anything but, particularly for introverts. 
A good welcoming event is like curb appeal for a house for sale ... it draws you in and makes you want to see more or it sends you running away.  Every conference has a diverse array of participants in terms of: demographics; interests and needs; connection to your industry or profession, your organization, the conference community; dietary restrictions and preferences, and much more. Create some mock participant profiles that reflect these differences and then consider your welcoming event design through the eyes of these individuals. Dig deep into your design to create a more inclusive welcome. And a big missed opportunity? Making me feel welcome if I happen to miss the big welcoming event.

7.  Design for the ramp-up (pre-event) and the reflect and reengage (post-event) with as much intention and attention as you give the event itself.
Gather folks involved in your conference design and ask each one to write down the percentage of design time and resources allocated to (1) before the event, (2) the event itself, and (3) after the event. After everyone shares, discuss the distributions and what participant value might be created if the time and resources were allocated differently. Too often, what happens before and after receive too little attention and remain too focused on logistics. Both should be about enhancing the learning and connectedness/sense of community your participants acquire.

8.  Enable sharing to spread the conference value far and wide.
What if every attendee is thought of as a learning ambassador, someone who will need to go back and teach others all that was learned from your conference? How might you support them in doing so? Creating shareable snack-size content excerpts (pictures with headlines and takeaways, prepared Tweets and social media status update options with built-in content takeaways, and video session highlights or executive summaries are just a few of the possibilities.

9.  Set yourself up to succeed. Place little bets.
Test your boldest or riskiest ideas where you can learn what works without fear; i.e., a limited attendance or invite only session, a track of conference experiments, an optional experience. Every conference design benefits from experimenting with new ways to support participants' intentions, as well as refreshing the value of longstanding program elements before they become tired and less desirable.

10.  Build learning into your marketing and communications.
Include links to additional resources (ones you offer, as well as a curated and annotated list of external sources that you create) in your online registration materials and session descriptions, as well as registration confirmations and other communications. Do not limit learning to the conference or any sessions themselves.

11.  Connect content to application through the learning experience.
Content without context, reflection, exploration, and application is merely noise that may raise awareness at best. That is not enough. We must help participants understand the implications (so what?) and applications (now what?) of any content covered. Increase the ratio of signal-to-noise in your content and session design and help every presenter do the same by providing at minimum, a list of easy-to-apply hands-on learning formats.

12.  White space is your friend.
Every conference schedule needs breathing room and white space by design. It is why musicians have silence between the notes and wine tastings include palate cleansers between samples. A good conference design does the same.

This is the fourth post in a summer series on the craft of conference and program design.

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