Reimagining Conferences

At a time when the COVD-19 novel coronavirus is causing conferences around the world to be canceled or postponed, it’s more important than ever to take a long hard look at the fundamental ways that large gatherings for professional purposes are structured.

For too long, organizers have tried to cram a full schedule of keynotes, panel discussions, and mixers onto schedules. While these may look good on paper, they leave everyone dazed, unable to absorb a tsunami of data or to remember much of what they’ve heard when they get back home.

Writing in Forbes, Lital Moram challenges conventional wisdom about the organization of typical conferences. Technology has long-promised audiences new access to content and a backchannel for peer-to-peer communication in the face of the person on the podium.

She offers five suggestions for a timely reimagining of the way conferences are structured.

Less is More

Rather than larding the agenda with every minute filled, recognize people need time to discuss what they’ve heard. Downtime is valuable.

But wait, there’s more. Why not do away with an agenda altogether?

I was introduced to Open Space Technology 14 years ago at an NSA Northern California meeting. However, none of the major tech companies I worked for dared to embrace anything as radical.

Make your Speakers Accessible

Requesting that speakers schedule meeting time after they present gives audience members who feel uncomfortable asking questions in front of the whole audience a chance to discuss their issues one-on-one.

This is complemented by the social media backchannel, which has gone from a fringe activity to mainstream in many meetings. Moram provides an update in her next recommendation:

Don’t Shy Away from Technology

Beyond sharing tweets, there are a whole host of ways to engage audiences via their mobile phones. Savvy speakers are well aware of this, and can now employ a host of audience response software for instant polls.

Work Toward Relevance

Moram cautions against the threat of death by PowerPoint and the curse of the specialist:

Identify your keynote speaker’s expertise and then continue to build on their message by orchestrating workshops and breakout sessions that apply new insights they’ve shared as it relates to real-world pressing issues faced by your participants.

There are proven methods to help subject matter experts overcome the limits of their deep knowledge of one specific area.

Cultivate Learning by Doing

The most radical proposal in this excellent review is the acknowledgment that people learn by doing:

… the heart of the conference should focus on learning by doing — through moderated workshops, breakout sessions and interactive experiences where you get to apply new knowledge in action. Research shows that experiential learning is learning that sticks.

Problem-solving that involves your attendees personally is something they’ll remember 20 years later.

Taking it to the Next Step: Coach your Speakers

It’s refreshing to see that Forbes carries this article. While “Disrupting” meetings might have awkward historical connotations, her heart is in the right place.

Beyond the five suggestions listed, there’s no shortage of ideas conference organizers can review with each speaker, so that they are aligned to the goal if helping audience members remember what they say:

How to Get the most from your Next Conference

Sooner or later COVID-19 will cease to be the challenge to meetings that it is today. When you are once again able to attend your next conference, before you grab your name-badge and head over for nibbles and drinks, check out these useful tips for attendees. (Be sure to scroll down and read the resources listed in the comments section.)

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