Dear conference planner,
I understand your world. I have sat on your side of the desk many times organizing conferences and educational sessions for associations and clients. However, I spend most of my time as a team-building and training facilitator and speaker.
When I am on the other side of the desk, there are so many things that I see that could improve the effectiveness of your conferences. Quite frankly, there are a number of things you do that bug me. There are so many questions I’ve wanted to ask you and suggestions I’ve wanted to share for a very long time. So, today is the day.
Why isn’t conference content more relevant?
Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult learning (andragogy), highlighted that
Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.”
This was true when he wrote it and it is true today.
So why do you pay top dollar for a speaker or a celebrity who is a “name” to go on and on about some exotic adventure he had in Tibet or scaling Mount Everest? Who cares? This may be entertaining to a handful of participants, but it’s totally irrelevant and does not help participants grapple with the challenges they face in the real world.
Alternative: Save the adventure speakers for conferences related to adventure tourism, outdoor enthusiasts and thrill seekers. Select speakers who have content and experiences to share that are relevant to participants. Even if a speaker’s bureau is providing speakers pro bono for exposure, ensure that you select speakers who have relevant content to share. Otherwise, it’s not a match.
Why do you think that changing speakers every 20 minutes makes conference content more interactive?
It doesn’t. Yes you’ve caught on to the fact that attention spans are short. Whether one speaker presents for an hour or you parade a new “talking head” in front of participants every 20 minutes, it’s still boring. Participants are still in a passive mode and they will still go to sleep.
For speakers, a 20-minute time slot means that we can never cover anything in depth. It’s frustrating for both the speaker and participants.
Alternative: Allocate longer time slots for speakers and breakout sessions. Ask them to present in 20-minute time slots and then break them up with a quick energizer, meaningful exercise to help participants apply what they are learning to their day-to-day challenges, and a debriefing. If a speaker is not comfortable using energizers or facilitating debriefs, pair up (or “tag team”) speakers and facilitators. Ninety minutes will go by quickly in this format and speakers will have the opportunity to cover content in a lot more depth.
Here are some suggestions that really work to make sessions interactive:
Session previews can be very effective. Give speakers and facilitators an opportunity to present a 10-minute segment of their content during the first general session. Break these presentations up with quick energizers. Ask participants to stand and stretch and then guide them through a quick energizer.
When the presentations are finished, provide participants with the opportunity to select the breakout sessions that they find most relevant.
Why do you still insist on using theatre style seating?
Theater-style seating kills engagement and gives facilitators and speakers few options other than to deliver a boring presentation…while participants go to sleep.
When participants enter a room configured in rows, they immediately go into passive mode. They expect a lecture. It’s tough for speakers to wake them up. It is also awkward for participants to interact with each other when they are seated in rows so exercises seem forced, contrived and unnatural.
Alternative: Experiment with round tables (arrange seats around half of the table), rectangular tables and U-shaped configurations (with empty seats inside the U for exercises). Arranging round tables in a semi-circle with a central table for demos and forum role-play also works.
Why are conference rooms so drab?
Dull colors and dim lighting are the perfect environment for a nap, not a learning experience.
Alternative: It doesn’t take much to add a touch of pizzazz to a conference room. Most hotels and meeting venues can provide colored tablecloths for the same price as white ones. Use a variety of colors and stimulate the senses. Event planners are used to tablescapes for dinners and banquets. Apply the same principles to participant tables for conferences.
Even if budgets are low, providing Mr. Sketch scented markers, florescent Post-It notes, tactile energizers (e.g. Slinkys, stress balls, small wooden hand massagers, LEGOs) and colorful pens is a low-cost way to add pops of color and sense to any meeting room. Posters with vivid images that underscore key learning points are also very helpful. This brings me to my next question.
Why do you allow no transition or set-up time between breakout sessions?
When sessions are scheduled back to back, even well-motivated facilitators have little opportunity to put out learning aids, props, energizers or peripherals. When participants are entering the room at the same time facilitators are setting up, it creates the impression that they are disorganized. Credibility takes a big hit.
Alternative: Schedule breakout sessions that require set-up as the first session of the day or immediately after lunch. Schedule a break and networking opportunity between each breakout session. (Participants often complain that conference agendas are too packed and there is little opportunity to network so they will thank you.) Make sure that you have plenty of volunteers on hand to assist with set-up. Give facilitators an opportunity to brief the volunteers in advance.
Why do you leave AV to chance?
Speakers, facilitators and conference organizers have one chance to get it right. A mic that gives feedback and a projector that malfunctions eats up the already limited time.
Alternative: Provide a technician for each break-out room. It doesn’t add that much to your costs and smooth technical logistics can make or break a conference.
Why allow speakers and sessions to run overtime?
This is a great disservice to speakers and facilitators who come later in the program. It also frustrates participants who find that, later in the day, timeframes are compressed and content is covered at a breakneck pace.
Alternative: Schedule a buffer after each session. (Don’t list it on the agenda or announce it to speakers. Just list the whole envelope of time as a networking break.) Your agenda would look something like this.
8:30 General Session
10:00 Buffer and Networking Break
10:30 Breakout Session
1:00 Breakout Session
2:30 Buffer and Networking Break
3:00 Breakout Session – General Session on the last day.
4:30 Buffer and End
Your speaker and breakout session facilitator
P.S. I trust you’ve read my first conference planner open letter/dos and don’t suggestion…
P.P.S. The following resources are highly recommended for meeting and conference planners. They will provide insight into the key ingredients for creating interactive learning experiences.
30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning (A classic)