Turning the traditional conference format around

Expert Opinion

Katherine Woods, Founder of meeting facilitation company, Meeting Magic, works with clients to design the flow of conversations that take place at conferences. She discusses how she puts conversations at the heart of the events she facilitates:

Delegates tend to sign up for conferences for two main reasons; the topic is of interest and they hope to be inspired by new thinking from an expert speaker. However, increasingly participants want more in exchange for spending their valuable time and often limited budget at conferences.

I would like to encourage you to design the flow of the conversations at your events. So, what do I mean by this?

It can be incredibly hard for key note speakers to meet the needs of large audiences. They usually have poor information about who the attendees are and they certainly aren’t going to know what is on the mind of each individual in the room on the day. Many speakers have stock presentations that they adjust for different events.

Why not take the time at the start of a conference to understand the expertise that lies in the entire group and what questions they have. By doing this, speakers can really understand their audience, what they know and what they need.

The challenge with this approach is being flexible enough to tailor presentations real time.

This is why I recommend designing conferences as conversations in large groups.  By doing this, you take the onus off the idea of having ‘an expert’ and move towards sharing expertise amongst the delegates in the room.

So, how does this work in practise?

1.    Begin by agreeing the overall theme for your event or conference

2.    Choose a small number of key topics relevant to the main theme – keeping the delegates needs front of mind

3.    Structure the physical layout of the event space to enable delegates to move freely around the room

4.    Plan the timings to allow small groups to discuss the topics that interest them.

By designing a conference in this way, people with common interests are drawn together. This style of working has much in common with the way more and more of us work online. Instead of emailing a request for information or an update to your Outlook contact list, you can post a message on a social networking site like Linked In or Facebook. Members who are interested or who have the information you are looking for will respond or provide comments.

Similarly, in a well-designed conference, the interests of most people will be explored and salient expertise will be shared. A more traditional-style conference tends to share predetermined expertise which may or may not be relevant to the delegates.

This style of conference enables powerful conversations between individuals. Most conferences offer networking as a benefit for attendees. But, let’s face it, some of us find it difficult to walk up to complete strangers and strike up conversations. Many people go to a conference with people they know and stick with them. At a conversational conference people naturally get the chance to move around and talk in small groups about topics that interest them. The subject matter draws people together with like-minded views and networking can occur in an easy and productive way.

In summary, there will always be a need for thought leadership in all aspects of business.  However, the idea that much of a conference can be filled with this is out-dated. Conference organisers need to really think about how we work today and how best to emulate this in the events they produce. For many individuals, the idea of exchanging information within a group is an intuitive way of engaging with others and learning.

Next time you plan a conference, consider how best to harness the knowledge that is present in the audience. Use the expertise in the group to make your conference interactive, engaging and one that delegates will remember.

Any comments? Email cmw@mashmedia.net

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