Conferences are an effective method to engage a selected audience in dialogue and give them the necessary tools to contribute effectively towards a common goal. Yet, designing conferences is not easy and there are many pitfalls along the way.
In the previous post I wrote about some of the biggest pitfalls you risk falling into when designing a summit or meeting. In this post I present some of the best practises on conference design, to help best deliver value to both organisers and participants.
The three conditions of modern strategic management to be met, before a group of people will actively work toward a common cause, are:
- Direction: The group needs to be clear on where they are headed.
- Motivation: They need to be motivated to be on-board the project and find meaning in the purpose of the project.
- Expectations: The participants need to understand what is expected of them, and be clear on how they can contribute.
Designing an effective summit is no different. For a conference to succeed in delivering value, it requires good planning. Basing your conference plans on good principles will help you avoid the above pitfalls.
Below are five principles to start conference-planning with.
1. START WITH A PURPOSE AND A THEME
A conference needs a grounding purpose, and a matching theme. Clarify and communicate the purpose clearly to yourself, the co-organisers, and all the participants. I have found that analytical tools from storytelling are good for coming to the core with this task. Use clear and honest language, and avoid platitudes and industry jargon.
A clear purpose and a theme are absolute necessities. They need to be in place before moving on to design the process and after that, the programme. It is also at this stage where you will find inspiration to graphics, staging, entertainment, etc. Don’t forget that good graphic design and staging of the spaces has a remarkable effect on the participants’ motivation.
2. DESIGN THE CORE PROCESS
The second step is to design a clear process for the entire conference. Start with chapter headings, and don’t move to the programme just yet.
It is important to create a comprehensive process that guides the participants through the entire conference in a logical, interesting, and meaningful manner. The core process also needs to fit with the purpose and theme of the conference. If the purpose is for example a change process, you can build it on a classic fairy-tale template; or if your purpose is involvement and problem-solving, you could consider an innovation process as a starting point.
Design the programme so that it follows the core process, and hold on to it, even when faced with the evitable changes and surprises. Like, when the keynote speaker cancels, or an executive suddenly decides they want airtime after all.
3. CREATE SPACE FOR REAL INVOLVEMENT
When the purpose and core process are set, it is time to identify places where the participants can have a real influence and input. For this, consider the several levels of involvement.
The first level is participation. The participants are invited to contribute to strategy, write manifests, or set specific targets. It is not always possible on a high level, however, but the participants can decide over their own area, set local targets, or decide how the targets could best be achieved.
If all these things are already in place, move the discussion onto the effects the changes will have on the participants everyday lives, exchange experiences, and consider how everyone can best proceed with the change process.
4. AIM FOR VARIETY
It is easy to fill a programme with presentations or let the entire conference consist of open workshops. It is questionable however, if it fits with the core process and the participants.
The different steps in the process demand different tools. It is equally difficult to convey a dream trip experience with PowerPoint as it is to express a personal vision on a strategy through a plenum debate.
Using the same process all the way through can cause some participants to disconnect. People are different and learn in different ways. It is therefore a good idea to include a variety of tools and methods into the programme. This will help ensure that the participants have the best chance to soak up as much of the content as possible.
5. BUILD A BRIDGE TO THE EVERYDAY
Finally, whatever you do, do not forget to connect the conference learning points to the participants’ everyday lives. Ideally, the conference is just the first step on a long journey the participants are embarking on. Set aside time for building the connections, and give tools for the participants to take home. They are often change agents – help them fulfil their roles!
This is a very worthy point in the programme that is not to be neglected. Give the participants the time to create an action plan or exchange ideas on how the work should proceed. Prioritise this slot over lectures and other workshops. New information is not worth a thing if it is left behind at the conference doors. Give out tools and materials that the participants can take home with them. These can be tools to use in changing their everyday work, or materials that remind them of what they have learned. Another effective option is to expand the core process of the conference to continue beyond the conference days by creating sequels and follow-ups.
THE VALUABLE CONFERENCE
Conferences need to deliver value to be worth the investment and risk. Participants and organisers alike need return on the investment of their time and money. This holds true for all arrangements, were it an ‘ordinary’ teambuilding day or a gathering of top executives. It is not enough that the logistics hold together and technology plays along nicely. The content and process must deliver.
The guidelines above are intended to help you on the path toward organising a successful conference. They can be a good starting point for your own work, but are also worth keeping in mind, when overseeing the work of another you you have hired to do the job.