Beat the Conference Blahs

Boring Conference Format

It’s Day Two of the convention and my body aches from sitting in one place for so long. I’ve heard experts tell me what to do and how to do it. I’ve seen ten PowerPoint templates and seven videos. I’ve been promised the Next Big Thing. What I haven’t been is inspired. Or even very engaged.

Too many conferences suffer from the assumption that the best way to use people’s time is to subject them to elaborately designed presentations. After seeing a PowerPoint, we may be able to retell one or two of the best practices Company X used. But can we take those ideas and use them to make a difference? Not very often.

Adults learn how to apply knowledge through practice and application. When we link our own experiences and situations to a best practice, idea, or model, that information becomes more real and relevant. We gain energy and excitement by practicing and experimenting with how we might apply the idea in our organizations.

What this means is that we need to stop fussing so much about the design of our presentations. (And that means me too! I’m just as guilty of obsessing over fonts and images as any other presenter.) We need to design our conferences differently.

Here are three (of many) different ways to design a conference. Use them to spark your imagination: what might engage and inspire people at your next event?

UnConference Format: Discuss What Matters

I recently returned from co-facilitating my most delicious gig of the year: the Northwest Chocolate Festival UnConference. The event brings together around 200 people from the industry—farmers, makers, educators, researchers, brokers, and retailers—to talk about what’s important to them. Several speakers share knowledge at the beginning of the day to whet people’s thinking and lay a foundation for conversation. However, participants determine the bulk of the agenda during the actual conference.

UnConference Format Sticky Notes

When participants arrive, they list topics they wish to discuss on a white board. The topics are grouped and assigned to time slots. If people want to talk about fermentation, it’s on the agenda. If quality standards are hot, that topic gets a time slot.

Some people worry that people won’t behave themselves in an UnConference format. That’s one of the reason why the facilitators are there. We help people set ground rules and focus on what’s important. But to be honest, participants do a great job managing themselves. Once we get them started, we don’t need to intervene often.

The key to making an UnConference work is, unexpectedly, lots of planning. We never know what will happen once people arrive, so we work very hard to design an environment and structure that will bring out the best in participants. The venue, the spaces used for breakout sessions, the speakers, and the times allotted to each segment of the agenda are all things we care about deeply. We spend much time planning how to open the conference to help people adapt to an unfamiliar format and to build the conference community.

In other words, don’t axe your facilitation budget if you decide to go with an UnConference format. But do expect the unexpected and prepare for an energized group of people talking about what truly engages them.

Note: There are many ways to run an UnConference. Two of our favorite formats are Open Space and World Café.

Game-Based Conference Format: Learn through Play

When one hundred employees descended on a nondescript hotel in central Massachusetts, they came for a two-day conference on the future of their organization. They didn’t expect two days of play.

The head of the organization had charged us, the conference designers, with two seemingly simple goals: (1) Help people take ownership for the coming year’s goals and (2) Increase collaboration across the “white spaces” (organizational silos). The second goal was the trickier one. In this organization, people were married to their departments; they valued those relationships more than others.

Artifact of a Game Conference Format

They needed something to jolt them out of their habitual patterns. But we didn’t want to coerce them into compliance. Instead, we decided to use a technique no one expected from the conference: we decided to make it fun.

The entire first morning of the conference was focused on a large, collective game. People formed cross-functional teams (one was called the Lightening Bolts and used the flag to the right). They competed against each other to find the answers to questions about the organization and to solve problems together. They proceeded through squares on a giant board laid on the ballroom floor, and carried their team flags with them. Without even thinking about it, they strengthened cross-functional relationships as they laughed and learned together.

The rest of the conference followed a similar theme. Different games, interspersed with application conversations, filled the agenda. They left with the goals achieved and without sitting through a single presentation.

This type of conference requires a lot of planning and thought. You’ll need to choose a venue that can handle a nontraditional format and you’ll need budget for supplies. It’s quite labor intensive, but the results can be among the most energizing and exciting of all the formats.

Data Discovery Conference Format: Make Meaning Together

Last November, sixty people at the Ohio Association for County Boards for Developmental Disabilities agreed to participate in an unusual experiment. They agreed to create a real-time map of all the relationships in the room.

The participants had traveled from across Ohio, where they worked in separate county organizations charged with overseeing services to residents with developmental disabilities. Some of their organizations were tiny, others were large. All needed something: more support, information, advice, specific skills, and so on.

To help participants see how they might help each other, we used network visualization. During the session, each participant received an email from sumApp, an innovative online data collection tool. They uploaded their photos and described how they knew (or didn’t know) each of the other participants. The data from sumApp automatically fed into Kumu, an online network visualization app, creating a real-time relationship map.

Connection Conference Format Image

When all the data came in, here’s what participants saw:The group had some interesting observations right from the start. We started exploring hypotheses like “Why do we think Ryan is a hub?” People formed hypotheses, which we checked with Ryan. Together, we collectively tested theories and built our understanding of what the network meant.

The group talked about how participants could use the map to located needed skills and access gatekeepers. After the conference, each participant received a link to the map along with short, instructional videos on how to navigate the maps.

This kind of format requires an outcome focused on connection. Conference communities can use network maps to analyze where resources exist and how people collaborate. They can help people identify missed opportunities, hidden bottlenecks, and unaddressed problems. They’re a great tool, but only when used for a purpose that suits their strengths. If you’re going to go down the network mapping route, be sure to be clear on the conference goals and the role networking mapping will play. You’ll need to set aside budget for the tool (which can be quite inexpensive) and for a subject-matter expert to operate it.

Your Next Conference Format

These are just three of many ways to create an innovative conference format. What might work best for your next conference? To choose your method, start with these questions:

  • How do you want people to experience the conference? Should people be energized, engaged, or involved? If you do, consider a non-traditional conference format.
  • What is the goal of the conference? If it’s learning, consider a game-based or discussion-based format. If it’s connecting, consider a network-based format.

Good luck conference planning!

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