KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

A few thoughts for conference organizers

with 16 comments

Yesterday there was an interesting, and perhaps a little snarky exchange on twitter about conferences and whether they really achieve much.

I admit to being one of the snarkers, but not because I think conferences are a waste of time, but rather because they so often disappoint. So I thought I would share a few very quick points on how to make conferences better  – not intended to be a definitive list.

Firstly, a large part of the benefit of conferences is that they are an opportunity for networking and side conversations. Yet for some reason most conference organizers don’t adequately recognize this. I’ve mentioned befrore the importance of meeting people in real life, but I’d go as far as to say that often the most lasting partnerships and follow up actions from a conference come out of the various informal side meetings or are hashed out over coffee or beers. Therefore if you want to run a successful conference you need to provide opportunities for people to network.

A few practical ways to do this are to include enough time for breaks, especially at the start of the meeting – don’t overschedule everything so there is no “down time”. Use some sort of icebreaker for people to introduce and get to know each other at the beginning of the conference so it is easier for them to interact later. Organize a reception or “reasonably priced” social events in the evenings (even if not everyone can attend). Keep people in the conference vicinity by catering onsite so they are encouraged to stay together.

So on to the conference content itself. The biggest mistake I’ve tended to see is death by Powerpoint – one boring presentation after another without any real time for discussion, often with so many different topics crammed into the meeting and so many different speakers that it is impossible to do any of them justice. Often in conferences less is more – better to reduce the number of topics covered and the number of presentations and presenters so that you have adequate time to cover the topics well. It’s also important for the speakers to allow adequate time for questions and answer – I’d say in most cases it’s good to plan for 50% of a session to be left for questions – knowing that most speakers don’t keep to time and will then take up more like 75% of the total time allotted.

Mix up formats – the participants are much more likely to pay attention if you vary the formats of the sessions – mix up formal presentations, panel discussions, and try to introduce some innovative methods such as fish bowls or chat shows, or rapid fire presentation techniques such as Ignite. If the nature of the conference allows it (and it might not work for all types of conference) try to introduce more interactive methodologies including group work, methods such as knowledge fairs or world cafes – these are much more effective at getting people to contribute to and learn from a conference than simply sitting and listening to others (more techniques and approaches are included here in the knowledge sharing toolkit).

Get good speakers, or get your speakers good. Of course we all want good speakers, but we also recognize that some are better than others, and we will need to include some that aren’t the most exciting. But – you can encourage presenters to rehearse their presentations beforehand – this will give them an opportunity to get feedback on content, but also timing so that they don’t talk for the whole session. It’s also good to share some general tips on good powerpoint presentations with your presenters beforehand. If possible avoid putting your less exciting speakers in the slot just after lunch – and try to open up with one of your better speakers as the first presentation sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. Good experienced moderators for the meeting can also make a big difference since they can help keep the meeting on track, keep the flow of conversation going and help people feel included and heard. Moderators are sometimes chosen because of seniority or “gravitas” – but while these things might be good for appearances – someone who is actually good at moderating can have a greater impact – of course someone good at both is ideal.

Meeting technology can also have an important impact on your meeting success. The most important thing is to test it beforehand – several times – especially if you are having people join the conference by video conferencing – there’s nothing worse than spending a good part of your conference fixing technology. And if the technology is not working properly, deal with it – don’t spend the whole time fixing it instead of concentrating on the content of the conference. The importance of having a reliable internet wireless connection also can’t be stressed enough (hope our building managers are reading this!) – this is especially important if you want to encourage people to livetweet your meeting which is a great way to get a meeting backchannel going (so you can get an idea how the meeting is really going) and to engage people who are not present in the room.

Engage people before and after the conference – post key information online beforehand including agenda, papers, speakers etc. this will help pique people’s interest and give people the opportunity to come prepared (although many will not bother to read anything you send them beforehand).  Share meeting proceedings afterwards, also online as quickly as possible. Encourage people to blog and tweet your meeting, and to share their photos etc. informally, during the meeting and afterwards separate from the formal reporting. Create and publicize hashtag for the conference so people can easily find the related social content.  Depending on the purpose of the conference it can also be a great opportunity to launch something such as a new initiative or a community of practice – you can build on the momentum and goodwill of the conference and capitalize on the benefits of having people meet face to face to help get them to collaborate better in future.

This is just a quick, non-comprehensive list based on my own experience – there are many other more authoritative, more detailed guides and tips out there if you look. Are there any other tips and pitfalls that any of you would suggest?

Update: Sasha Dichter from Acumen Fund takes improving conferences to a new level with this excellent post “Radical openness ad what it means for conferences” which suggests that livestreaming allows is to consider restructuring conferences altogether (although it will be a while before all OUR conferences are livestreamed).

 

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Written by Ian Thorpe

May 10, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in dumb ideas I had

16 Responses

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  1. Ian – This is an excellent listing. Re: engaging people before the conference, not possible for all conferences depending on the size and host’s policies, but conferences that post attendee lists in advance make it easier for attendees to connect with those they want to meet during the meeting.

    Bonnie Koenig

    May 10, 2011 at 2:13 pm

  2. Hi Ian,

    Just a collection of previous blogposts that might add ideas to your thoughts:

    – Setting up backchannels in your learning events

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/using-backchannels-in-learning-events/

    – A visual overview of different learning methodologies

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/a-visual-overview-of-learning-methodologies-delta-itc-ilo/

    – Practical use of participatory learning methodologies

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/423/

    – 100 facilitation tips ?

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/100-facilitation-tips/

    – Interact with your audience

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/interact-with-your-audience/

    – Pecha Kucha

    http://itcilo.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/pecha-kucha/

    We are currently developing a guide for th Train4Dev network which will be more structured and detailed. Will keep you updated.

    Greetings,
    Tom,

    Tom Wambeke

    May 11, 2011 at 9:15 am

    • Hi Tom – many thanks for these excellent links.
      I think one of the challenges is that many “academic track” or “corporate track” conferences are stuck with the presentation mode of workshops and don’t seem too open to using some of the more interactive and innovative methodologies such as are outlined in the great resources you shared. Any thoughts from your experience on how to persuade people to use them in the first place?

      Ian Thorpe

      May 11, 2011 at 9:19 am

  3. Hi Ian,

    On a personal note I illustrate the learning retention rate by showcasing the learning pyramid of Edgar Dale. (you just can google it)

    On a more institutional note we captured the last years all the data from our end-of-activity questionnaires and discovered positive correlations between the use of participatory learning methods and a series of other factors which contributed to the overall quality of the learning events. These Kirkpatrick level 1 data were according to management relevant to continue to invest resources in staff development on the use of these innovative methodologies

    On another note it is a matter of learning by doing, most of the traditional conferences are products of habit and doing more of the same. Resistance can be transformed when you involve senior managers in this type of exercises when they are well facilitated.

    It is also good to point out to the productive results of this process oriented methods in learning events. When you combine this with some good subject matter expertise it is amazing what the outputs can be of a peer assist, open space of a world cafe. By documenting this outputs carefully and integrate them in follow up reports and link them to the daily work of an office, another buy in will be guaranteed.

    And last but not least, blend them with traditional methods methods so there is a certain degree of familiarity. It does not take much effort to turn your panel expert debate into a interactive fishbowl discussion.

    I’m crowdsourcing at this moment also on scientific results of learning outcomes through the use of these participative methods. Always good to have some academic backing as well, so upper management knows that your actions are based on science and not on opinions

    greetings
    Tom,

    Tom Wambeke

    May 11, 2011 at 10:20 am

  4. [...] my good friend Ian Thorpe put together one of the most interesting and relevant blog posts I can remember around the topic of conference events and how to get the most out of them in [...]

  5. [...] my good friend Ian Thorpe put together one of the most interesting and relevant blog posts I can remember around the topic of conference events and how to get the most out of them in [...]

  6. Ian,

    It goes without saying that a technology/computer-related conference, whether blended or virtual, needs to have the following: good and wide network, and lots of electrical outlets. I recently attended a conference related to an LMS where the computer network (both wired and wireless) crashed due to overload and very few outlets were available for the many participants using laptop, iPhone/Blackberry and iPads!

    I also wanted to let readers know about a neat Web 2.0 app that was used effectively at this conference to show tweets related to the conference hashtag. The program is called Visible Tweets http://visibletweets.com

    musictherapy365

    May 12, 2011 at 11:54 pm

  7. [...] A few thoughts for conference organizers – http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/a-few-thoughts-for-conference-organizers/ Measuring value in communities of practice – [...]

  8. Thanks to Amanda Makulec (@abmakulec) for pointing out a great article written on this from Psychology Today by David Rock, someone who actually knows what he is talking about :-)

    Well worth checking out – here’s a link:

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/201104/rethinking-how-we-conference

    Ian Thorpe

    May 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

  9. [...] A few thoughts for conference organizers « KM on a dollar a day Firstly, a large part of the benefit of conferences is that they are an opportunity for networking and side conversations. Yet for some reason most conference organizers don't adequately recognize this. I've mentioned befrore the . If the nature of the conference allows it (and it might not work for all types of conference) try to introduce more interactive methodologies including group work methods such as knowledge fairs or world cafes – these are much more effective . [...]

  10. The first thing conference organisers need is a steely character. The reason why conferences have so many presentations these days is that all of us ‘have powerpoint will travel’ and we want to make sure we can present our accumulated wisdom (already presented to other conferences) once again. More than two powerpoints in a session loses the point. So we have to learn how to say ‘no!!!!’ to all those eager powerpointers out there

    Richard

    May 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm

  11. I’m a convert to the unconference/barcamp approach. If you’ve never come across the idea it’s well worth exploring.

    http://bm.wel.by/tag/unconference/

    Benjamin Welby

    May 23, 2011 at 7:05 am

  12. [...] A few thoughts for conference organizers « KM on a dollar a day Firstly, a large part of the benefit of conferences is that they are an opportunity for networking and side conversations. Yet for some reason most conference organizers don't adequately recognize this. If the nature of the conference allows it (and it might not work for all types of conference) try to introduce more interactive methodologies including group work methods such as knowledge fairs or world cafes – these are much more effective at getting [...]

  13. [...] here’s something I wrote earlier on how to make meetings and conferences better – a lot of it focusses on the face to face aspect – but making sure there is an online [...]

  14. [...] The biggest outgoing link was to the Ignite conference site from my post a few thoughts for conference organizers. [...]


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