A few thoughts for conference organizers
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 and 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).