Meeting Conference Design

I have spoken at 250 conferences in numerous countries on themes of innovation. I have seen many conferences themes and different approaches to create themes. Over the years, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Many of these became case studies for a book I wrote, Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences.

Meeting Conference Design

To bad use themes like Innovation in Everything We Do. When I asked about the theme, I was told someone read an article on innovation and found it interesting. I call this the bumper sticker approach; there was as much thinking invested to create a theme as you use to create a bumper sticker. I also noticed that these conferences tend to look alike from year to year.

The good use similar themes, like Innovation @ Work. When I asked about the theme I was given a 750-word overview for its subthemes: creativity, productivity and diversity. I was asked to read this essay and draft a proposal to show how my content would contribute. There was a learning strategy in place that outlined how and why participants were going to learn about creativity, productivity and diversity.

The reality is that the first approach is common; the second is the exception.

There is much talk about conference or meeting design. One writer uses the analogy of meeting architecture to capture the essence of conference design. If we want to build a house, where would we start? Most people talk to an architect who seeks to understand what is important to you. They would consider your budget and any special needs you have. They then create a concept for the house and then create a blue print to bring the concept to life.

It is a good analogy. A good theme and learning strategy should be much like a blueprint. The traditional role of meeting planners is the contractor or builder. Speakers and suppliers are the materials used to shape the house. Conference participants are the potential residents of the home. In interviews with association and corporate executives who I feel do this well, I often hear issues such as, “It is important to look at our industry two to three years ahead to see what my members need to know to be more successful in the future.”
What is obvious is that they see the need for a strategy to underpin the learning side of the conference. It is something I recommend:

  1. The Logistics or Administrative Plan is the forte of the meetings industry. It summarizes a thousand planning, management and administrative details to bring people and speakers together. There are many books and training programs to assist.
  2. The Learning Strategy or Plan defines objectives for learning, networking and collaboration. Consider learning to be everything that happens inside the conference and break out rooms. This is the tool your program committee should create before speakers are contacted. It need only be a couple of pages but it should include these elements:
  • What are the three objectives of the host organization for this conference – why is the conference needed?
  • What are the three objectives for prospective participants – why should people attend your conference?
  • What are the three objectives for your speakers – what are your expectations of speakers.
  • A brief theme: call it brand, theme, or bumper sticker.
  • An overview: expand your theme into full statement of 500 words or so to describe the essence of the event and why prospective participants should attend. You can utilize a version of this to create your marketing materials. Make it compelling.

The learning strategy should maximize the learning potential of your resources. Do not leave this to chance. Many events use a ‘call for speakers’ to source their content. This limits your results to what speakers want to present, not what your audience needs to hear. Research from Meeting Professionals International (MPI) found that: “Meetings should be planned around clearly identified problems or issues with specific desired outcomes. These outcomes should dictate the form and process of meetings. Meetings should be viewed as learning experiences designed to change the behavior of attendees.”

This last sentence about change the behaviour of people fascinates me. This is what many executives want meetings to do. Start by doing an audit of your last conference or your draft plan. Think about these questions for your event.

1. What is the focus of your content?

Start with the facts by looking at your event in terms of how content is presented today. What per cent of your content is one way, two way, or driven by the audience?

  • One-way refers to a speaker speaking at the audience like a keynote.
  • Two-way involves some interaction like a workshop.
  • Being driven by the audience reflects techniques like Open Space, group brainstorming sessions, or panel sessions in which the participants lead and drive the discussion.

2. Define how much involvement you want from your participants.

Is showing up enough or do you plan to harness their brainpower? Do you want them to listen, to collaborate or to solve a difficult problem? The more collaboration you want, the more two-way and audience driven content you need.

3. What objectives could you create based on MPI research?

What type of change in behaviour do people need to be more successful? This can range from knowledge of a specific topic, more teamwork or collaboration, or it could involve learning new insights that cause people to say “I never thought of that before.”

To prompt some new thinking for future events, brainstorm how your conference can make your participants more successful in some way in the following 12-24 months. Focus on these different ‘needs’ that can be met by your conference:

  1. To learn, explore and share: this can range from new product information to new processes to new personal development skills.
  2. To change: many events are used to launch some form of change, perhaps in behaviour (more teamwork, more engagement), or in direction of the company.
  3. To create: this is perhaps the least developed objective. Can people create solutions to important challenges? The best time to solve a challenge is when everyone is the same room at the same time.
  4. To motivate: this is crucial for many organizations today. While we associate motivation with sales conferences it is also important to prompt people to take new initiatives.

Why not use these four needs to brainstorm ideas for your conference. To start, put the need for a theme to the side at the beginning. It will appear as you brainstorm ideas in each of these four areas. Think like an architect to design your learning strategy. Your theme will flow from this. It may still read like a bumper sticker but it will have depth and meaning for speakers and participants.

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