Please be prepared for a very long article.
In Part 1 of this article, I outlined seven factors that foreshadow the death of traditional conferences:
- Predictable format, little innovation.
- No heart, no soul, no juice.
- The sage on the stage addresses a passive audience.
- The presenters rarely inspire, surprise or offer real insights.
- Few opportunities to meet people.
- No community spirit.
- No pre-conference contact opportunities or post-conference support.
What do people want from conferences, and how can this be fostered?
There are three main types of conference:
Learn & Connect conferences
The purpose of this kind of conference is enabling people to learn, exchange views, begin new relationships and strengthen existing ones.
Generally, when someone says “I’m going to a conference”, this is the kind of conference they are referring to.
What the organisers want
- Satisfied customers or members
- Repeat business
What the paying customers want
- Learning and insights
- Interaction with the speakers and the other participants
- Expanded professional network
- A community vibe
Ideas & Insights conferences
The purpose of this kind of conference is garnering ideas and gaining insights from employees, customers, community members, suppliers and other stakeholders.
Examples of Ideas & Insights conferences include stakeholder consultation meetings and customer insight events.
What the hosts wants from participants
- Understanding of participants’ thoughts, feelings and perspectives in relation to a particular topic, issue or challenge.
What participants want from the conference
- Make a contribution
- Meet peers and hear their views on the topic
Engage & Co-create conferences
This is the kind of conference where the participants work together to address significant challenges faced by the organisation that employs them, or in which they are some other type of stakeholder (member, customer, supplier etc.).
What senior management wants from participants
- Their understanding of the challenge
- Their full commitment and wholehearted contribution to responding to the challenge together
- Minimum resistance
- Sustained collaborative action
What participants want from the conference
- Management’s trust and openness
- Management’s listening
- Interaction with management and colleagues
- A sense of belonging
Read more about the three conference purposes in my article, Three main types of conference: Learn & Connect, Ideas & Insights, and Engage & Co-create
Boiling it all down to the essence, what people want is:
How can these be fostered?
Responses to that question could easily fill a hefty book, so the rest of this article is nothing more than a conversation starter.
Go straight to a response:
- Adopt a new mindset
- Pay attention to the seating arrangements
- Use the right criteria to select the venue
- Create more value via pre-conference, in-conference and post-conference activities
- Create a community of speakers
- Connection before content
- Dialogue education
- Roundtable discussions
- Conversational conference format
- Gurteen Knowledge Café
- World Café
- Lightning talks
- Real Time Strategic Change
- Knowledge Fairs
Adopt a new mindset
The people who take part in a conference are participants or guests. Collectively, they should never be regarded as an audience. A conference is not a performance. (TED please note.)
Conference organisers should see their role as experience designers, curators and hosts.
Pay attention to the seating arrangements
Do not use theatre-style seating unless there is no alternative. People become passive observers when seated like this. They become an audience.
Instead, seat people at round tables with maximum diversity in the group, eight people per table, divided into two sub-groups of four.
Read my article: The maximum group size for effective dialogue is five people
Unconferences generally begin with people seated in a large circle, or in concentric circles. People also sit in a circle in the breakout groups.
You may have noticed that generally is in italics. I have run several successful Open Space conferences that began with people in theatre-style seating. In fact, one of these conferences was held in a London theatre.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll discover that the design of the agenda creation process requires some ingenuity, and that the large group dynamics are challenging. But ignore the dogma and know that it can be done.
Please contact me if you would like more information.
Use the right criteria to select the venue
The venue is a critical success factor.
Never delegate the task of finding the right venue to a junior, or to a bureau.
Choose a venue that inspires. People will find it hard to create an inspiring future when they are sitting in an uninspiring room in an uninspiring building.
Ensure that there is daylight in the conference hall.
The focal point should be halfway along the long side of the room, not the short side. In this way, the people at the back of the room are still fairly close to the front.
The venue staff need to be hosts, not corporate jobsworths whose only interest is the lunch menu and the timing of the refreshment breaks.
Some recommended venues in the UK (work in progress)
Create more value via pre-conference, through-conference and post-conference activities
Pre-conference and post-conference
Some conference organisers provide a facility for participants to contact each other in advance of the conference, and this needs to become the norm.
And some organisers go further, using the conference registration process to capture profile information and a photograph. This becomes part of a private, dedicated social network that can used for relationship building and commenting during the conference, and that has the potential to evolve into a community of practice further down the track.
These are some of the web-based platforms that can facilitate pre-conference and through-conference engagement:
- Pathable: social networking for events
- Crowdvine: social networking for events
- Ning: create a social network
The Lift conference had attendees make “People previews” when they checked in. These were short videos of attendees explaining who they are and what they plan to do at the conference. The videos were shown live in real time so that other attendees could see who else was there. Such videos could also be made available to attendees during the conference to help them identify and connect with others who shared their interests.
Christie Aschwanden, How to build a better conference
Remember the backchannel
The term ‘backchannel’ refers to online conversation about the conference topic or speaker.
The backchannel is an important secondary route for the passage of information during a conference.
Twitter plays an important role here, along with Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, email, instant messaging, and the dedicated social network if one has been created.
These are some of the ways in which conference organisers can boost backchannel communication:
- Wide bandwidth wi-fi
- Twitter hashtag
- Large flatscreen displaying hashtagged tweets
7 tools to present a Twitter stream at your event, by Michael Heipel
Using social media to market and boost your conference: infographic
Please use scrollbar, not down-arrow.
Credit: Shane Gibson, Chief Social Officer & Social Media Analyst, Socialized Communications
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Create a community of speakers
My friend Jeffrey Hyman, pictured above, is the founder and chairman of Food & Drink Innovation Network here in the UK.
About once a month he runs a conference—or seminar, in FDIN speak—at Staverton Park, near Daventry, Northamptonshire.
And yes, the venue meets all of the criteria I mentioned earlier.
FDIN seminars set the standard for commercial conferences. This short video conveys some of the vibe:
One of many factors contributing to their success is the speakers’ dinner that Jeffrey hosts the night before the seminar.
The dinner provides an opportunity for the speakers to meet each other in an informal setting, and for Jeffrey to walk them through the seminar programme.
I’ve taken part in a number of FDIN speakers’ dinners and each time I’ve witnessed the awakening of a community spirit that blossomed as the seminar unfolded the following day.
The dinners are effective because Jeffrey is such an open-hearted host. He is the embodiment of the word ‘service’.
Connection before content
This principle was originated by Peter Block, an author, community builder and organisation development veteran, who stated:
Connection – We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur.
Source: Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation (download pdf)
At a conference where people are seated theatre-style, this connection can be achieved by having the chairperson make the following invitation:
If you wish, you can introduce yourself to someone in a nearby seat—not someone you came with—and learn something about them.
Tell each other your names, and decide who is Person A and who is Person B.
Person A asks: “How did you get here, and what do you want from the conference?” Person B has five minutes to answer.
I’ll give you a signal when it’s time to swap roles.
At a conference where participants are sitting at round tables, as outlined earlier, the facilitator (we need a better word) gives a briefing along the following lines:
Each of you has five minutes to tell your three colleagues:
- Your name.
- What you do in the organisation.
- Something interesting about your name.
- What you want to get from the conference.
- What you intend to contribute.
That’s 20 minutes, plus another five for briefing, and it will be 25 minutes well spent.
The activity should be tailored to the particular needs of the conference. The instructions can be printed onto a card that is given to each small group. This is preferable to displaying them on a PowerPoint slide.
Question 3 gives people the opportunity to reveal something personal, should they so wish. Even lighthearted revelations (example: “Leith was once Edinburgh’s red light district”) can foster an atmosphere of informality and openness.
Designers of commercial and organisational conferences need to make the shift from the monologue education to dialogue education.
Dialogue education shifts the focus of education from what the teacher says to what the learner does, from learner passivity to learners as active participants in the dialogue that leads to learning.
A dialogue approach to education views learners as subjects in their own learning and honours central principles such as mutual respect and open communication.
Learners are invited to actively engage with the content being learned rather than being dependent on the educator for learning. Ideas are presented to learners as open questions to be reflected on and integrated into the learner’s own context.
The intent is that this will result in more meaningful learning that has an impact on behaviour.
Dialogue education is a philosophy rather than a collection of methods, but dialogue principles are embodied by several of the methods outlined below .
These often feature in organisational conferences based on Real Time Strategic Change principles. FDIN seminars use them in a slightly modified form.
Although the roundtable discussion process is very simple, it can transform even the most PowerPoint dominated conference. This is how it works:
The speaker gives his or her talk. Maximum length: 20 minutes. Consider adopting the Ignite® format.
In their small groups of four, people discuss what they heard and what they make of what they heard.
Each small group agrees on one question they would like the speaker to answer. This is written on the sheet of paper provided.
Go to Option A or Option B.
The facilitator or chairperson visits each table and asks a spokesperson to read out the question, which the speaker answers.
A steward collects the question sheets at the end of each wave of roundtable discussions and hands them to the facilitator or chairperson.
The question sheets are sorted into themes. As each new batch arrives, the chairperson creates whatever additional themes are required.
Following the final presentation, the speakers take to the stage and form a panel.
The facilitator or chairperson takes each question or set of related questions in turn, and invites relevant speakers to give their answers.
Conversational conference format
This is a reversal of the process I have just described.
Instead of the participants giving the speaker a question to answer, the speaker gives the participants a question to discuss. The discussion is followed by a Q&A session.
This congress will follow an interactive conversational format. Each speaker will present a case study for 25 minutes and conclude their presentation with a question to the audience.
The remaining 15-20 minutes of each session will be given to the audience to discuss the speaker’s talk and the question at their tables before going into a traditional Q&A.
This conversational format is intended to create an informal, relaxed atmosphere in which you, the conference participants, can get to know each other, learn from each other and build relationships.
Source: KM Australia 2013
Gurteen Knowledge Café
This can be a standalone event, or it can form part of a larger conference. The format was devised by David Gurteen, who I cited in the previous paragraph.
Here is an overview:
You will find the explanatory text in my article: Gurteen Knowledge Café.
World Café, which is often billed as “conversations that matter”, was brought into the world in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs.
In a World Café dialogue, people participate in small intimate conversations at small tables in a relaxed atmosphere similar to a European Coffee house. As the conversation unfolds, people move between groups, cross-pollinating their ideas around questions that really matter to their lives or work.
Source: World Café Europe
Based on material sourced from the website of The World Café.
Setting The room is arranged like a café. Small round tables, each with four chairs, are covered with chequered tablecloths. On the table are sheets of white paper, coloured pens and a vase of flowers. There may also be a talking stick or conche.
Welcome and introduction The host welcomes the participants, explains the World Café process, states the purpose of the gathering, and outlines café etiquette.
Small group conversations The café consists of three or more rounds of table conversation, each lasting about 20 minutes.
Each round has as its focus a predetermined question that relates to the overarching purpose of the café. The same question can be used for more than one round, or the questions can build on each other to focus the conversation and steer it in the desired direction.
At the end of the twenty minute session, each member of the group moves to a different new table, such that each person is now sitting with three new people.
Depending on the design of the café, table groups may be asked to leave one person behind to serve as the table host for the next round. This person welcomes the newcomers and summarises what emerged during the previous round.
Large group discussion and harvest After the small groups (and/or in between rounds, as determined by the particular design), the whole café comes together, and people are invited to share the large group any insights and discoveries that surfaced during their table conversations.
These results are most often captured by one or more graphic recorders stationed at the front of the room.
A graphic recording usually looks something like this:
Image source: Brandy Agerbeck, Graphic Facilitator, Loosetooth.comFurther reading:
A World Café in a school – a step-by-step description, by Graeme Stuart
A lightning talk is a short presentation given at a conference that lasts only a few minutes. Several lightning talks will usually be delivered in a single period by different speakers.
Here are three formats that can be adapted to meet your needs. Just make sure you don’t use the trademarked names.
- PechaKucha® is a presentation style in which a talk is supported by 20 slides, each of which is shown for 20 seconds. Talk duration: six minutes 40 seconds. A typical PechaKucha Night features eight to 14 presentations.
- Ignite® is like PechaKucha, except that the speakers talk for five minutes, supported by 20 slides. Each slide is displayed for 15 seconds, and the slides are auto-advanced. View the video of my Ignite Bristol talk, Enriching the world: is it good business practice?
- TED speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can.
An unconference is a participant-driven conference centred on a theme or purpose.
Open Space Technology is the main methodology for creating an unconference. BarCamp and Peer Conferences, which are derivatives of Open Space Technology, are also commonly employed.
The three approaches share these features:
- An overarching theme or focusing question that has been decided in advance.
- Breakout sessions related to this theme, created impromptu by any participant who chooses to do so, and who is willing to host and facilitate the session.
- A matrix of meeting times and locations, similar to the one shown below.
The Open Space methodology (‘Open Space Technology’) was conceived in 1985 by Harrison Owen in response to a comment that the best parts of a conference are usually the coffee breaks.
An Open Space conference is a participant-led meeting in which 50, 100, 500 or more people gain understanding of the issues, discuss matters of mutual concern, share ideas, pool knowledge, reach agreement on the best way forward, and develop plans for collaborative action.
An Open Space conference is something like an online discussion forum, but with everyone in the room, and with conversations happening in real time.
When an Engage & Co-create conference uses the Open Space principles and format, it usually concludes with an action planning session.
It is becoming increasingly common for Open Space to be included in traditional presentation-centred conferences. The integration can be done in several ways (serial, parallel etc.), each of which has its advantages and disadvantages.
I have been designing, producing and facilitating Open Space conferences since 1988, just three years after the methodology was conceived by Harrison Owen.
These conferences were convened for a very wide range of organisations (including Age UK, ABN Amro Bank, European Commission, McCain Foods and Shell International) and for many different purposes. A typical unconference is a one day event, although I ran a one hour Open Space for MIT Entrepreneurship Center, and a three and a half day residential gathering for University of Brighton.
Please contact me if you have a project that you think might benefit from my 25 years of Open Space experience.
BarCamp is a stripped down version of Open Space. There is no facilitator, there are no explicit principles, and everyone is expected to contribute in one way or another.
Some dyed-in-the-wool Open Space practitioners pour scorn on BarCamp, believing it to be sterile and mechanistic. However, I took part in a one-day BarCamp event hosted by BathCamp, and it was every bit as effective and enjoyable as any Open Space conference I’ve experienced.
Although I have been working with large group methods such as Real Time Strategic Change and Future Search since the mid-1990s, and with Open Space Technology even longer, I only discovered Adrian Segar’s Peer Conference methodology very recently.
My knowledge of Peer Conferences is limited to the description provided on Adrian’s Conferences that Work website (the site features his interesting-looking book with that title).
Fortunately, Adrian’s explanation is a detailed one, and I now have a fairly good understanding of the Peer Conference process.
It is very similar to the Open Space process, but there are some important differences—notably the way in which the agenda is created.
I have always found the ‘official’ way of creating the Open Space agenda and allocating breakout rooms inadequate, and have experimented with various alternatives. The Peer Conference process offers yet another way.
I’d very much like to give you a side-by-side comparison of Open Space and Peer Conferences. This would take up too much space here and too much of your time, so I’ll leave it for a future article.
When an opportunity presents itself, I’ll run a Peer Conference with Adrian’s description in my back pocket, and will let you know how it went.
Until then, you can read Adrian’s detailed exposition of the Peer Conferences format, which begins here.
Birds of a Feather sessions
These can introduce a conversational element into a presentation-centred conference. They are a sort of halfway house between Open Space breakout sessions and traditional conference workshops.
Participants are invited to propose discussion group topics ahead of the conference. Once all of the proposals are in, people can then vote for the topics they would like to see included. During the conference, people can go to whichever Birds of a Feather sessions take their fancy, and can use the Law of Two Feet (an idea borrowed from Open Space Technology) to move between them. Each session has a convenor, which may be the original proposer or someone else.
Real Time Strategic Change
This is a philosophy and set of principles for creating Engage & Co-create conferences.
Real Time Strategic Change was created specifically for the kind of conference where the participants work together to address significant challenges faced by the organisation that employs them.
You have probably taken part in a conference where people sit at round tables and spend the day working through a series of pre-planned activities, guided by a facilitator stationed at the front of the room.
A typical conference of this kind—one that is not based on RTSC principles—begins with a pep talk from the CEO, followed by an icebreaker and a succession of PowerPoint presentations given by senior managers.
Later in the morning, the CEO outlines his or her vision, and people work at their tables to generate ideas for translating the vision into reality. These are written on Post-it Notes and posted on the wall. The facilitator clusters them into themes and people do more small group work to identify risks and critical success factors.
After lunch, everyone goes outside for a team building exercise. The day ends with another rabble rousing speech from the CEO, and everyone shuffles off home, thinking what a wasted opportunity they have just experienced.
The conference was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to gain their buy-in to a scheme that had already been designed and set in motion. The opportunity to co-create the scheme from scratch—and therefore secure their wholehearted commitment—was squandered.
Based on a model presented in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization. Buy the book: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com
Read more in my article: Tell—Sell—Test—Consult—Co-create
In the same way that everyone thinks they can create a good PowerPoint-centred conference—because they’ve been to conferences and seen how they work—everyone thinks they can create a good Engage & Co-create conference.
They think it’s simply a matter of brainstorming a bunch of activities and arranging them around the refreshment breaks and lunch period.
They have little or no knowledge of the general principles of adult education and group behaviour, and are unaware of the specific principles of Real Time Strategic Change.
Get the whole system (or a large representative sample of it) in the room. Have a microcosm of this system design the event. Include a few sceptics. Do not blindly follow the agenda shown on page 58 of Robert W. Jacobs’ Real Time Strategic Change book.
- Foster maximum ownership of process, content and outcomes.
- Work in real time (simultaneous planning and implementation).
- Treat current reality as a key driver. Work with the group where it is right now,and not where you think it ought to be.
- Include preferred futuring, where participants create a compelling representation of what ‘better’ will look, sound and feel like.
- Build and maintain a
common databaserepository of strategiccritical information that is available to all.
- Create community: foster an environment where individuals come together as part of something larger than themselves that they created and believe in.
Real Time Strategic Change is what some people call a ‘large group intervention method’.
I am the author of Creating Collaborative Gatherings Using Large Group Interventions, which forms Chapter 28 of the Gower Handbook of Training and Development. This was written in 1999, but much of the content is still relevant.
Knowledge fairs are face to face events in which participants set up displays to share their knowledge, ideas and project results.
When to use knowledge fairs
- As part of annual meetings or gatherings.
- At a country, community or global level to share the current status of work or a project.
- To bring the concept of knowledge sharing to life; to show staff, management, clients and other partners what is being done to share development knowledge.
- To foster informal networking and problem solving.
- Part 1 of this article
- The maximum group size for effective dialogue is five people
- Three main types of conference: Learn & Connect, Ideas & Insights, and Engage & Co-create
- Towards more effective Open Space Technology and Real Time Strategic Change conferences
- Using Open Space Technology for Consumer Insight Discovery and Stakeholder Consultation
- An introduction to large group intervention methods
Elsewhere on the Internet
- Are conferences dead? By David Williams, Impact International
- Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community: Changing the Nature of the Conversation by Peter Block (download pdf)
- Babies & bathwater again. Dave Snowden proposes a new conference format. Unhelpful title; good article.
- Demystifying the unconference, by Adrian Segar
- Group Works card deck: 91 cards for planning group sessions, reflecting on and debriefing them, providing guidance, and sharing responsibility for making the process go well