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Ed Bernacki on conference design, innovation and ROI

Conference design: How Not to Use a Great Speaker

Ed Bernacki - Thursday, August 04, 2016

 As a speaker on innovation at many conferences, I view the chance to listen to other great speakers as one of the benefits of the job. I recognize that my message on innovative thinking is functional and informative. I make people think. My goal is to make people say, "I never thought of that before!"

At the other end of the scale are motivational speakers. Their goal is often to make people feel something. They want to touch the hearts of attendees in some way.

Here is the story of a great speaker with a great message that was ruined by poor conference design.

The motivational speaker was inspiring. He was a former professional football player who suffered a major brain injury in a terrible traffic accident. No longer a dynamic, larger-than-life personality, he had to start life again. He had little or no memory of his wife, his family, or his sporting achievements.

 Nor could he remember his speeches. He needed a deck of cue cards to remind him of what to say next, yet this did not keep his message from being very memorable.  He opened the conference, and ended at the right moment. People applauded. People left, perhaps a bit weepy.

A group of us sat as people left, because we felt that his message deserved more reflection. We dis­ cussed this question: What moved you the most about his talk? The result was a meaningful conversation, and allowed us to revisit his stories and insights. This discussion allowed each of us to create our own connection to his message. Here lies the dilemma: We were late for the next session despite getting this value from his talk.

How many great, inspiring speakers fail to connect with an audience, as people have no time to reflect and to create their own meaning? Why not build in an extra 20 to 30 minutes to get the extra value from your investment in your high-profile speakers? Have your emcee start a conversation at your tables based on this question:

“Which of the speaker's main messages was the most meaningful to you? Discuss this in groups and share insights”.

You can take this one step further by getting teams or groups to define questions that they would like to ask the speaker. Despite the brain injury inhibiting his ability to remember a presentation, the keynoter's ability to answer questions in a meaningful way was inspiring. Too bad the conference designers were unable to let the whole audience benefit from the lessons he learned in life that brought him to that conference room.

Design your major motivational keynote presentation to include 20 to 30 minutes for table or small group discussions on the key themes of the presentation. It will make the keynote that much more meaningful to your audience. The speaker will likely approve as it creates far more ROI for the participants.

After speaking at many conferences on innovation (www.PSIdeaFactory.com ), Ed Bernacki created a body of knowledge on conference design. His book is, ‘Seven Rules For Designing More Innovative Conferences’ was put a long of top management in Canada when it was published. www.InnovativeConferences.com  

What a dose of design thinking can do to rethink public service staff conferences

Ed Bernacki - Thursday, January 21, 2016

White Paper Public Service Staff Conferences

The media in Australia reported last year on a government department staff conference that involved an evening boat cruise. ‘A waste of money’ was the claim; easy fodder for right wing newspapers and talk back radio to criticize staff conferences.

The criticism was ridiculous but effective.  It scares the public sector from using conferences as a useful tactic for productivity, collaboration and innovation. This is unfortunate.  Whether we refer to local government, or state, provincial, or federal agencies, we need staff to develop their skills and motivations to want to tackle the challenges facing the public service in serving the public – that’s the rest of us who expect the public service to create innovative solutions to our problems.

It is obvious that we need new ways to design conferences. If we applied a dose of design thinking on the way we design conferences, it is easy to create new approaches based on enhancing the experience of ‘staff’ as participants. Most conferences start with three objectives:

1.  Learning

2.  Networking

3.  Motivation

If we recognize the expertise of the staff sitting in the audience, challenge it, and then focus this expertise in practical ways, we can create objectives for:

4.  Collaboration people need to meet to learn to collaborate effectively.

5.  Innovation what can we create if we harness the brain power of people and collaborate to solve specific challenges during the conference?

I worked with several public sector groups to design in-house staff conferences.  They were inexpensive yet highly effective in achieving results.  They brought to 300-400 staff for about four hours and focused on building a culture of ideas and creativity. One was in-house (in the cafeteria). I then experimented with this format with other public sector events and wrote a White Paper on four models designed to achieve a specific result. This is useful for any staff group of 50 or more people. You can download this.

In-Person Collaboration is the future of conferences

This white paper introduces an idea of four-hour staff conferences. From experience, this seems a useful length of time. It is easy to adjust each to match the available time.  Start your design thinking with one of these objectives:

1. Staff conference for greater individual success

Prompt people to review what made them successful in the past year and to look forward to define strategies to be successful next year.

2. Staff conference for greater team collaboration

Provide people with opportunities to collaborate with people they do not normally work with on meaningful challenges important to the organization.

3. Staff conference for identifying new opportunities

Harness the expertise, observations and insights of staff to create new opportunities for change and improvement.

4. Staff conference to solve a challenge

Solve a challenge or ‘wicked’ problem with the expertise in the room.

I used half day conferences with local government in two countries and several groups within federal agencies. The formats are useful. They are inexpensive. They create results. That is good for the bottom line of any organization, including those in public service. I look forward to the day when a tabloid reports on a government staff conference that solved a difficult problem by bringing staff together for a few hours.   

Download the White Paper. 

You can enhance your understanding of conference design by reading Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences. See www.InnovativeConferences.com

Demand more ROI from your conferences – please!

Ed Bernacki - Friday, July 24, 2015

“What’s the point of speaking at our conferences; most people do so little with their notes and ideas.” George Grendon, then the Editor of Inc. Magazine said this before he challenged us to help Inc. makes its conferences more effective. 

To start we had to define what makes a conference ‘effective’.

We decided that for a conference to be truly effective, people would act on their ideas after the event.  It was obvious that this would require a new way of thinking about the role of conference speakers and participants.  Coming from a background in innovation, we created recommendations which became a book, Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences.  The ‘rules’ prompt a different conversation about what is possible when people and ideas come together.

I start with something obvious yet rarely expressed: Rule #1; the true experts at a conference are in the audience, not on stage.  We should harness this expertise for some part of the event.  I discovered that the conference industry did not think like me.  Most conferences are designed on three objectives:

1. Learning

2. Networking

3. Motivation

I don’t know why these objectives are used or sufficient. They could describe off site training. This leads to the most common conference design internationally.

   Opening keynote  
   Workshops – small events use three, large events add more
   Lunch keynote
   Afternoon workshops  
   Closing keynote – and this is repeated on day two.

There is much talk about designing UX (user experience). If you do, this design tells me we want people to sit in the audience, often in the dark, and ask a token question or two.

Where is the ‘return’ for ROI?

I met with a group in the US hosting an internal conference for 450 sales and account managers. A quick calculation told me that it will cost over $1.3 million in salary and expenses. What is a useful return? Sales opportunities identified? Collaborations created? Strategies conceived?

The irony is that most conferences measure your opinion of the speakers, food and venue. Trying to evaluate the opportunities you create at the event is hard.  This does not mean we should ignore more strategic outcomes.  I suggest adding two objectives to stop ignoring the expertise of people who walk into the meeting rooms.

4. Collaboration – the most effective way to network is to collaborate with people to solve a real challenge. 

5. Innovation – what could we create if we harness the brain power of people on specific challenges during the conference?

As a practical and simple example of collaboration, I spoke at a staff conference for 120 people. I was to present for 90 minutes. I stopped after 60 minutes and challenged staff to answer one question: ‘What’s your idea to make this a better company to work for?’ 

I collected 160 pages of ideas. One person said it would be a better company if was not so cold in the office. Their idea was to add more heaters.  It was simple yet meaningful to that person.  Later I distilled these into 40 ideas ranging from practical (the heater) to strategic (markets the company could enter).  The CEO was blown away. He had 40 quality ideas from his staff. Some solved a problem that he did not know was a problem. He said that the cost of the conference now seemed trivial. The ideas gave him a roadmap for improvements for the year. This took just 30 minutes in a two day conference.

I have since worked on many events that use part of the conference to harness the brainpower on real challenges – solve corporate problems, create new business opportunities, build productive teams, etc.

Much more is possible when people and ideas come together if you demand more ROI from your investments in conferences. Ask harder questions of your conference organizers – how else can we get more value from our investment in the conference?

Conference Buzz in Melbourne this week; but where’s the ROI?

Ed Bernacki - Monday, February 23, 2015

AIME is a major trade show happening this week in Melbourne for the meetings industry. It brings together meetings and conference suppliers with buyers from the association and corporate worlds along with professional conference organisers. Millions of dollars of deals, proposals and leads will follow.  Yet how much discussion will there be of the effectiveness of this investment in conferences?

Do they create value? How can we define this value?

How does this differ for individuals who pay to attend an event as compared to a corporation hosting a major staff event?

These are good questions.

Despite the sophistication of the vast meetings industry, the ability to measure results is, at best, rudimentary. I first wrote about this fifteen years ago and then put my ideas into a book, Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences.

There is much talk about measuring Return on Investment (ROI) of conferences but there seems a flaw; the approach to measure ROI is based a model developed for training back in the 1950s. It is a good model if you believe conferences are about training. I don’t.  At the very core, what do we believe conferences can achieve? The traditional view suggests conferences involve:

1. Learning,

2. Motivation, and

3. Networking.

We can set objectives and then design an event around these objectives. And here lies the problem…. this wastes a tremendous opportunity for people to create, connect and innovate.

What if a staff conference changed one session from using a speaker to engage staff; “Based on what you’ve learned at this event, what’s one idea to make this a better company to work for?”  

I have done this.  About 130 staff generated 170 ideas. These were distilled to 40 as many were similar. The CEO saw the list and committed to make them happen before the next annual staff conference.

Was the cost an issue to a CEO who left the conference with a plan to improve his company?  No.  Staff felt good about contributing and he had a plan of action.  

There are many ways to engage people in meaningful ways to solve problems, create ideas, and connect. This is a very simple example. So much more is possible. It starts by adding one more objective to your planning model:

4. Collaboration and Innovation

Plan one session for 100 or 1000 to collaborate in some way. This starts the process to add more ‘return’ for your ROI. When so many buyers meeting so many suppliers at AIME I hope some discussions will focus on ROI of conferences to generate ideas and solutions.

Ed Bernacki

The Idea Factory 

Are paper-based journals and books still relevant?

Ed Bernacki - Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Many technology companies are pushing the latest technology. We need to keep focused on the issues of bridging the gap. Technology expert David Hornik wrote about the power of note books and journals. The author observed …

‘The typical executive these days needs to deal with hundreds, if not thousands, of data points across dozens of services each day. While we all find ways to consume this huge amount of information, isolating the truly important stuff remains a big challenge. And this is where the notebook comes in.

‘Notebooks have certain enviable characteristics. They are instant on – even faster than a laptop with a solid-state drive. They have virtually unlimited storage – just boot a new notebook when the pages are filled. And they perform better than tape for archival storage. Direct sunlight is no problem for a bright white piece of paper. And power management is rarely a problem (although your pen may run out of ink). Notebooks don’t require any connectivity.

‘Given all of the analogue goodness of notebooks, it is no surprise that there has been a resurgence of paper … when it comes to keeping track of priority information, it would appear that notebooks are becoming the tools of choice for technology’s elite.’

What about conference technology?

Ed Bernacki - Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Conferences 2.0: Taming the beast

Published Successful Meetings magazine, USA

Ed Bernacki explains how meeting planners can use technology to add value to events.

Marc Stoiber was speaking at an environmental meeting. He noticed something about the audience. ‘About 90 per cent of people never looked at the stage,’ he says. Instead, they were speed-typing the content of the speeches into their tweets or blog entries. I was impressed, thinking I was witnessing a glorious mass communication revolution. That was until I peeked over some shoulders and saw what they were typing – posts like, “Speaker says green is here to stay” and “Green is good for business.” A pretty anaemic version of what was actually being said.’

Stoiber continues, ‘Then it dawned on me. These audience members were so intent on flexing their social media muscles that they missed 95 per cent of the message. Technology had turned them into stenographers – and not particularly good stenographers. There was no synthesis, no analysis, no thinking. I’m certain the writers felt they were making a difference. But they were, in fact, adding little more than chatter. And that, I believe, is a problem.’

This is my fear of the current focus on conference technology. It sounds innovative yet I often wonder if we define objectives for using technology. Here is my point: If you want to use electronic tools, make sure it is strategic in terms of adding value to the event.

You can find the remainder of the article at Successful Meetings.

Conference Design Idea Factory

Ed Bernacki - Wednesday, November 26, 2014

‘Then it dawned on me. These audience members were so intent on flexing their social media muscles that they missed 95 per cent of the message. Technology had turned them into stenographers – and not particularly good stenographers.’

If you want conference learning, tell participants not to use a computer!

The meetings industry has little to help planners design more effective events. There is very little research to help. Too many decisions are promoted by suppliers claiming lots of unproven benefits. For example, do you want participants using iPads and computers?

If so, you may be turning participants into typists rather than learners and explorers of ideas. That’s what new research tells us. A new academic study was done on tech savvy students listening to TED presentations. It concluded with this chilling thought: ‘Laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.’ Students were put in a series of experiments with some using a notebook and others using a computer. They were tested on the facts they could then remember and also on their understanding of the overall concept of the presentation.

In an article called, ‘The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’ authors Pam Mueller, Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer, University of California, Los Angeles concluded with these findings:

  1. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. This is the degree of distraction as people connect to emails and social media instead of listening.
  2. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.
  3. In three studies, students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.
  4. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

Keep in mind these university students grew up with technology. This is a powerful conclusion. Conferences Apps are the rage but to what end? Assuming everyone has access to the same technology; they can replace your conference programme and offer some unique benefits. This does not mean they are useful for other uses. For a copy of the paper email info@wowgreatidea.com