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Ed Bernacki on conference design, innovation and ROI

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?

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