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Taking the cons out of conferences

Harvey Schachter

If you think back to the last conference you attended, you probably remember a few dynamite speakers, along with some nifty PowerPoint presentations and intriguing, if rushed, chats over coffee. But do you remember coming back to the office and implementing anything?

Ed Bernacki doubts you did. A consultant who speaks at many conferences and is trying to reform them, he says for a conference to be effective it must go beyond entertaining. People must find new ideas at the event and then put them into action afterward.

That means conference organizers must not be content with simply developing a loose theme and signing up flashy speakers, but develop a learning plan. Since the reality is that few people read their conference notes on their return to the office – assuming they even took notes – you need to figure out what can be built into the conference itself to stimulate learning and implementation.

That doesn't mean getting rid of the big-name keynote speakers. But it does mean clarifying their role, and supplementing them with other program elements, including calling upon experts from within the conference itself to speak, to ensure good ideas come forth and get turned into action.

You also should carefully construct networking activities, rather than leaving them to chance. ‘What strikes me as odd is that so few events actually structure their networking. Surely the chance of meeting someone should not be left to chance, such as, who happens to be walking beside you enroute to the washroom!’ he writes in Seven Rules For Designing More Innovative Conferences.

An example of how it can come together is a Global Business Women's Network session held in Australia, with three learning themes, where a ‘thought provocateur’ introduced each theme and highlighted its importance for 20 minutes. Three speakers were then given 15 to 20 minutes to contribute their perspectives, tight timing that kept them clear and concise. The 400 participants, who were seated at round tables, were then given 30 minutes to discuss the topic and come to a conclusion at each table. They were also asked to design two questions for the panel.

Thus, instead of each conference participant effectively sitting alone listening to speakers, as is the normal practice, they were interacting, thinking about the ideas as a group and how those could be refined and implemented. That meant a greater involvement in the ideas – and some forced networking. The same approach was followed for each of the themes, with opening and closing keynoters to provide a context and challenge for the audience. Participants were also given time within the conference to define follow-up plans for the return to work that they would commit to.

‘For people to find insights and ideas that have meaning for them, they need time to work with ideas to create something of value. At a minimum, your program must allow time for this to happen. Moreover, you could design a workshop session that allows people some flexibility to advance some ideas before they leave the conference,’ he stresses.

Most of us take the conventional format of conferences for granted. Mr Bernacki has offered some challenging questions and alternative routes that will get all of us – planners and participants alike – to rethink how to gain the most from those we attend.

Published by The Globe and Mail, Canada, 2007