Here are my accumulated experiences from many years attending and organizing small and large conferences.
Conferences have not changed their basic formats much in the last 30 years. They are still mostly about one-way communication: a speaker (too often a white male) telling you his company’s views on things, accompanied by Powerpoint slides. Your role in the audience is to sit still and hope that the speaker will tell you something you don’t know already.
These types of events are inefficient if the goal is to communicate, inspire and create real learning. This format is also increasingly out of synch with all the other evolving forms of media in the internet age, where it is about two-way communication and the users are active participants in creating experiences together with each other and the publishers.
Advice for all types of conferences and seminars
- Look for a mix of well-known speakers that draw crowds and unknown but brilliant minds that can surprise people and give them unexpected insights.
- In the agenda, describe the speakers in terms of what they have accomplished and what they are doing now, not just by their business titles. Also, use descriptive and catchy session headlines and describe what each session is about and who it is for, described regarding what’s in it for the audience. And of course, you should also link to their websites so attendees can check them out beforehand.
- Think back on the previous seminars you have attended: how much do you remember of what was said? Many can’t mention even one key message two days after an event!
So plan carefully beforehand how you can provide your audience with concrete value to take home from the event. For example, you can encourage the speakers to prepare a summary of their presentation with their pictures/slides and main messages. Gather all these together and post them on the event site and also email them to all participants. You can also include links to blog posts and Twitter streams from the event.
If you have really high ambitions, you should hire a skilled journalist blogger to cover the event live and then write a concentrated summary together with the moderator right after the event.
In all cases, provide links to all the speakers, their presentations and the web sites mentioned. And of course, include links to your sponsors offerings.
- Put the audience as close as possible to the stage and make sure the audience is also well lit, to create energy in the room and facilitate two-way communication between speakers and audience.
- Make a realistic time plan for the talks. You must plan the time slots for the speakers so that there is time not only for the talks themselves but also for the set-up time, such as getting up on stage, being introduced, get the presentation up on the screen, etc. Also, usually the speaker is speaking faster when rehearsing, so you need a margin for this too.
This means that for a 20-minute time slot you need to reserve 5 minutes for the setup-time and 3 minutes for the slower pace. That leaves 12 minutes time for the talk, so you tell the presenter to prepare a 12-minute talk.
- Be fanatic about keeping the time schedule. First of all, don’t delay the start because there are many people still arriving at the door on the official starting time. Start on the official time, exactly. Always.
This is paying respect to all the people that made the effort to be there in time, instead of letting the latecomers make everybody suffer.
Start buzzing the crowd 15 minutes before the start, and then every 5 minutes and finally start on the second.
Learn from TED: Have a big countdown clock or a “traffic light” for the speakers on stage showing green during their speech, yellow when it is 60 seconds left and red when their time is out. And when their time is out, have the moderator step in and make a short summary and then get them off the stage immediately! Letting speakers run over is an insult to both the other speakers and the audience.
- Have breaks every 60-80 minutes. Nobody can concentrate on listening longer than that, and you need time to discuss with the other participants in order to remember and learn.
- Involve the speakers during the breaks. Force all speakers to stay for the whole day and mingle with the participants during the breaks. If they say they have to leave right after their talk, don’t use them.
- Play energizing walk-in and walk-out music before/after every break. It sets a good mood, creates energy and is a powerful signal that the next program is starting.
- Use very big name badges where the names can be easily read from 2 meters away in low light conditions. Put a photo of the attendee on the badge if you need increased security. Use a neck string that is attached to both outer sides of the badge so that it does not flip around and displays the backside.
It is also smart to do like the TED conferences and add conversation starters on the badge; “Talk to me about:” followed by their interests (that you ask them to fill out during the registration).
If it is an international event, put large national flags in colour on the badges so that you also can see the nationality of the delegate from a distance.
- Try to mix on-stage panels/conversations and stand-alone speakers. Mix short and long talks, but don’t allow any speaker to use more than 30 minutes. The shorter the better! This is the biggest success factor of the TED conference; their talks are between 3 and 18 minutes!
Also, be sure to show a lot of visuals during the panels, for example, the web sites that are being discussed. This can, for example, be done by having a small wireless netbook or iPad connected to the big screen and pass it around the panel members as they talk.
- Display the title of the session and the name and organisation of the speaker during the entire talk. Use a separate screen for this so that it can stay on during the whole talk. The audience needs to know who is talking, and people come and go so this information should be displayed all the time.
- Coach the speakers rigorously! This is probably the most important success factor for an event, yet the most often ignored advice. All speakers must get personal coaching well in advance of the event, on keeping the schedule, staying on the agreed topic, how to use visuals effectively and basic speaking skills. And ruthlessly remove any attempts to use bullet texts in slides!
- Do rehearsals. There are no shortcuts; if you want a top-class event, all speakers need to rehearse beforehand on stage.
- If you have a panel on stage, prepare the panel members before the event. First coach them individually, as all speakers. Then organize a group call or Skype session where you discuss together how to organize the panel discussion so that everybody stays within the theme and avoid repeating each other’s messages. And make sure your mix of panel members offers variety and different views. Encourage a heated debate, discourage everybody agreeing with each other.
- Less What and Why, more How! Urge all speakers to end their talk with an action list. The audience wants to engage, so the speaker should give them 1-3 concrete things they can do.
- The time flow is crucial, avoid interruptions
– Avoid switching computers on stage. If you must have several computers, hook them all up to a switch.
– Have quick runners that hand out microphones to the audience during Q&As, or, for smaller events, use a Catchbox.
- Encourage questions from the audience, but only allow one, very short question per person. The moderator must ruthlessly cut off people that are blabbing away or posing more than one question. Also, encourage people following the event via internet to send in their questions to the moderator via Twitter or your online discussion forum, these questions are usually much better since there is time to formulate them in writing.
- Invite a couple of interesting thinkers in the audience to prepare some interesting thoughts in advance and let the moderator do a short (2-5 minutes) interview with them standing in the audience. This is an easy way to create variation in the program and introduce more interesting thoughts in a time-efficient way.
- Engage both the mind and the body. The brain needs energy from the body, so add physical activities throughout the program, especially after lunch and in the late afternoon. Stretching exercises, walks, dancing etc. Also, put flowers and herbs with pleasant scents on the tables.
- Create lots of natural meeting and mingling points. One of the main values of an event is networking, connecting with interesting people. Encourage this by telling the audience to switch tables/seats between sessions and set up many informal meeting points such as couches, coffee table, standing tables, etc. Lunch tables can have signs with different topics to discuss.
- Avoid cinema-type rows of seats that make it difficult to move in and out of the seats. This makes people reluctant to take a seat, and everybody will try to occupy the outer seats.
- Videotape and/or write a blog from all the speeches and put them on the conference web site with a searchable index of content.
- Send out a carefully crafted survey to the attendees after the event. Make it easy to fill in with a mix of check-box questions and open feedback fields. Make sure also to encourage negative but constructive feedback and ask for ideas on how to improve the next event. Offer something of value to all the survey participants. Thank them all individually and then analyze the feedback thoroughly and learn from it.
- Don’t let speakers spend more than 1 minute to present themselves. Make them rehearse their personal presentation and keep it very short and relevant to the theme of the event. The value of their talk should come from its content and delivery, not from their backgrounds!
- Don’t let speakers sell their companies’ products or services on stage. And don’t allow company logos in their slides.
- Avoid large panels and encourage disagreement. A panel discussion with more than 4 members usually turns into monologues, since there is too little time for debate between the panel members. It is also important that all the panelists do not agree with each other on the topic, that creates a boring discussion.
- Don’t let panel members pitch their own ideas on stage. Make them discuss the topic with each other, that is the whole value of a panel session.
- Don’t let the speakers use any acronyms. They are guaranteed to confuse large parts of the audience. All acronyms must be spelled out and explained, preferably on a slide.
- Don’t let speakers run over their allotted time. This is an insult both to the audience and the upcoming speakers. Make this very clear to the speaker in advance, ask them if they have rehearsed and timed their talk.
If they still run over, use a red light, a count-down clock (à la TED) or a big, strong moderator to force them off the stage. No exceptions for big-shots either!
- Don’t allow anyone in the audience to ask more than one question at the time. Neither the speaker nor the audience can remember two questions!
- Don’t allow the audience to pose long-winding comments or questions that are more about presenting themselves. This steals time from everyone else.
- Don’t allow one person to pose more than two questions per session.
- Don’t print thick, heavy event programs that each participant is supposed to carry around during the whole event. Put everything online instead and make sure it is easy to access also on smartphones. All printed material should be very light-weight.
- Don’t waste time by reading a thank-you list of sponsors, speakers and volunteers. Instead, make a slide presentation of them and run it in a loop 10 minutes before and after the event. (See Seth Godin’s post about this.)
Most conferences today are organized like this:
- The conference web site is used only to display the program and sign up the attendees.
- There is no list of attendees on the web site, so you cannot research and connect with interesting people before, or after the conference.
- As soon as the conference starts, the web site is dead.
- In better 1.0 conferences the web site links to the presenter’s slide shows weeks after the conference, but that is too late for most attendees.
- There are no speaker videos on the web site, due to fear that videos will make people want to enjoy them at home instead of paying to be at the conference. (Actually it works the other way around, for example, the TED conference attracted many more people that were happy to pay $6.000 to attend when they dared to oppose this wisdom and started publishing all their talks online for free, see this amazing talk about it by the TED executive Producer June Cohen)
- They drag on for three days with a dinner, or a drinks “party” sponsored by some company that you have little connection with and where the delegates hang out with their friends.
- They are all about 45-minute long keynote talks, with speakers presenting their corporate pitches to the audience. Top-down communication with no participation from the audience other than the usual awkward, long winding questions from attendees that want to show off themselves.
- The events are big, making it very hard to make contact with new people. Still most people afterwards say that the biggest value was “meeting people,” in most cases re-connecting with people they already know.
My vision of conferences that are more engaging and immersive for both the delegates and the speakers:
- Strive for smaller conferences, 75 – 200 people. Smaller is usually more productive. So concentrate the conference to one day and evening (or afternoon + evening) where everything is designed to catalyze business networking.
- The conference web site is the central collection place before, during and after the conference for inspiring information, links to the speaker sites, blogs, back channels, etc.
- Encourage business networking among the delegates before and during the conference. For example, have a delegate list on the conference web site where you can search for names, companies, types of business, nationalities and perhaps also a list of what people offer and what they seek.
- Use online tools and mobile services for match-making: let the attendees present themselves and their interests and search for other people to meet at the conference.
- Have multiple screens around the stage and the lobby outside, showing the live talks as well as the back channels.
- Use small round tables in the auditorium, to enable conversations. Put numbered flags on the tables and arrange the tables in a logical order so you realize where in the room the table is located. So that it is easy to book meetings at a certain table.
- Make people rotate between the tables during every break, so that you meet new people.
- Put big signs with discussion themes on the lunch tables, to encourage constructive lunch discussions.
- Have a big screen showing the agenda with the current session and the name of the speaker highlighted.
- Display short teaser loops running before each talk; Coming up: name, subject, background, interesting fact, etc.
- Engage a live blogger that writes notes during all the talks with all names and links etc. in a stream displayed to the audience in the room and online. Communicate that people can copy this to their notes. Or use a wiki that everybody can produce live, (crowd-sourced note taking).
- Provide electrical outlets near as many seats as possible.
- Provide free wireless internet all over the conference area with capacity for everybody. And please, make the login process very easy.
- Use back channels (e.g. Twitter) that enable both the audience in the hall and the internet visitors in the outside world to share their questions and comments. For example, you can show the Twitter feed on large screens throughout the conference building, or use online tools similar to Social Canvas from IDEO. Let the backstage people extract the best questions and send them immediately to the moderators laptop (or iPad) using an instant messaging client like Skype. These questions are often better than the questions from the audience in the room since it is easier to formulate in writing than standing up with a microphone.
- Broadcast everything that happens during the conference live on the web site, including all the speaker videos, since:
a) it will inspire many more to come the next time to experience the immersive networking and participation of the physical event.
b) it is a useful tool for the delegates to use when they summarize and report back their experiences after the event.
c) It increases the value for the sponsors.
- Have mostly moderated discussions on stage with one or several speakers and show many concrete examples of what is being discussed.
- Mix short and long talks, but never allow any speaker to use more than 30 minutes.
- Encourage the attendees to blog during the conference, and put links to all the blogs on the conference web site.
- Also, see the Do’s and Don’ts above.
I recommend reading Seth Godin’s blog post “The new standard for meetings and conferences“.
Excerpt: “Here’s what a speaker owes an audience that travels to engage in person: more than they could get by just reading the transcript.
And here’s what a conference organizer owes the attendees: surprise, juxtaposition, drama, engagement, souvenirs and just possibly, excitement.”
See also my post for speakers: “Presentation skills Do’s and Don’ts“.