Wow! what a great conference!

At the recent Asia Pacific Incentives
& Meetings Expo in Melbourne, Tourism New Zealand was busy impressing conference organisers on the virtues of coming to New Zealand for their event. As an extension of the Expo, the Meetings Industry Association of Australia hosted an in-depth training programme for conference organisers.
I presented on the theme of “creating more value at conferences” in terms enhancing the learning side of the conference. I started with very simple question; how can we make conferences more effective?
The discussion bounced between improving venues and getting bigger budget, to using technology. I steered the group into new direction and asked. “Think about the last conference you went to – how many people made notes and never looked at the them again? Most raised their hands. Or, did you have some good ideas that you forgot?” Most raised their hands again.
Every time I ask these questions at conference the response is the same; two-thirds of the people raise their hands. Despite the money spent on speakers, venues, and meals and accessories, the participants seem to be the weak link.
I proposed that our objective must be to help people find more and bigger ideas at conferences, and prompt them to act on these ideas after the conference. That is, to bridge the gap between the inspiration of the event and the execution of the ideas in the workplace.
Meeting Planners International, US based firm, is researching issues related to improving the effectiveness of meetings and conferences in terms of return on investment (ROI).
The very notion of measuring effectiveness opens up black hole of indifference for some organisers. Bums-on-seats and feedback forms are generally used. The report commented on this approach:
“Perhaps the easiest of the traditional methodologies is audience participation. Simply put, if there are more bodies in the seats than last year, you must be doing something right. That may be true, but people can be learning nothing and doing it with enthusiasm. So one key is to measure not only their enthusiasm but also their grasp of the content.”
One study looked at the opinions of the three stakeholders of the conference industry; the professional conference organisers, the participants, and the company managers or executives who commission the conference – eg they pay the bills. What is “effective” depends on who you ask.
Most business managers (85 percent) think their meetings are successful and produce somewhat or much higher ROI than other investments. Some measure success by quantitative measures (eg ROI, sales leads), while others focus on qualitative measures (eg interaction, appropriate speakers, clear purpose or mission). In terms of meeting outcomes, managers think meetings are most successful in conveying clear sense of organisational priorities and strengthening the organisational culture.
Managers are less convinced that attendees leave with concrete plans, take away important messages, develop greater commitment to the organisation and leave motivated and inspired to be more productive.
Managers are most concerned that the impact of meetings seems to diminish quickly once attendees are back in their work environments. In other words, it is business as usual within week or two.
The research made several useful suggestions for shaping the content to create more powerful learning experiences:
* Adults relate content to their own experiences, and they want to take information and apply it to their current situations.
* Most adults have grown up as members of the TV generation, so delivering the message in fresh, new way is always challenge.
* Adults have many distractions – other job responsibilities and family situations competing for their attention. So reinforcement of the message is key.
* Not all adults learn alike. Some learn by experience and interaction. Others are analytical. And some are perfectly willing to learn by observing others apply the information. However, most learn better when the topic is interesting and is applicable to their immediate needs.
Improving your conferences
To make your conferences more effective – defined in terms of helping find more ideas and prompting them to act on them – there are two areas to consider; the content and the participants.
The place to start is the agenda of the last conference to define what mix of “presentation style” is best for your event.
1. What degree of your “content” is one way? Speakers speak. Delegates listen.
2. What degree of your “content” is participatory? Speakers speak. Delegates act on the content such as talk to neighbour, ask questions, connect it to their own experiences, etc.
3. What degree of the “content” is reversed? Delegates speak as experts or lead the content eg delegates define key issues, experts comment on these.
If more than 50 percent is one way, find ways to involve the audience in meaningful ways. Here are examples:
Key Issues Workshop – Organise workshop toward the end of the event and get participants to “define the two biggest challenges that you face”. Have them work in small groups. All issues get collected, evaluated and addressed. This not only provides useful ideas, it can be packaged in summary that is sold or distributed to everyone to add value to the event.
Pre or Post Conference Workshops – Many events offer full or half-day workshops. These can offer more in-depth opportunity for people to look at topic that adds to their personal or business success. Most speakers do workshops already. frustration for speakers is that the traditional one-hour workshop or speech does not allow for any depth.
Lunch Talks – Instead of key-note speaker, define 20 or 30 themes related to your event. Assign leading thinkers to host table lunch discussion for eight to 10 guests. People pick topic they want and talk and listen to each other while they eat. This takes some work but the results can be great. key to success is encouraging people to continue with these discussions afterwards.
Three small issues can also assist.
1. common complaint is the lack of lighting provided for note taking. This is result of the technicians dimming the lights to allow for electronic presentations. If it is too dark to make notes, how effective is the presentation?
2. Provide time for people to review their notes, talk over issues, and so on. People need time to make connections for learning to happen.
3. Seating is crucial. Limit the workshops or presentations that are set up like church pews. Use herring bone style or preferably round tables to allow interaction.

Motivated participants wanted!
Is it realistic to advertise for participants who are “Enthused, skilled note takers, and willing to contribute and learn.” Hardly.
It may need to be subtle, but provide some guidance to participants to get them to consider:
• The way they listen to speaker – listen for content not just entertainment value.
• The way they take notes – don’t listen for notes, listen for ideas, quotes, questions and actions you can take. When you hear an idea worth recording, finish it right away.
• The way they pick workshops – consider the workshops that are “need to know” and some that are “curious to know”. Often the big insights come from looking at something from new perspective.
Challenge participants to set some personal and business objectives for the event. What do they want to accomplish during the conference? Many people do not consider what is possible at an event.
Working with an American partner, I expanded this concept greatly to create tool for conference participants. In essence, we replaced the traditional knowledge tool of conference, the blank pad of paper, with something inspiring and useful called Conference Navigator Guide. The 60-page guide combines note book with tool kit to get more ideas from conference plus process to use those ideas after the conference.
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