Conference design strategies that deliver a punch

The Engaging Events Series, #4

In my last post about Meeting Design, I talked about the two fundamental principles for enhancing the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time, and
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time. 

I also promised a sample list of techniques that I’ve seen used or experimented with, that ratchet up the ROI on the time invested by sticking to the guiding value of “Get on, get to the point, and get off!”.  The value of this approach is that attendees can spend less time passively “receiving” information and more time processing it and figuring out what to do with it. As you’re reading, think about other similar approaches you’ve witnessed, because you might be asked to share one yourself when this is over.  

  • TED Talks.  Let’s start with the most famous example of concentrated presentations in a group setting.  I’m told that when TED talks were originated, speakers were asked to expound on a subject of their choosing, with a limit of 6 minutes to get their point across.  The current formula allows for a relatively comfortable 18 minutes, but I’m sure a lot of speakers have been used to getting 45 minutes or more to address the same topic.  In any case, this requires the speaker to get very focused on the underlying message they want to convey and to deliver that message in a compelling manner.  Note that you don’t need the TED folks to come to town in order to use this technique—just find your own experts. (Or show a YouTube video of a TED Talk.)  And keep in mind that what will make a TED-style talk most impactful is if the presentation is followed by an interactive discussion, where audience members are given the opportunity to do their own talking!  That’s what will ensure a connection between the ideas being presented and actually learning and applying them after everyone has gone home.

  • Flash Point.  MPI created this approach for their conferences.  Similar to TED Talks, a series of industry experts get 15 minutes each to present on a relevant, thought-provoking topic, which again requires them to concentrate their message.  Flash Point sessions can last a few hours, with attendees filtering in and out according to their personal interests (and the quality of the performance, of course).

  • Pecha Kucha.  Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work, describes this technique as “haiku for presentations – twenty slides automatically advanced, each shown for twenty seconds, while the presenter shares his or her passion about a topic. Because each presentation lasts just 6 minutes and 40 seconds, presenters are challenged to be concise, targeted, and creative—and you can pack eight attendee presentations into an hour-long conference session.”   20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, then make room for the next topic.  That requires focus…generally a good thing!

  • Learning Lounges.  Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chain Consulting describes this PCMA initiative as “an adult learning playground with a blend of informal and formal learning.  It consists of a variety of 15-minute, interactive education sessions, live webcasting, and self-directed learning groups.  Learning Lounge features at the 2011 Convene Leadership event in Vegas included peer-to-peer discussions, six theaters offering continuous 15-minute TED style presentations, the Social Media Expert Bar, the Supplier Showdown, and the PCMA365 Livestreaming Studio.

  • MPI’s Solution Room.  Used at EMEC in Dusseldorf this year and on the program for MPI-WEC this month, The Solution Room is a 90-minute, attendee-led wrap-up session for enhancing reflection, learning and change action.  Using “unconference” techniques instead of presentations, speakers from previous concurrent sessions are used to facilitate the conversation and answer questions, while attendees help each other determine best practices for their own businesses. It combines self-reflection and coaching by both experts and colleagues sharing similar challenges.

  • Cafe Conversations.  A precursor of The Solution Room, I first saw this approach at MPI’s MeetDifferent in Houston a few years ago as a breakout session option.  A large whiteboard placed just outside of a large conference room listed the table numbers inside and attendees could write whatever topic or current issue they were interested in discussing next to a table number and then go sit down at that table.  As others arrived, they could scan the list of topics on the whiteboard and either join a table of interest, or add their own subject to the list and start their own table.   Before long, there were more than a dozen tables in action–some had such a large group that there were double rings of chairs around a banquet round;  at others only two or three people may have landed.  But in each case, everyone was talking about a topic they had elected to participate in.  And if they found that the discussion was not engaging enough, they had the option to simply stand up and move to another table with an interesting topic.

  • 1-Minute Sound Bites.  Another technique for applying and sharing what’s been learned is simply to  pause every so often (ideally, after every 7-10 minutes of new information presented) during a presentation to allow tables or small groups of participants to take just one minute to exchange ideas about what they found to be most valuable about the ideas just presented.  This is another example of Chunking material so that it will be absorbed, retained, and taken back to work!

  • Mind-Map Tablecloths.  A variation on the 1-Minute Sound Bite is to cover tables with paper tablecloths and provide markers for each table to capture group mind-maps that illustrate concepts or applications that the participants have been discussing.  Participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and literally create a picture of their most compelling ideas.

  • Key Takeaway Feedback Cards.   Before letting everyone scatter, as a presenter I sometimes will ask each attendee to fill out an index card (or it could be part of an evaluation form–as long as it’s not too long!) that will tell me one key takeaway that they will take back to work with them.  If there will be an opportunity for follow-up, I may also ask them to identify one question they still have, or something they would like to know more about now that the session is over. That not only gives me valuable information to work with in the future, but it also provides an opportunity for each person to review and summarize their own thoughts about how they might apply the ideas offered during the session when they get back to their workplace. When it comes down to it, that’s the whole point, right?

Have you seen or used other strategies to deliver a punch to your meetings or conferences?  Feel free to share them in a comment below.


About Peter Straube

educator, event producer, experience designer, and explorer View all posts by Peter Straube

12 responses to “Conference design strategies that deliver a punch

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    I read this late last night and confess to a feeling of frustration and glee. Ok, maybe it was a bit of bitterness v. frustration – I’ve been around for a long time and sometimes when the “new boys” get credit, it’s tough to take! (I am only human, ya know?! And women were taught not to brag. No more of that stuff!) Glee because there is company in the revolution.

    If there were minutes from conversations and meetings from the early ’80s from both industry associations and other groups, you’d have found almost all of this except pecha kucha in conversations I started. In fact, some of it was done – reluctantly and only once – years ago. MPI and PCMA were terrified of new formats – and still are to some degree – and of looking at what could be different and how we could “change up” meetings. ASAE did cafe conversations years ago too – a visual facilitator and I did some great sessions at a meeting and the POOF! it went away because it was a bit too “complicated” to set it up. (Really? tables? recyclable paper on the tables and walls? It was really that other presenters weren’t comfortable using those sets. .. like PCMA stopped doing theatre-in-the-round at breakouts bec. too many other presenters didn’t have a comfort level .. not the audience mind you, the presenters. So instead of finding others or, better, helping people learn to do things differently ………..) Even Paul Radde ( and his “Seating Matters”) with simple changes for groups that fear change is having a difficult time and has for years getting attention.

    I’m GLAD this is out there today. I think the pioneers of yesterday deserve credit too for starting the conversation.

    And I think we need FAR more: we need a) training of facility folks and vendors (AV, decorators, production designers) and fire marshals to move this where it really needs to be. Adrian Segar and others have told me to be patient.

    Until there’s a revolution and we begin to see changes everywhere – changes that include suggestions by facilities and vendors as consultants to their customers and meeting goers demanding change – , I fear my patience is in short supply.

    So do I ask forgiveness of my bitterness and frustration or do I say “You’re welcome” for starting the conversation many years ago so that we could get it where it is? And who ELSE will join the revolution?

  • Peter Straube

    Joan, I hear two different things here: your reaction to seeing ideas you were evolving years ago presented as new and innovative”, and the impatience with what is really a paradigm shift in the way we structure meeting and conference experiences. In a previous post I noted that there are already people out there who have been using these techniques and of course you and Adrian are among those pioneers.

    As far as the paradigm goes, I think this is a question of when things get to the tipping point, where a new norm arises. I see a very similar process playing out in higher education, where a large percentage of professors simply teach the way they were taught–it’s what was modelled for them as students by well-respected faculty who came before them, so the old, standard techniques are assumed to be “the way”. I think the culture around meeting planners has a lot of similarities. And fear of losing control of the program and therefore not knowing how things are likely to turn out are understandably in the mix.

    I recently was participating in a faculty meeting where one of Sir Kenneth Robinson’s TED videos was shown–the one where he introduces the idea that mainstream education kills creativity by using an industrial-age (factory) model to efficiently educate our kids. The professors in the room were engaged enough in the ideas in the video, but immediately following it, one colleague said something like, “Yes, but the reality is that we have 25 or 30 students in every class, so we have to do things in an efficient manner.” Exactly the kind of ingrained thinking that Ken Robinson had just been challenging moments earlier. (Champlain College prides itself on maintaining small classes; imagine what a professor who lectures to 150 students at a time might say.)

    So to use an EventsForChange principle here, how might we go about providing others in the meetings industry with experiences that would change the way they think and behave? I would suggest that what MPI is doing at MPI-WEC this month is one step in that direction–give people a personal experience of these techniques in an environment where they’re not taking any personal risk by structuring things this way. If enough people have a positive experience of these approaches, a new norm is likely to arise. Like most shifts in thinking, it’s all about the experience.

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Ah Peter, thank you for diffusing my frustration! I am grateful for the conversation.

    1) Tipping point & experiences: I will be interested in hearing from those of you attending the WEC what your experience is. I will be even more interested in hearing how that experience is expanded – that is, how will learners/participants be engaged to talk about how in fact they can and will use what THEY experienced – capturing and guiding their thoughts. Will there be facilitated conversations to help overcome objections they may encounter when they return, enthused, and have their ideas rejected? If they react negatively to their own experiences bec. they are not sure “how to learn”/participate in a new way, what will be the facilitated conversation around this to help them understand more?

    2) What will MPI take from this? How will they implement the direct and immediate feedback during the conference and later? Or if the “poo-pooers” say more than the “Whoo-hooers” will they revert at IMEX or elsewhere to the old bec. “not enough people bought in”?

    3) How will MPI (since that is the example we are using) help vendors and facilities learn about what this all means?

    What we miss too often is the follow through – the ongoing dialogue. After MPI did Open Space lite, they followed up with a few attempts of only lite and the dropped it and never did a full OS conference.

    With the women’s group Vanessa Vlay and I started 8.5 years ago, each year has built on the past yearS – intentional on the cap – so that we could evaluate and see how to incorporate new things – how to tweak old things – just how. It has been a true learning lab.

    That’s what I look for!

  • Sue

    I’m following this conversation with equal amounts of hope and frustration. I hear you, Joan. I’ve been around long enough now to have seen some cool learning ideas languish, and I’m sure hoping we’ve hit the tipping point and that MPI will both showcase how new formats can be powerful when used as designed (not the “lite” versions) and to further the participants’ learning goals (had to add that caveat having just finished reading Jeffrey Cufaude’s excellent post on the misuse of different formats: Wow, that was a long sentence!

    Anyway, to your last question, I’ve seen one thing that I thought was pretty brilliant that’s sort of related to your last point. The presenter handed out postcards as people walked in the doors. At the end, he had everyone self-address the postcards and list three things they had learned that they planned to incorporate into their work. He collected the cards, and three months later sent them to us as a reminder.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    You do know there is no discussion/audience participation after TED Talks, right? It was one of the things I found fascinating when I attended. 5-6 talks one after another in a general session format followed by an extended 45-minute (or longer) break or sometimes a meal function. That’s when the conversation happened.

    Like Joan I’ve long been a proponent of mixing up formats, but you mention R.O.I. Do you have data on the R.O.I. of these formats beyond satisfaction? Do they deepen the learning? Lead to more results in the workplace? I think we need to stay focused on making sure these formats deliver results beyond just “that was cool or different” unless that’s the success metric for the sponsoring organization.

    • Peter Straube

      Thanks for raising the ROI question here, Jeffrey. I agree that TED Talks (and MPI’s FlashPoint, as well) are not the best example of delivering an event experience that will translate to more effective performance by the attendees when it’s over, but at least they are an example of pushing presenters to focus in on the most salient points (“big ideas in small doses”…sound familiar?). The next critical step is to provide the context for people to process their own key takeaways and ideally plan ways that they will integrate and implement those ideas when they get back to work. I was a virtual attendee (“lurker”?) at the Flash Point sessions yesterday in Orlando from my home base here in Vermont and I noticed that people who were live-tweeting during the session were starting to nibble at that “takeaways” issue, although not on a level that including thinking through how they might apply those takeaways. Still no action plan, which of course is what we might expect to relate to a change in behavior–which is the only thing that we can expect to impact results.

      Which brings us back to your point about measuring ROI. I absolutely agree with you that “satisfaction” with an event experience is a relatively meaningless measure (see my post on Satisfaction vs. Loyalty ). So I see this challenge as more of a goal-setting exercise for the individual attendee: at the end of the meeting/event/experience, what have they learned that they can use when they get back to their day-to-day life? And what action steps do they intend to take? If we can design an experience that gets them to this point, I think we’ve done our job. After that, if they don’t follow through, it’s an employee performance issue, not a meeting design issue.

      That said, I like Sue’s “3-month reminder postcards” idea above–a gentle way of holding people’s feet to the fire and getting them to stop and “measure” whether they have made any impact (ROI). Any other ideas along those lines?

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Postcards: did that for years with the MPI Institute program and the MPI student programs. I bought postcards and stamps and had people do it. Even longer ago, in the early days of internet use, tried to engage ASAE School of Assn. Mgt. &, separately, MPI Institute participants, in group discussions about how they were using their learning.

    The latter is where there seems to be no follow up and no “full circle” actions. For example, in the very early ’90s, when MPI’s Foundation did two studies (“What Makes Meetings Work” about corp. meetings and “Why People Attend Assn. Annual Meetings”) resulting in white papers, the recommendation was to stay in touch in some way w/ those who were had participated and find out how they continue to use what they learned and what they needed. It was the early days of email so perhaps a bit more difficult.

    Who’s doing this well? Where is the real full circle?

    And about TED: Somehow, Jeffrey, I thought that early on, after a speaker or two, there was discussion. Huh .. I’d need it sooner! It’s why I tweet and text during sessions ’cause, aural learner that I am, I NEED to discuss it pretty darn soon!

    I need a meeting revolution song – already have a beret.

  • Sue

    Another thing I saw recently was the presenter had people pair off with a neighbor throughout the session to discuss various things. At the end, everyone was asked to write down three things they planned to do differently, and the pairs exchanged lists and were asked to commit to following up with each other the next week. I seriously doubt anyone did, though. I don’t think you can leave it up to participants to follow through either in changing behavior based on what they learned, (which is a pretty sad statement, isn’t it?) or in following up with each other. That’s what I liked about the postcard idea.

    I’ve tried to start after-session followup conversations with fellow fired-up attendees via social media several times, but that too gets no traction (though sometimes a whole new conversation with different people starts up, which is good too).

    Joan, now you have me humming–hatless, but humming.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    Peter: Nice post about satisfaction.

    It would be interesting for all of us to talk about this in real-time given that session design should relate to desired outcomes and you then would measure R.O.I. based on the outcomes intended. Some sessions are what I call awareness-raising sessions—here’s a lot of stuff you should be thinking about—while others are much more focused on teaching someone something specific that they need to do and how to do it.

    Part of why I think TED’s format works (and Joan there were no discussions between 5-6 speakers in each block when I attended) is that the primary goal is to make you think. What you do with the content you’re exposed to, what connections you make, what actions you ultimately might implement are all on your shoulders. I cannot think of a single tangible action I took as a result of an individual TED speaker, but the experience shaped my perspective and thinking in many indelible ways that no doubt are now subtly engrained in how I approach my work.

    If there is one thing the meetings industry can learn from TED it is there intense dedication to preparing and coaching their presenters to succeed. Given their brand reputation and the $6000 registration fee for the conference, they simply cannot afford to have bad presentations, so they spend inordinate amounts of time working one-on-one with speakers to make sure that doesn’t happen (or it is an aberration if it does). A webinar about conference logistics isn’t even in the same neighborhood of speaker preparation that TED does, yet many conferences don’t even do that.

    Quite frankly, too many conferences rely on their program selection process as their only quality control mechanism and they completely abdicate themselves of their responsibility for ensuring that the learning experience—whether it be designed to raise awareness, teach a skill, or anything else—is of the highest quality possible, fulfills the stated outcomes, and delivers the expected value. Essentially they outsource the value of their program to presenters with a vast range of content experience, presentation design knowledge, facilitation comfort and confidence, and commitment to the overall conference objectives. A business that treated is franchises the same way would soon be bankrupt, and in many ways, quite a few of our meetings and conferences already are.

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    That’s just it, Jeffrey – the learning experience is not really considered for meetings industry conferences or others. There are topics they believe the participants (who are rarely considered learners) want or that the sponsoring org. wants them to have or they “must have” because .. well, they’ve always had them. When there is deviation and a speaker is about a bigger, broader, thinking topic, there is pushback from participants who say they don’t want “nuts and bolts” but really do.

    How do we move beyond this to more creative learning experiences for those of us who want them?

  • Julie Kartrude

    Don’t you also find that companies sometimes feel they need to cram quantity in over quality? They want to make sure they drive their point home and get their money’s worth. That is the challenge. Spend the time to target 3 or 4 points to hit home, things you know will cause them to think and things they’ll carry home with them, and then create an event program around that. Also, be cognizant of those interactive activities that are so critical to the success of the event deserve high level attention, as well. Attendees can be highly critical of how their time is spent at the event.

  • Peter Straube

    I agree, Julie. This is the old “breadth vs. depth” debate…we tend to feel like a brief treatment of an idea is just “lip service”. But I believe lip service can be very effective if it’s engaging and impactful.

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