A conference to remember

Successful conference

Five steps to ensure your events make a real difference to business performance – especially through the people who can’t even be there.

Putting on a good conference sucks up both time and budget like few other things. But, conferences also have the potential to really inspire leaders and align their actions… like few other things.

So how can you ring the changes to make the content of your event, not the venue or the guest speaker’s jokes, something that is remembered and acted upon long after you turn out the lights at the venue?

I’ve been designing, facilitating and delivering events for over 25 years. Here are five steps that I recommend to make your next conference one to remember, for all the right reasons.

Step 1: Build to a crescendo, as part of a process

Most conferences provide a motivational ‘spike’ for those lucky enough to participate, for the period of time they are in attendance. But that’s no more than the very minimum standard we should be aiming for.

Why not build some excitement about the conference, in the run up to it, via your existing communication channels?

  • Profile the guest speakers
  • Share the agenda, so participants can plan their contribution
  • Put out a call for questions or hot topics to be addressed at the event
  • Create some interest amongst colleagues who can’t attend, but have a vital role to play in delivering business performance
  • Let people know you will ‘broadcast’ live from the event.

After the conference, report back on the key actions that need to be taken. All part of a well-planned, integrated process.

Step 2: Create a conference playbook

An at-a-glance one page agenda is always a winner, especially for time-pressed senior execs. But similar to only reading the titles of the chapters in a book, it doesn’t give you the whole story.

So, create a conference playbook, the source of information for everyone involved in delivering the event. Start with the objectives of the event and include that at-a-glance agenda that will help you deliver those objectives. Then dive into the detail…

  • What are the key points being covered in each session?
  • What is the thread that connects all the content together, aligned with the theme?
  • Who is handing over to whom?
  • Where do the interactive exercises fit in?
  • How are participants going to cascade the key message?
  • How will you measure success?

This approach creates focus, maximises consistency and minimises duplication of effort. And it helps surface any overlaps or underlaps way before anyone creates any PowerPoint slides or even thinks about attending a rehearsal.

Once you’ve got the story of the event signed off, you can extend the playbook to cover technical topics such as, lighting, music, cues, etc. Use it as a checklist to make sure you allocate all of the actions required for the smooth running of the event. For example, who is organising the gift for the external speaker, where can participants charge their devices, how will they access the cascade pack? etc.

Step 3: Make it interactive

No conference participant ever raced to the annual event venue to sit in the dark for three days, eat mints and die in a hail of bullet points delivered by a seemingly endless procession of speakers.

The clue is in the name, participants. Presumably you invited all these people because you wanted them to do something differently as a consequence of being out of the business all that time. So, get them involved.

  • Turn up the house lights at frequent intervals and shine the spotlight on them
  • Connect them with the content
  • Get them interacting with the presenters
  • Ask for their questions and reflections, get them talking about what excites and inspires them, as well as what might be challenging
  • Ensure your participants are making and sharing personal action plans.

Of course, there are the traditional facilitation tools to call upon; icebreakers, energisers, flipchart activities, Post-Its sessions, break outs, brown paper exercises, etc. And these days you can take advantage of some outstanding tech-based collaborative tools too, such as those available from Crystal Interactive Meetings.  Their technology enables the thoughts of the entire audience to be captured quickly, played back on the main screen and acted upon live at the event. And then, because their feedback is all held in a database, it can be reported on and followed up after the event.

I find a blended approach of traditional and tech-based interactivity is the best recipe for success.

Step 4: Make it easy to cascade

Good leaders talk about their expectations of participants in their opening address; be present in the room, listen carefully, engage with the content, make notes, that sort of thing. Great leaders explain the key role participants have to play in cascading the key messages from the event to their teams. And then all they get to help them are copies of the slides, if they are lucky.

If you really want participants to cascade the key messages, make it as easy and user-friendly as possible to do so. They are busy people with all sorts of challenges on their time. Make a pack available that includes:

  • A ‘how to’ guide
  • A video intro to the cascade presented by a senior manager setting the scene
  • Some relevant and specially selected slides with speaker notes
  • Tips on how to get a lively Q&A to happen
  • Ideas for interactive exercises to choose from
  • An FAQ and a feedback form.

You could even make the conference giveaway a branded book to help them thrive in their role as key communicators. And then follow up to check the extent to which the cascade is happening, which leads us to step five.

Step 5: Measure and report message retention

If you really want to make yours a conference to remember this final step is key.

World-class leaders explain to conference participants that the quality of their cascade briefings is going to be measured and reported. If participants weren’t sitting up straight and taking notes before, they are now.

Then these leaders commission research, to begin a month or so after the conference, with a representative group of colleagues who didn’t even attend the event. The survey checks the extent to which the key messages have been retained, understood and even acted upon. And then they report their findings, by function or area.

This activity checks compliance as a by-product, but its real intent is to explore the extent to which those vital key messages are actually getting through to the people at the sharp end. These are often the people who are actually executing the business plan with, for example, customers.

There are of course a number of techniques available to conduct this research, but check out the Engage App, as an especially powerful tool in this space.

More passion pleas

As a video I recently posted, and I hope this blog shows, I’m really passionate about the need to move away from a mind-set of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ towards taking new steps to make your next event a conference to remember.

Try these steps and your colleagues will never forget the difference you make.