Predicting the future of conferences and events

Decision making

The old-school management conference is dead.

The future for employee engagement events is all about getting participants connecting, contributing and collaborating.

More than 20 years ago and for many years on the bounce, I could confidently predict the future of employee engagement events – well at least the formulaic and uninspiring annual management conferences at the retailer I worked for at the time.

To the musical accompaniment of something current – probably Dire Straits or Billy Ocean – we were presented with the year’s highs and lows, told about the store opening programme (those were the days when the big retailers were opening stores not closing them!), walked slowly through the balance sheet and exhorted to get behind the best Christmas special offers we’ve ever had since… well, the same time last year. Then there would be an announcement of this year’s Christmas performance bonus, which was of course rarely attainable by most attendees.

(I say “attendees” deliberately because we were never really participants – at least not until the comedian came on and sent us all home with a smile on our faces. Which was usually all we went home with, except a tear and beer-stained envelope which contained the bonus details – no cascade packs for us to rally the troops in store, oh no.)

You see, I really could predict the future of my employer’s events – and I wonder if any of your colleagues can do the same about your events?

Since those long ago days, and after the MD challenged me to put my money where my mouth was and do better, I’ve made it my business to be an advocate for truly engaging and interactive events that put participants, and the difference they need to make to company performance, at the heart of everything.

Of course, before you get into building in interactivity, there’s a lot of foundational work to do – being clear about your purpose, deciding who to invite and finding a venue. And then you need to design the whole conference experience. This is best done in what we call a ‘walk through’ that describes the entire event through the eyes of a participant. The walk-through adds detail: purpose, invite ideas, key content (to avoid underlaps and overlaps), staging instructions, excitement, emotion, competitions, cascade plans and of course… interactivity.

Interactivity matters

These days, interactivity comes in a variety of guises, both traditional and electronic. And it starts the minute participants first ‘touch’ the conference invite and ends only when the key messages are truly understood and acted on across the organisation.

For instance, participants might have to complete a personal profile, highlight their hopes and fears and provide some quirky insights about themselves as part of the registration process. You could display the information in printed posters in the registration area and challenge participants to pick out themes from the profiles or answer quiz questions about each other. Or you could load up the profiles to interactive devices such as iPads that you give to participants on arrival.

In this regard, we often partner with Crystal Interactive, specialists in audience interaction technology. We might get Crystal to create bespoke digital content for participants on arrival – the agenda, speaker profiles, venue maps and break-out session options.

Thereafter, we make extensive use of Crystal’s interactive solutions throughout the main body of the event. Typically, that involves giving participants access to apps that make it easy to share their views, ideas and questions and message one another (and leaders) in real-time during the event. We’ve made extensive use of this kind of audience-engagement technology over the last few years. It’s great for large-scale brainstorming, prioritizing, problem solving, gamification and action planning at organisational, team and personal levels.

All the data captured goes into a database and is made available after the event – and no one has to write up any flipcharts. The tech will even email you your actions, cc your boss.

In essence pretty much anything you can think of that used to be done with flipcharts, Post-its and brown paper rolls can be delivered by Crystal – but so much quicker, enabling you to cover more ground than you ever thought possible.

Keeping it real

These technical solutions are very powerful indeed, but it’s important to make sure participants also interact face to face and have an experience beyond a little rectangular screen. So we build in lots of opportunities for talking things through with leaders and peers in plenary and breakout sessions. We also feature hands-on activities – anything from building the business ‘model’ with Lego to making videos to going on treasure hunts.

And interactivity shouldn’t stop when the spotlights at the venue go out. That’s when we should be turning the spotlight on the people who couldn’t come to the event – often those at the sharp end executing the strategy day to day. The challenge is to bring the key messages to life in their part of the world. Take some of the interactive elements of your conference back to the workplace, launch a competition, generate dialogue between leaders and the line on the hot topics of the day. The aim is to transfer the buzz of the conference room floor to the office or factory floor.

Predicting the future

So that’s a flavour of what we’re doing today to make events truly engaging. And what else might we be doing in the next few years?

Well, we’ll still need to fulfil the basic human need to meet face to face – especially when there’s a big change to get started. What will change will be the level of interactivity opened up by emerging technologies:

  • Better and faster streaming will allow content to be shared globally beyond the conference floor – and both ways too.
  • Facilitators could use Google Glass-type devices to see and respond to participant feedback live.
  • Facial recognition will be able to send participants profiles of people they’re looking at, and flag when they are near someone they want to meet.
  • Breakout rooms will know you’ve entered them and send session-specific information to your mobile device.
  • Wearable tech could be used to measure physical responses to specific pieces of content – including levels of engagement. Wristwatches could be used to quickly and accurately register a vote by the raise of a hand, or to signal the extent of acceptance of an idea by the speed of a wave.
  • Technology will turn any piece of paper into instantly shareable whiteboards
  • Auto-translate technology will take care of the language barrier in events for international participants.
  • Augmented reality and 3D tech will literally bring key messages to life. Imagine an event where a list of potential actions would appear in front of participants in 3D and they can prioritise them with their eye movements, share them with double blink and like with a nod or a smile.

So I predict an exciting time ahead for employee engagement conferences and events – so long as we stay focused on the objectives of the communication and look to achieve them with a healthy balance of ‘traditional’ interactivity and new technology.

And what about your next conference? What steps are you going to take to truly engage your people and deliver an experience that is anything but predictable?

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