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Best Practices for Pre-Conference Activities

December 12, 2018

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Nancy Bacon

Associate Director
Washington Nonprofits

This is the second of four blogs to help you deepen your thinking and practices related to conferences, particularly those that run on a tight budget. These four blogs are condensed versions of four chapters of a new ebook written by Nancy Bacon and Mark Nilles called: Conferences That Make a Difference. Read to the end for a special offer!

Conferences take a lot of preparation. People need name tags, food (coffee!), and a program that tells them where to go. The learning elements of a conference also take preparation. Your attendees need your support to get them ready to turn powerful learning into action and behavior change. Your presenters need the chance to hone their presentations.

We offer four ideas to help you get ready for your conference:

1. Incentivize teams to support peer learning and accountability

Team participation at conferences supports accountability, collaboration, and learning.  (And group registration helps your revenue goals.)  There are several ways to incentivize and support teams leading up to a conference.

Market for teams. Sometimes people need to be prompted to consider new ideas and approaches. If an Executive Director typically attends her sector conference alone, it may not occur to her that she can bring the Development Director and Board Chair. By prompting her to think about her biggest challenge or opportunity and who would be involved in addressing it, she can better see the return on investment.

Support team-based activity. Build in time during the conference for conversation. Block at least 30 minutes of unprogrammed time when individuals can network, and teams can come together and share ideas.

Build teams. You don’t have to arrive at the conference in a team to benefit from the power of one! There are various ways to build teams over the course of the conference.

  • Talk about the power of teams from the podium. Challenge people to find 3 people they didn’t know coming into the conference to follow on social media or connect with after the conference.
  • Use nametags, ribbons, or other identifiers to help people find each other. This can be done at the conference through stickers or markers at the registration desk, or information like where they come from could come through the registration process.
  • “Find your people” programming. A pre-conference conference “deep dive” track or a Day One conference round table session can help people find others like them.

2. Gather information through the registration process

As a conference planner, you can use the registration process to better understand who is attending and what they most need out of the conference. Delivering a good learning experience starts with a deep understanding of your target audience, including their prior knowledge and biggest challenges.

Ask for the data you and your presenters need. There are two kinds of data to consider:

  • Demographic information. Consider your event goals. Who do you want to reach and how will you know that you have? For example, if you have a goal of reaching a diverse size of organizations, you might ask about budget size of organization.
  • Performance-related topic suggestions. Many conferences feature some sort of “open space” or “unconference” session where there is no speaker but rather an opportunity for peer sharing.  Asking participants: “What keeps you up at night” or a similar question in advance can help inform programming for these types of peer sharing sessions. 

3. Start the learning through priming activities

You can get your attendees ready for the conference experience generally and your conference specifically by doing a few things.

Create a Conference Planner. Help attendees get a jump-start on learning by giving them a simple workbook to organize their thoughts. You can invite them to think about a problem that they hope to solve, choose sessions to attend, and list the kinds of people they hope to meet.

Encourage goal setting. For example, encourage participants before they arrive to think about people goals (who to meet/connect with), performance goals (solve a problem, finish a project), and bonus goals (something that would be the icing on the cake, like getting a new idea for a project).

Use video to get attendees ready for specific sessions or the conference as a whole. Give voice to the Conference Planner with a short video introducing the logistics and content of the conference. Invite presenters to share short videos—or use existing talks—to engage attendees in some of the ideas that will be shared at the conference.

4. Prepare presenters to be excellent and action focused

We assume our presenters have a certain level of subject matter expertise along with presenting skills. In reality, not all presenters are as skilled as we might hope, and even those with many conferences under their belts can appreciate a chance to learn how to help people learn.

Gauge presenters’ support needs.  Look for presenting experience and references you might be able to gather from people who have seen them in action to help determine the amount of support presenters might need

Provide resources on how to present effectively. Give presenters a Session Planning Guide to provide a structure around learning outcomes, appropriate levels of content, and engagement activities. For example, Washington Nonprofits encourages presenters to use the “kite method” taught by Guila Muir in her book Instructional Design That Soars:

  1. The frame: purpose and outcomes
  2. The sail: context and body
  3. The tail: active closure

Schedule one-on-one conversations with presenters. Washington Nonprofits schedules conversations with every presenter, and the discussions are often rich with ideas. Presenters often think in new ways about how to deliver their session. If a panel is involved in the session, we talk through the best ways to make this format a high-quality learning experience.

Conduct a group orientation for all presenters. Workshop presenters are critical to the success of a conference.  Think about the conference’s values and how you will bring others on board. A recent conference in Seattle, for example, encouraged all presenters to participate in a pre-conference session on race and equity to draw attention to how they could better honor the diversity in the room. 

Interested in exploring these topics more deeply?  Our ebook, Conferences That Make a Difference, will be released January 2019.  The ebook explores these same topics but provides deeper explanations, more examples, and templates. Sign up here to get your free electronic copy of the book when it’s available.