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Delivering a Conference That Makes a Difference

December 13, 2018

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Nancy Bacon

Associate Director
Washington Nonprofits

This is the third of a four-blog series 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!

It’s Day One of your conference! You’ve done everything you can do to get your conference presenters and attendees ready for a great day of learning. Now let’s explore four very practical ways to strengthen learning at your conference:

  1. Include participant-led learning within your schedule of speaker-led programming.

Most conferences are dominated by speaker-led learning. We come for new ideas and inspiration, and speakers can provide that well. However, it’s often difficult for speakers to frame the challenges participants face and to facilitate useful peer conversation and feedback. So, consider one or more of the following:

Table talks. Most people have a workplace challenge or opportunity on their mind. In the previous blog in this series, we suggested that you collect this information during the registration process. Why not set aside time to invite conversation on these topics through facilitated but largely unstructured small group discussions? These type of ‘Table Talk’ sessions also offer incredible networking opportunities.

Open space/ unconference. Your conference may be the space for a community of people to generate their own agenda. For example, organizers of a recent national conference wanted people to come together by region to generate their biggest challenges and organize around possible solutions. They scheduled the session on the first day of a three-day conference to help participants “find their people” early on. The results of those conversations informed the rest of the conference and provided a framework for post-conference collaboration.

“The Doctor Is In.” The fastest way to get people answers to their questions is to have experts available to answer them. So why not consider setting up a Q&A lounge with suite of experts, a “Doctor Is In” zone where consultants offer 15-minute consultations at bar tables?

  1. Set aside time for individual and peer reflection into the schedule.

We consider reflection to be deep, sustained, rigorous thought that has a purpose. It is the process in which we place ourselves into a larger context. Reflection is critical for us to take what we learn and transfer it back into our workplace.

  • Build reflection time in to the conference schedule. Be generous in scheduling passing time so that people aren’t jumping from one topic to the next.
  • Coach workshop presenters to build reflection time into their sessions.
  1. Provide printed materials that help participants organize their ideas.

Your program serves as your piece de resistance: it is the document that showcases the values creating this day. Let’s talk about your program and some other tools to deepen learning.

Conference Planning Guide. A conference can be like a small city. Big stage events, small room events, exhibitors, displays, and so much more. It can be overwhelming, which is where a Conference Planning Guide that outlines the main elements of the day can encourage intentionality and focus.

Program. A typical program includes the key elements of the conference: schedule, keynote description, workshop descriptions, exhibitors, and other events and gatherings. The program can be a dynamic resource with a shelf life beyond the conference. Here are some learning elements to consider in shaping your printed program:

  • Clear and useful session descriptions. List the learning outcomes so that attendees will know what they will walk away with. Define the target audience: who is the session designed for.  The clearer the descriptions, the more satisfied the attendees.
  • Goal setting/ tracking page. Include a page that invites attendees to describe their goals for the conference. These goals can be centered on solution finding, networking, or general inspiration.
  • Workshop reflection page. A page in the program on workshops can collect key take-aways and action steps.
  1. Support logistics in ways that increase opportunities and remove barriers.

No matter the quality of the speakers and the presentations you’ve planned, technical glitches, poor wayfinding, or inadequate supplies can undermine a great day. Double-check or conduct a test-run on aspects of the conference that can contribute to or detract from the learning experience. For better or worse, getting the logistics right will never be noticed. But getting it wrong can derail even the best speakers and sessions. 

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!