Home Blog & Media Developing a Conference Strategy and Supporting Effective Learning

Developing a Conference Strategy and Supporting Effective Learning

December 11, 2018

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Nancy Bacon

Associate Director
Washington Nonprofits

This is the first of four blogs in this week’s series on conferences. These blogs will 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!

Our definition of conference

First, let’s define what we mean when we talk about a “conference.”  We think of conferences as large events with diverse audiences and multiple learning opportunities, generally held under one roof.

A typical conference will include structured learning sessions, networking opportunities, and an exhibition hall. Oftentimes we think about these as separate and distinct elements of a conference, but they all can play an important role toward driving results for participants back in the workplace. However, in the interest in speaking to perhaps the most impactful element of conference delivery, our focus is on the learning conveyed during main stage and workshop sessions. Here are some steps to keep in mind when developing a conference that will promote effective learning:

Start with a conference strategy

Decision-making regarding your conference will be much easier if you develop and adhere to a conference strategy. Your conference strategy should be part of an overall learning strategy for your organization. Your organization’s learning strategy might operationalize a larger sector-level performance goal.

Set clear goals based on your strategy

Typically, an organizational learning strategy will include goals around reach (e.g. the number of participants you want to reach through learning events), results (e.g. the impact that your learning events will have on individuals and organizations), and possibly revenue (e.g. the financial contributions that learning events will bring to the organization).

Your conference strategy should reference and contribute to the overall learning strategy, which could also include free and fee-based workshops, webinars, online communities of practice, white papers, and other learning-based products and services. Likewise, those non-conference learning activities can help inform the themes and topics that you should highlight during your conference sessions.

Apply adult learning principles to conference activities

We offer four learning strategies that maximize the likelihood your conference will lead to true learning and real results.

  • Keep it simple

Guide presenters to make the most of their time by focusing on one or two main learning points rather than trying to convey a career’s worth of knowledge and expertise. Here’s a good test—can your presenters summarize their presentation in one tweet?

A talented presenter can discuss complex topics by building on base knowledge that participants bring to the session, or by using stories or metaphors to make complex topics relatable. Adult learners appreciate and benefit from this ‘scaffolding’ approach of building on familiar concepts.

  • Give participants opportunities to make it their own

Effective presenters consider ways to help participants absorb session content and determine how to adapt the concepts for their benefit. For example, during sessions presenters can encourage participants to either think about or discuss with a neighbor how the concept could be applied in their workplace to achieve results and meet goals.

During network or lunch breaks, conference planners can encourage and provide time and structure for participants to think or discuss with a colleague what they’ve learned, why it’s important, what questions they have, and what actions they can take back to the workplace to achieve results.

  • Help participants remember key take-aways

If participants can’t remember what they learned during the conference, it will be nearly impossible for them to apply it in the workplace.

During sessions, presenters can support remembering in various ways, including storytelling, integrating workplace clues, and repeating the same message in different ways.  Storytelling can be powerful because it often touches us emotionally and creates mental models that we can recall more easily than a list of facts. Techniques to support remembering after the event are covered in the final blog in this series.

  • Help participants take it back to work

Although we’ve been focusing on effective learning, the point is not simply to enlighten participants with knowledge but to provide them with useful skills and tools that they can use when they return to work. This is the culmination of the previous three concepts. Participants need to be able to understand and benefit from the content. Participants need time to reflect on the learning points and consider how to apply it at work to achieve important objectives. And participants need to remember enough to be able to take the first steps to use it.

Interested in exploring these topics more deeply?  Download our ebook, Conferences That Make a Difference, which explores these same topics but provides deeper explanations, more examples, and templates. 


What conferences does Humentum have coming up in 2019? In addition to our annual conference in Washington, DC (called OpEx DC 2019 next year!), we are also hosting a conference in Kampala, Uganda next March! Learn more here.