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Navigating your way through a successful conference

Feature Articles

Cite as: (2003) 77(6) LIJ, p.54

Firms should understand why they plan to hold a conference before expending time, expense and effort in organising the event.

By Simon Tupman and Ed Bernacki

Firms should understand why they plan to hold a conference before expending time, expense and effort in organising the event.
By Simon Tupman and Ed Bernacki

Many firms spend large sums of money on organising conferences that focus on entertainment, speakers, facilities and food. However, rarely is there an equal focus on the participants and their learning.

Conferences should be planned around clearly identified problems or issues with specific desired outcomes. They should be viewed as learning experiences designed to change the behaviour of delegates.

Consider for a moment the last conference you attended. Did you:

  • make notes and never look at them again?;
  • put your binder on a bookshelf and never pull it out again?;
  • attend a workshop that was not what you expected?;
  • find some great ideas and do nothing with them?;
  • spend time with people you already knew?; and
  • leave feeling excited by what you heard but it was “business as usual” the following week?

If you have more “yes” than “no” answers then read on.

It appears that only about one-third of conference attendees act on the ideas they develop at conferences. From the perspective of learning and development, this is a disaster. Ironically, these events may have been fun, entertaining and informative. They may have rated highly on conference surveys. But were they a success? Was the firm’s investment effective?

A successful conference depends on three things: logistics, learning and leverage.

LOGISTICS

Logistics tend to take the majority of the energy expended on a conference. Logistics involve everything from selecting venues to registration to name tags. Effective logistics are best measured by how easily everything falls into place during the conference – knowing that hundreds of decisions and actions have already been taken and a small army of people are coordinated to make everything seem easy.

LEARNING

Conferences should be driven by objectives for information presentation, sharing and creation. The format and structure of the event should be conceived to maximise the opportunities for people to get new ideas and to act on them.

This is much more involved than breaking a day into six slots that are filled by a speaker. It is carefully assessing what participants “need” to be successful and finding the best ways to get this information to them.

This also means there is a need to revisit a lot of the basic assumptions used in the past. For example, do people have the skills to be effective participants? Is it good enough that many conference organisers still give delegates a blank pad of paper to record their notes, similar to what we used in school? We do not think so.

LEVERAGE

This is the trickiest element. It is the X-factor. When it is present, the event stays in people’s minds. However, when it is missing, the event is forgotten. Leverage can be the overall agenda, some innovations, or a location that is used in some new way.

Occasionally a speaker makes it happen but the speaker cannot be expected to do this for you. Leverage is creating value for conference delegates in new ways. What are the things that can be done that break the rules of the conference industry? Leverage is looking for innovation – finding new ways to do old things. It is also about doing new things in new ways.

The answers lie in determining what is unique about your event and its people and in bringing something new, original or meaningful to life during the event. That is what is regarded as creativity.

As the editor of Inc Magazine in the US once said, “Conferences must help people bridge the crucial gap between inspiration and execution”.

ACHIEVING CONFERENCE VALUE

In our experience the following 10 tips will help you to bridge that gap between the inspiration and execution.

1. Answer the question: “Why are we having this conference?”
Be clear about the objective. If its purpose is to encourage new work practices, innovative thinking, or consensus, then plan the conference around these issues.

2. Give the conference a theme
Perhaps the theme is “Raising the bar”. This will add energy and focus to the conference. It will help ensure that all conference sessions are consistent with and reinforce the theme.

3. Decide on the appropriate mix of presentation and participation
Conference delegates are tired of just listening to “glass-bowl” presentations. They want, and should have, more opportunities to participate.

4. Conduct a pre- and post-conference survey
Distribute a short questionnaire to delegates before the conference asking questions such as “What are the two biggest challenges that you face?” or “What specific issues would you like covered at the conference?”. After the conference, send out a brief questionnaire that does more than ask for feedback about the venue, speakers or meals. Find out what participants really learned from the event and how they suggest it might be improved in future years.

5. Organise a pre- or post-conference workshop
A frustration for many speakers (ourselves included) in presenting at conferences is that the traditional one-hour speech or workshop does not allow for any depth, discussion or reflection. A pre- or post-conference workshop can offer a more in-depth opportunity for delegates to explore a topic that adds to their own success.

6. Schedule a “key ideas” workshop
Towards the end of the conference, divide your delegates into small groups and get them to define the three main ideas they have learned at the conference and write them down on butcher’s paper. All issues get collected, evaluated and addressed. This not only provides useful ideas, it can also be packaged in a summary that is distributed to everyone subsequently. This adds value to the conference.

7. Schedule an “ask the experts” lunch
Instead of a keynote speaker, assign “leading thinkers” with specific expertise to host a table lunch discussion for eight-to-10 delegates; not just people from within your firm (fee earners, management and support staff) but, significantly, some clients. Delegates would choose which table they wish to sit at. Each host would give a short briefing on his or her area of expertise and would then field questions from those seated at their tables while they eat. This takes some work but the results can be great.

8. Make your venue conducive to learning
We have both presented at conferences that have been sabotaged by poor seating and lighting. Preferably use round tables to allow interaction rather than church-style pews. Additionally, make sure there is good lighting. A common complaint is the lack of lighting provided for note taking. This is often a result of the technicians dimming the lights to allow for electronic presentations. If it is too dark to make notes, how effective is the presentation?

9. Go easy on the alcohol
We have presented to hung-over audiences and wondered whether their motive in attending the conference was to learn or simply to drink the venue dry. By all means enjoy yourselves socially, just don’t let it get in the way of the main objective of the conference.

10. Focus on the participants
The participants will dictate the ultimate success of any conference. A good venue, quality meals, and informative and inspiring speakers can all contribute but only the individual participants decide to listen, learn and act on their ideas. There is no point in blaming a speaker for not being inspiring enough.

Conference organisers can enhance the probability of participants acting on their ideas by shaping the content to be interesting, informative, engaging and useful. This will involve a range of keynote speakers to entertain or present new ideas, workshops to share ideas, and time for people to maximise their own results from an event.

Following these guidelines will do much to enhance the effectiveness of the event so that next year delegates will look back on it and say, “Wow! That was a great conference”.


SIMON TUPMAN is the author of Why Lawyers Should Eat Bananas. See http://www.simontupman.com.

ED BERNACKI is the author of Wow! That’s a Great Idea. See http://www.WowGreatIdea.com.

Reprinted with permission from the Australian Law Management Journal, Law Council of Australia, Legal Practice Section. http://www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lps/publications.html.

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