Six Ways to Improve Conferences

View of Mac User Audience from Stage at Jeff P...Try to keep these people engaged (140 Characters Conference by David Berkowitz via Flickr)

Today's Social Media Insider, originally published in MediaPost

In May and June, I participated in 13 events
as a moderator (six), panelist (four), and featured or keynote
presenter (three). They weren't evenly dispersed; May brought a stretch
of four events in two and a half days, while June had a span of three
events in three cities within 48 hours. It was both thrilling and
tiring, and I'm glad I get to return to the day job for a while.

Along
the way, I came up with a few thoughts on what can make events even
better for all participants going forward. Some organizers have a real
knack for this; Jeff Pulver in particular deserves a lot of credit for
his thoughtful considerations that he incorporated into his 140 Characters Conference.
Ultimately, participating in so many events spanning a range of topics
mostly around social media topics gives me a way to cross-pollinate
some of the best of what I've seen. Here's what can be done:

  • Mix it up.
    A number of events suffer from panel syndrome. When you have a large
    number of panels one after the other, they all start to sound alike.
    Get some solo speakers, even for short presentations as interludes.
    When you have a panel, also request speakers sit in the order they're
    listed in on the screen. If someone's a minute late to a session or
    distracted with an email during introductions, it's impossible to tell
    who's who without that arrangement. It's even harder for panels with
    four or five white males. As one of them, I can tell you from the back
    of the room, we all do look alike, especially with the social media
    uniform of the blazer, button-down, dark jeans, and loafers (sometimes
    we wear khakis).
  • Include speakers' Twitter handles on screen during their sessions and in the programs if the events have anything to
    do with social media. I've been lobbying a few event producers to do
    this, and I'm hoping it will become standard practice soon. The people
    tweeting about events are providing pro bono exposure, often to
    hundreds or thousands of others. It's even more effective if those
    tweeters can refer directly to the speakers' handles. Speakers are
    especially likely to have handles, and it makes it easy for speakers to
    continue the dialogue with tweeters after the session.
  • Know how to pace a panel. The 140 Characters panel with Rick Sanchez and Ann Curry was remarkable for a number of reasons (Ann Curry
    may be the best panelist I've ever seen). One first I witnessed there
    was that Pulver let the conference go twice as long because the
    audience was so engaged (watch Part 1 and Part 2).
    Most people I spoke to felt that panel alone made the conference worth
    their while. Another event I attended was so off schedule that by the
    afternoon, they couldn't find speakers since no one had a clue when
    they were speaking. Delays need to either be accounted for (like with a
    shorter lunch) or clearly communicated. Organizers should be conscious
    of extending some sessions when people are hooked, even if it means
    cutting others short when they fall flat.
  • Rework name badges.
    I'm not the first to say this, and I do see thoughtfully designed
    badges more often, but the majority of events I go to force unnecessary
    squinting. Priorities should be given to first names and companies. If
    it's a really geeky event, Twitter handles merit the same prominence.
    The smallest amount of space should go to the event name — everyone
    knows what event they're at, and if they don't, the organizers have
    bigger problems.
  • Treat bloggers like the press, or don't include them. If
    you want people blogging about the event, give them the same courtesy
    you would to credentialed journalists, ideally with reserved seating
    and easy access to panelists. I declined to attend one event
    as a blogger when they tried setting restrictions on how much I could
    blog, as they feared live blogging was conveying too much information.
    I emailed the organizer, "If people who aren't there think they can get
    their money's worth from an event by reading a transcript, perhaps you
    should cancel the events and sell the transcripts."

    • Follow up with shareable content.
      For social media events, participants are especially likely to be
      active across social channels. Let them promote your event for you.
      Post multimedia to services where photos and videos can be embedded,
      tagged, and downloaded. Aggregate links to others' multimedia and blog
      posts in a single area. Provide a convenient list of everyone who was
      tweeting about the event.

    Several of these suggestions include ways
    to extend the experience beyond the event itself. Here's one thing
    organizers don't need to do: create a new social network just for
    attendees of that one event. With rare exceptions, they're a waste of
    time, and participants would be better served with groups on existing
    networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.

    Event organizers
    aren't the only ones who can keep providing more value to attendees.
    Speakers and moderators can also step it up, and they may be addressed
    in a future post. Share your other suggestions in the comments.

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    4 thoughts on “Six Ways to Improve Conferences

    1. These are some great ideas, I hope they can be instituted soon. I would agree with Max that there are too many conferences and too many of the same speakers I think changing things up a bit would go along way. I also think structuring them more like trade shows would be a nice idea as well. This would give attendees more opportunity to get out of a lecture hall style, meet more people and experience some different things.

    2. Another great post David and I am happy to say we do each of these things at BlogWorld save one. Due to the enormous amount of speakers we have it would be a logistical nightmare to let panels go long and try to reschedule the rest of the day. We do intentionally allow a little wiggle room for keynotes to go long though 8).

    3. Another great post came in via email, also with permission to share here:
      Hensley Evans, President of imc2 health and wellness (www.imc2healthandwellness.com), here.
      I love some of your conference suggestions, especially since my conference attendance schedule over the next few months is pretty packed!
      Here are a couple of additional ideas, if you want to use them feel free:
      Incorporate workshops into the body of the conference – rather than just including them pre- or post-conference. Getting the audience engaged through the structure of the session, plus mixing up the format, would add a lot of energy.
      Consider “speed” meeting rounds. There have been a couple of CMO conferences that have done this REALLY successfully – I always wind up seeing loads of people hanging out in the hallways networking rather than attending the actual panels or speakers – and if conferences ensure that there are ways to connect with others there as part of the event I think attendees are less likely to wander off during the presentations.
      On a similar front, I certainly understand that conference sponsors provide a big part of the revenue that pays for the conference in the first place! However, I do have a problem with allowing sponsors to host exclusive events that take the senior speakers and attendees off to a remote location (restaurant, bar, etc) for big chunks of time. It can leave those that have paid good money to attend but aren’t sponsoring with little time to connect with some of the folks that they may most want to hear from.

    4. Max Kalehoff emailed me some comments – and some great ones – that he allowed me to publish here:
      The best things that could happen to conferences are:
      1) having less of them
      2) featuring new faces (always the same faces, argghhh)
      3) paying handsome stipends to the people (speakers) who attract asses to your seats (and doing so would up the ante on the quality of what the speakers spout)
      🙂

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