6 Critical Steps to a Successful Conference

Rebecca Matthews 18 April 2014

The success of a professional conference is down to the organisers alone. If a speaker slips up or stumbles over his words, it matters little if the overall experience for the attendees is unforgettable.

Below are the six most important aspects to designing the perfect conference. Read them carefully.

1) Choose Your Editorial Formats

Speaking formats are endlessly adaptable. Mixed formats throughout a single day create a greater air of professionalism than sticking to only one.

Striking the perfect balance can seem like guesswork, so here are three very popular formats, and some tips to help make them work:

Prepared Speech

15-20 minutes is ideal for most attention spans, with a 10-minute Q&A at the end. Have your speakers run their talks by you at least 1-2 weeks before they are due to arrive, to maintain some control over what’s said. Ultimately, though, this time is to be given over to their brand, and their message.

Panel of Experts

The panel format can create a lot of interest and drama in a conference, often polarising the audience, inspiring them to debate the topic further during the networking segments.

It is critical, therefore, to choose a panel that is itself polarised. A panel of five people in complete agreement is utter death. Choose panellists that will spark a lively, even heated debate amongst themselves, and keep it under control with a good moderator will keep himself on the edge of the spotlight at all times, steering the conversation but always keeping the focus firmly on the opinions of the panellists.

Fireside Chat

Relaxing by a campfire is the intended feeling of this format. It can add a welcome break from the more carefully controlled single talks and panel sessions. It doesn’t lend itself to everyone, however. A lot of CEOs find it hard to get off-centre and personal, and they’re likely to devolve the conversation into a stilted advertisement. Be sure the people you put around this campfire are insightful, blunt, and willing to talk laterally.

2) Design a Room That Enhances the Experience

The classroom style can be the best layout in terms of comfort and attendee experience. Keep water and sweets at each desk to prevent people coughing. Provide each one with a power supply and an Ethernet connection, and watch people make camp at their chosen desk instead of moving around.

Don’t make these tables round as this guarantees that half the audience will have their backs to the stage. Having desks of any kind means less people can be seated, but you’re likely to find a higher level of experience for attendees.

The other option is to have a theatre layout, fitting in many more people, but leaving a potential for disruption as people climb over others to get to the toilet.

Horrific though it sounds, some conferences ask attendees to stand and keep an open bar in reach. If you want to guarantee that people won’t listen, force them to stand and allow them to drink. Socialising must be given its own segment, and not while the talk is going on!

3) Control Q&A Sections

Failing to have a Q&A section is insulting to the audience, but having none at all is better than having one that isn’t properly controlled.

The worst thing to happen, and it will happen often, is an opportunist using the Q&A section to ramble on about his own company for the purposes of promotion. This is your show; don’t stand for that sort of behaviour.

Make it clear that there will be no tolerance for self-promotion. Never hand over the microphone an audience member. Hold it instead at an appropriate distance from their mouth, and if they start to ramble, say, “Let’s give someone else a chance to speak.”

A popular alternative is to have two mic-stands at the front of a hall for people to queue up for. It works quite well, but will require firm control by you, the host. Remember, this is your event, and it’s up to you to keep the masses in check.

4) Arrange One Perfect Track

Squeezing multiple tracks into one event is commonplace. It’s natural to think that more speakers equal more “value”, but this is rarely the case. For music festivals it makes sense, but not for a professional conference.

Shared experience is powerful and bonding. Clashing events guarantees that many people will feel like they missed out.

One excellent track means that you necessarily have to cut the speakers that aren’t A+ quality with ruthlessness. Be sure that your event is the best that any of your attendees have been to, and there’ll be no need for multiple tracks.

5) Be Ever-Present at the Action

As the host, it’s your responsibility to spend every second you can where the action is happening. Aside from being present to help with any technical or logistical problem that may arise, you give yourself a good sense of what the audience experiences.

Hear what they hear, see what they see. Take it all in. Always be amongst the crowd unless you need to be elsewhere. Do you really need to ‘clear your head’ with an idle chat in the lobby? Clear your head at night while you sleep. While the event is on, it’s up to you as the host to be there for every second of the event.

6) Don’t Compromise

Tempted to compromise on content? Don’t dare. Follow your fascinations. Communicate your passion to the audience through the speakers you choose, and keep the message crystal clear with seamless transitions and uncluttered formats.

Keep the purpose of the conference in the forefront of your mind with every decision you make, and you’ll provide an experience that will be difficult to forget.

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