by Steve Adubato, PhD
Several months ago, a major trade and professional organization held a conference. They spent a lot of money to bring in speakers from around the country. The day was packed full of activity with every minute planned. It was a great conference where much was accomplished. But looking back, it could have been even better, because sometimes less is more. Some questions to consider when planning your next conference.
Q—How long should a conference be in order to maximize the benefits?
A—The answer depends upon a lot of variables. Are people staying over at a conference site? Is there entertainment being provided? How lavish are the meals and how far have people traveled to get there? In general, I find the optimal length of a “day long” conference is 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. maximum. Actually, 9:30 until 2:30 is even better because it takes into consideration travel time. (This is a particularly big issue in New Jersey.)
Q—What happens if you do go too long in a conference?
A—Not much that’s good. You can have a great conference, but if your participants are exhausted by the end of the day, they tune out. Some want to beat the traffic. Others have had enough, even of a good thing. Less really can be more. Fewer speakers and ending on a high note with people energized and looking forward to coming back to the follow-up conference is a good thing. Too often we confuse quantity with success.
Q—What about breaks in a conference?
A—Some general rules. Breaks should be between 15 and 20 minutes long and they should occur at hour and a half intervals. Beyond that hour and a half, again, people start to lose it. Conference or event breaks can be extremely valuable to participants in networking, exchanging of business cards and reacting to conference content. Relationships are formed. People reconnect and constructive business is conducted. Don’t minimize the importance of conference breaks in the overall success of your event.
Q—Is it a good idea to hand out detailed descriptions of every conference speaker’s PowerPoint presentation?
A—Yes and no. Yes, because it provides an outline for people to follow and fill in their own personal notes along the way. It documents the conference in writing. No, because too many participants are tempted to read ahead and calculate how long the speaker will be talking. Participants get caught up in written presentation material that has nothing to do with what the current speaker is saying. It can be distracting and also frustrating. Further, if presenters simply communicate verbatim from the written, distributed material, participants will wonder why they are there in the first place? Couldn’t you have just e-mailed them the presentation?
Q—What are some other useful conference/event techniques?
A—Building time for people to work in small groups on specific projects and then having them report out allows them to fully participate and engage in the experience. Next, distribute flip charts all around the room so that these same groups can record their findings when reporting back. Save that flip chart material and have it “written up” in summary form and distribute it to participants. This shows you took their efforts seriously.
Also, make sure that the conference’s goals are clearly identified at the beginning and repeated several times. At the end, recap those goals. If you fell short, identify strategies to move forward. It’s also a good idea to bring in a professional conference moderator. Few people have really great facilitating skills. Your goal in any conference is to communicate that organizers take participant’s time and efforts very seriously. Don’t meet just to meet, but rather to solve problems and identify opportunities. Make sure the conference focuses on results and is not simply obsessed about process and format.