Whether you call it an Annual Conference, an away day, a team building, a Summit, a Sales Briefing or something else, every company has gatherings. And for too long there’s been time and money wasted on a whole set of conventions that don’t work for human beings in the 21st century.
We’re on a mission to reinvent the Annual Conference, so that never again do groups of people have to struggle to stay awake in dark rooms for 8 hours at a time while a stream of endless powerpoint passes in front of their eyes. Our approach is to make these gatherings more human, more interactive, more fun and as a result more effective than ever before. Read on for a summary of how we do it.
If you’d like to get some new ideas for your conference then download our Awesome Conference Planning Workbook here
1. We build a conference ‘journey’ that inspires
We create a physical map of the high-level journey participants will go on, from invitation to post-event follow-up.
Gatherings are a key piece of internal communication. An opportunity to show that your words and your deeds match. Yes, strategy is important, but more importantly, details matter. Humans have evolved to take in tiny signals from our surroundings and we notice a whole lot more than we are consciously aware of. Nothing says ‘We’re never going to change’ more clearly than yet another 2 days locked in a windowless basement with the lights turned down and an endless barrage of powerpoint. Every aspect of the experience has the potential to reinforce or give the lie to your stated intentions.
- Look at all the possible touch points along your annual conference journey and reflect on previous experiences of your own in which these have been used well, and not so well.
- Make a decision about which are the main touch points you want to use to reinforce key messages and then have some fun with these moments, creating innovative and surprising experiences.
- Make them stand out: come up with ways to reinforce your key messages that are provocative, quirky or just entertaining and you’ll be creating lasting memories that will drive the mindset you want to see.
2. We avoid heavy powerpoint decks
Of course there are going to be some key messages to get across – that’s a main reason for having these events! But broad-ranging messages don’t have to broadcast by the ‘important’ person at the front with the clicker and associated death-by-powerpoint.
- Think about how to create interaction from the very first ‘Hello’ – whether it’s asking questions for the group to consider, getting people to chat to their neighbours or having them throw things at you – everyone at the event needs to be interested and involved, not just the person at the front with the slide clicker.
- How about splitting them up as bite size talks or videos throughout the day, asking team members to adopt a message each and share it with their colleagues in coffee breaks.
- You could put the finer details onto posters and spread them around the conference space then directing people to have a read of them in their own time.
3. We schedule lots (and lots) of breaks
In any given 2.5 hour slot, it’s statistically probable that over half the audience will need to have a wee! As soon as they start thinking about the loo, they’re no longer listening and concentrating on what’s happening up front, they’re just waiting for a break, and calculating how difficult it would be to sneak out early without being noticed as it gets more and more urgent – especially if they’re sat front and centre. And those heavy conference centre doors are so loud that every person who does escape (noisily) makes more people start to consider when they can make a run for it. Our heads are all attached to bodies, so let’s not ignore physical needs. People require access to fluids, loos, daylight and air on a regular basis to keep their energy up and their concentration going – so give them that chance!
- Schedule in regular breaks – don’t go more than 90 minutes without a chance to stretch legs, visit the loo and get some air. The productivity in the room will be much higher as a result.
- Don’t think of breaks as wasted time. Embrace the importance of ‘downtime’ – for chatting and making informal connections. Make them part of the conference content – signpost breaks as opportunities to connect with old and new colleagues and discuss conference topics in more depth. Use coffee areas cleverly, and provide mechanisms to collect feedback and questions arising from these discussions (post-its and flip-chart pages work perfectly well for this purpose).
- Breaks can also be targeted at specific needs – for example how about designing a ‘reflection’ break where people walk and talk in pairs, or walk alone as they prefer; or creating space specifically to handle the email backlog of business-as-usual.
4. We keep branding cheap and cheerful
When was the last time you left a conference raving about the logo, slide graphics or theme music? Slick is expensive and has had its day: instead focus your preparation energy on making sure everyone knows why they’re there and what the event is about so that you can use the occasion itself as a vehicle to get people talking to people. It’s being together that makes memories, not receiving a branded baseball cap or a wristband with a slogan on it.
- Keep set design and stage-sets simple. All the slick branding becomes magnolia after a while anyway, so how about communicating right at the start that the budget saved on single-use conference logo cutouts mounted at 10 feet high will be used for better things (like having everybody stay overnight so they can enjoy the evening event).
- Cheap and cheerful can create big impact. If you want to sprinkle some magic around the space, look no further than your local (or friendly online) party shop – where colourful, high impact decorations can be found in any theme for small change. Party decorations are designed for single use, they’re not bulky and you can have them delivered straight to the venue. To make the stage pop out more, a set of rope lights around it will do the job beautifully.
- Do not overspend on the technology. This is a gathering of people, not a TV show, so do you really that sixth autocue screen at the 85 degree angle to the stage, the four rows of fully turnable spotlights above and the five camera operators showing the speaker from every angle to people who are sitting just 30 metres away? You could save on lighting costs by getting a room that actually has some windows. And have presenters who lead conversations rather than transmit one-way, scripted presentations then the need for autocues should be a thing of the past.
- Have less furniture. Think about the seating layout to make sure everyone can see – big round tables just create a barrier and encourage people to get their laptops out so get rid of them and have small groups of seats closer to the stage. Use the space for people to stand up, mix and move around in while they’re interacting.
5. We don’t rely on big presentations from the big cheese
We don’t know your CEO. But we do know that while great orators can be uplifting, inspiring and can rouse spirits, they are few and far between. Also some organisations seem so in awe of their leaders that they daren’t give any feedback to them about their delivery style.
- Real conversation is what tends to convince people – rather than an obviously pre-prepared shopping list of messages – the opportunity to hear a senior leader speaking off-the-cuff and first-hand doesn’t happen often so think about other ways in which your most senior leaders could share their messages.
- How about they get interviewed by a couple of audience volunteers or could the Board divide up and talk to 20 people each rather than 120 in total? If you’re feeling really brave don’t give them a slot at all, just give them the mission to network and share the key messages outside of the official content.
- If the big boss finishes their 45 minute slot with the words ‘sorry I can’t be with you for the rest of the conference’ then we think better for them not to make an appearance in the first place – all the participants hear is ‘I’m far too busy and important to be stuck in this room and you’re not, ha ha I’m outta here! See ya suckers!’
These are just a few of the many tips and stimulus we have around designing your best ever Annual Conference. In our experience, there’s way too much focus on stuff that just isn’t really important – like slide decks, menus and inspirational speakers. When it comes down to it, the single biggest factor in conference memorability and success is the human interactions you create and the opportunity for these to happen for those attending.
If you’d like to know more about how we can help you with your conference , please download the details of our Awesome Conference Planning Workshop here.