Harvard Business Online
Making Conferences Better
The meetings and conference business has taken hits from the economy and Joe Biden telling everyone he wants his family to stay off airplanes. But, much like the overall economy, the business is slowly turning around, or at least slowing its decline. So this is a good time to take a moment to consider the conference business in general. What could it do better when it comes roaring back in 2010? Following are my three radical suggestions for improving meetings and conferences.
1. Conferences and meetings should tell unique stories. Think about how conferences and meetings are typically planned. A committee picks a theme. Then someone finds a keynote speaker to open, and maybe one to close. Then the committee divides the rest of the time up into 60-minute slots and fills them with 'breakouts', panels, workshop leaders, and so on. The result? From the conference-goer's point of view, it's like a regular workday, only worse. You've got back-to-back meetings to attend, a day or days you don't get to schedule, and uncomfortable seating. The only choice you get to exercise is not to take part in some or all of the sessions. Then you feel guilty for sneaking off to the gym, or your hotel room, or the bar.
It's a dreary prospect, because it could be so much better. A conference should tell a story, one that unfolds and builds from the initial moments to the close. Like any good story, there should be moments of high excitement, followed by moments of relative calm. That's different from panic and boredom in ceaseless alternation. A good meeting should make linear sense from start to finish, in a way that allows attendees to retain what they see and hear rather than just feeling overwhelmed by the information.
2. Conferences should be for, by, and about the attendees. A meeting or conference should feel participative, and you, the meeting attendee, should have some significant part in it beyond being a warm body. Attendees should react, critique, judge, schedule, and vote for what they like and don't like. And that's just for starters. There are many ways to give attendees a larger role in meetings and conferences, from making them part of panel discussions to creating discussion groups to having them manage Q and A.
Every meeting should have an MC, or MCs, and they should do more than just point out the bathrooms and introduce the next speaker. They should integrate, challenge, pull together, combine, disrupt, and generally function as the representative of the attendees, making sense of it all and demanding more from the speakers and other leaders.
3. Conferences should be about more than just eating and sitting. We live more and more of our lives in the splendid isolation of the Internet, with all the faux connectors like Facebook, Twitter, email, and the rest. Getting together is an increasingly rare and important privilege. Meetings and conferences should be constructed to take advantage of the gathered group. Every meeting or conference should use the power of the group to give something back to the community in which the meeting is held. Help a local charity, fix a local problem, champion a local hero, start a new movement. There are many ways one could imagine making use of the combined energies of the people assembled. It's a crime to waste that gathered power.
To be sure, some meetings and conferences do some of these things now, but not enough, and few, if any, get them all done. Meetings take their toll on the environment, the workplace, and the families of the attendees. It's time to raise the conference stakes and make them serve us better.