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Make your Conference Not Suck

2009 was a pretty crappy year for many meetings and conferences, this I am sure you are well aware of.

Some conferences not only did fine, they increased attendance. What is the difference? Why are some conferences falling into obscurity while others are rocking and rolling. Why was attendance down 23%?

The main reason is you. You are producing the same product, year after year, conference after conference. You are inviting apathy into the party and all of the guests are leaving.

It does not matter the industry, it could be technology, energy, finance, nursing, education, whatever; you must start to think on a new level. The same things do not work anymore. The internet has changed the way that we absorb information. We want it faster, flashier and with substance. No one wants to sit and listen to some boring speaker plod along to his or her 50 slide PowerPoint presentation. I don’t care how respected they are in the industry, once the PowerPoint pops up, the brain switches off. Your attendees will stop caring.

What people are looking for are leaders and innovators. The people that can make a difference in their day to day life, help them succeed in business or work with them to change an industry. They are looking to hear from people who have passion rather than PowerPoint.

I have a client, they are a respected 135 year old institution and they hold a couple of conferences every year. This year, they said, lets be different, lets flip it on its head and change the entire production. You know what, they rocked. They had the highest conference feedback they have had in years.

What was the first thing they threw out….PowerPoint. Then they moved on to the format. We worked to change up the entire session strategy. One 45 minute speaker session moving into a 9 minute “flash”, then a 30 minute panel session and back to a 9 minute flash, onto a 45 minute panel session and on to a 60 minute Oxford Style Debate…Is your head spinning. I hope so, that was the point. Attendees ate it up. They got the information they need in a format that they want. It was fun, exciting and had a certain “cool factor”. All that in an industry not known for cool.

Last week, I had lunch with an industry friend and we talked about his conference. I shared not only the information that I mentioned above, but many more ideas, some video and images of conferences and meetings that are doing all of the right things. Small things like adding twitter hashtags, audience participation, feedback opportunities and creating a conference websites that invite attendees to become a part of the event and the community so that the event would not only be a success, it would live on well after the attendees went home.

We talked of creating FaceBook fan pages, Ning sites, switching up the lighting, creating video and inviting a controversial speaker or two. All things designed to engage the attendee and get them thinking, throwing the comfort zone out the window.

So many ideas that are there for everyone to see, so many success stories that it hard to count. And you know what, most of the ideas we discussed do not require an increase in budget. They only call for a change in thinking.

I saw the light bulb go on and he said “what if the attendees don’t go for it”? I said “are they going for what you have now”? He laughed and said, what the heck (really, he said heck). That is when he realized that it was not the attendees that would have a problem with the changes, it was the powers that be, the conference committee, the board of directors. Could they be made to see the light, or would they be too afraid to move into the future. I told him to bring his enthusiasm to the meeting and leave the PowerPoint at home.

I hope for the best here, time will tell. One important point that I did make was, if it does not go perfect, so what. People will still be talking about it. Perfection is not the goal, audience satisfaction is the goal. And once you think you have gotten it right, that is when you change it.

I know that this has been beaten to death, but if you want to see who is doing it right, you should look no further than TED. Notice the conference pages, all but one says “sold out”, can your conference say that.

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