5 creative formats to shake up boring conferences

Are you bored with the same old formats of the sessions at the conferences you attend, or host? Why not shake things up a bit?

Many conference sessions are still structured around a stock standard, didactic style ‘lecture’, with presenters addressing the audience for around 30-45mins and then opening the floor for questions. Yet we’re told that attention spans have shrunk by 50% over the last decade. Research shows that young people (our future conference delegates) have shorter attention spans than ever. Stress and decision overload are playing a role, but so is all the new technology that surrounds us. Our swipe and scroll climate, with instant access to many people and lots of information, has pushed us to ‘speed through life’. We consume news in 140 characters and watch videos that are no more than 10 minutes, and usually a lot shorter. The average office worker checks their email inbox between 30 and 40 times an hour. So what might your conference delegates be checking in a rambling ‘death by PowerPoint’ conference session? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, emails?

It is more difficult than ever before to tap into and hold attention spans. Get your audience contributing and engaging with the subject matter from the get-go. Here are five easy formats to consider (or to propose to conference organisers) for your next event.

1. Human Spectrogram: the ideal opener to a session. The presenter asks 3 or 4 questions and the audience ‘votes’ with their feet, moving to an area of the room to indicate their answer. It is useful because everyone moves and information can be explored about a group, in a visual way that everyone ‘sees’. At the end of the session, one can run the same exercise again, measuring shifts in opinion.

2. Campfire format: the presenter spends a maximum of 15-20 minutes introducing a topic and outlining a few key points. Then s/he hands over to the audience and facilitates contribution and dialogue. The advantage of a campfire format is that attendees can drive their own learning through sharing experiences, guided by the subject matter expert. It also provides focussed opportunities to network (which is cited as a key benefit of attending events). This format works best with smaller groups where deeper dialoguing can occur.

3. The Solution Room: a format that works for much larger groups, up to hundreds of people, and can be run for 90 – 120 minutes. It is designed to optimise peer-to-peer advice and solutioning. Groups of 6-8 people brainstorm challenges in 7-minute cycles around a table that ideally has paper cloths for writing on. Spectrograms can be used to open and close these sessions, showing the shift in feelings towards challenges being faced. More about this method and testimonials from those who have used it, can be found in this short, 2-minute video.

4. World Café: similar in format to the solution room, but with a bit more rotation. Groups of 4-6 tackle a question for around 15 minutes, and then the groups break up and move to different tables. Stationing one ‘host’ at each table allows for the next group to be welcomed and briefed (briefly) on key points from the last round. Once all rounds are completed, hosts can present key points for a final discussion. Once again, paper tablecloths are useful for recording points. This format works well with large groups too.

5. PechaKucha 20 x 20: there is no time to ramble in this session! The presenter has 20 seconds to talk to a total of 20 images, and the slides advance automatically. As a presenter, try fitting your talk into this format, even if you do not end up using the format for your talk. It breaks the mould, creates interest and fun and also cuts your presentation back to the core, most valuable information. After all, the human brain is notoriously poor at recalling lots of facts. Decide what you want your audience to leave with, and focus on embedding those. In our digital age, here are plenty of opportunities to provide additional information for digesting after the session. Blog through LinkedIn, or write an article that points to more in-depth information.

If you are looking for additional ideas, you can find another 15 engaging formats in this excellent post from Eventbrite.

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