3 Ways to Deliver a Learningful Conference

Line of conference chairs

Conference season is about to be upon us again. Associations are busy testing platforms and scheduling speakers. They are devising ways to create connection, whether through an opening day t-shirt contest, care packages of tea and goodies, or that avatar thing where you literally bump into people in a virtual world. People who play video games have an advantage in that last one, in my experience.

While exploring the frontiers of technology, don’t forget these three ways to make sure your conference is learningful. By learningful I mean that the conference leads to new knowledge, skills, and action that makes a difference over time.

1. Listen

It can be so easy to get so immersed in conference planning that we don’t spend enough time listening to the people who attend the conference…. or who we want to attend the conference. In any design process, there is a time for divergent thinking where we open ourselves up to any and all information that we can find or hear. There is then time for convergent thinking when we start to cull information to what we can handle. In my experience, conference planners jump too quickly to convergent decision-making and skip the deep listening that informs planning.

Colleagues and I recently held a conference listening session with people who haven’t in the past felt a strong connection to our conference. We convened this group separately because we wanted to create a safe space for honest conversation. We learned what they need to hear in marketing, learn in sessions, experience at the conference, and have reinforced after the conference to be successful. By taking extra time to listen before finalizing the program, we heard what we needed to know to design a conference that is learningful for everyone who attends.

2. Strategy

In our book, “Conferences That Make A Difference,” Mark Nilles and I talk about how a conference is one event within a larger constellation of events that any association produces. It is therefore worth asking: what issue is strategic for your organization? How can this conference move the needle on that issue? If your organization is trying to get more nonprofits active in advocacy, how might your conference move that forward? If your organization values equity, how does your conference link knowledge to action?

Like any strategy, a conference strategy is all about alignment… between your organization and event… between your event and your partners… between your programming and the participants.

3. Good workshops

At this point, you have listened deeply to know what people need. You know what you are trying to move the needle on. You line up great workshops, either through a proposal process or by reaching out to people in your community. These people are expert in their field, so job done, right?

Not too fast. Delivering a great workshop involves two sets of skills, one related to content and a second, equally important skill to deliver that content in a learningful way. Expertise in one actually can have an inverse relationship in the other. And even those who have effectively delivered conference sessions many times in the past may not be ready for this audience or this technology.

Here’s a workshop strategy to consider. Offer a master class in session delivery for all of your workshop presenters. Record it for those who can’t attend. Consider it a professional development gift for presenting at your conference. (Here’s a 14-minute version of a  “get ready to present” session I delivered last year for associations.) Then schedule a one-on-one with each presenter to talk about the specifics of their presentation. Give meaningful feedback about their design and delivery. Practice any technology skill needed. You may find, as I have, that there is one speaker in your roster who needs a little more attention. Don’t be afraid to provide it.

These three ideas will turn your event into a learningful event. Good luck! And watch out for those avatars.

Feature photo by ål nik on Unsplash

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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