4 Ways To Improve Your Next Conference

A dark room with a brightly lit stage.

Round tables with 8 seats at them.

White tablecloths with table numbers and name cards.

A keynote speaker.

A panel discussion that goes nowhere.

Lunch – with your choice of more-bread-than-filling sandwiches and soft drinks.

Another speaker.

Some breakouts.

A closing keynote who tries to save the day.


… this is my version of conference hell.


And it, unfortunately, is an all-too-familiar format for most industry events.


So when Dr. David Rock from NLI was hosting a webinar on “Rethinking How We Conference: The Science of Successful Large Events” … I was in!

How do we create better spaces for learning and engagement when we bring people together?



Here are my top takeaways from that webinar:


1) The experience is in the seats, not on the stage. So often we think about the program, the content, and the big name presenters being featured … yet don’t think about how the audience will experience it. Dark rooms make us fall asleep. Long presentations make us check out. Big tables or rows don’t encourage interaction … create tables of 4 instead.


2) Are you programming for attendance or impact? To get people to attend we get big name speakers, offer a variety of different topics and tracks that people can choose from, and host them in large spaces because size matters(?). The variety and options we create however can often create a disjointed learning environment. Instead, have a theme that the keynotes and sessions weave together or share multiple perspectives on (ie. “workplace health” – informed from a legal, physical, financial perspective). This way attendees have a shared language, common experience, and (if there are concurrent learning tracks) different perspectives to share on the same topic.


3) Make the content riveting. Add storytelling. Add drama, debate, or humour. Add a video. Share how it all went wrong and what you did or are doing to fix it. And, if the content you are presenting is pretty dry / boring / can’t be “more riveting” … give it less time. No one wants to sit through boring content for an hour. Tell me about it in 20 minutes (or 5) and keep the momentum building.


4) Create opportunities for rich connections. The true value of large events is that people get to come together in real life! You get to meet a new friend, reconnect with an old colleague, share a meal together, laugh instead of like. So give people breaks between your speakers – even if it’s to have a discussion at their seats with each other. Give longer breaks in the afternoon (especially an hour or so after lunch) so people can get up and move to avoid that afternoon slump. And, on multi-day events, give people homework to complete between the days that they have to complete with someone else.


What are your tips?

What do you do to increase the value for the people that attend your events?

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