Eight pieces of information needed for event design

meetingEvery week I receive requests for advice on improving existing meetings. (Design consultations on new meetings are less frequent, which is unfortunate since it’s much easier to begin with a good design than successfully redesign meetings that attendees have already experienced.)

All event designs require certain basic information. Typically, clients start with an initial consultation where we explore desires, needs, and circumstances, winkling out the basics in the process.

Quite often, however, I’ll receive emails asking for design advice that omit significant information. Here’s an example I received last week, quoted in full:

Dear Adrian,

I am a researcher working on a side-event to [an upcoming international meeting]. I work for [a European foundation] and am looking for innovative ways to engage an audience of up to 300 people in the subject of [my foundation’s mission].

We want to get away from the lecture-style format but we do not have the ability to split the group up (for translation reasons, amongst other things).

If you could offer any advice or links I would be most grateful.

[“Dominique”]

Meeting designers need answers to eight questions before design can commence. The following list includes some commentary on how Dominique’s request complies.

Who is the meeting owner?
Every meeting has an owner. There is invariably a single person who has ultimate authority over the meeting objectives, budget, format, and content. A common problem for meeting designers is that they are approached for assistance by someone other than the meeting owner (who may not even be aware that a meeting designer exists or is needed.) That’s certainly the case here, and when the meeting owner cannot be worked with directly, any design work performed will be wasted if the meeting owner is not convinced of its value by the intermediary with whom you’re working.

Who is the meeting designer working for?
The meeting owner? The meeting participants? One or more intermediaries? Some combination?

Who is attending?
What are the profiles of desired/expected attendees? Is the event invitation-only or is it marketed to specific groups? For Dominique’s event, are the audience members supporters of the foundation’s mission? Skeptics who need to be convinced? What are the translation issues she mentions?

What are the desired objectives/goals/outcomes?
Many clients find it hard to define their goals and outcomes for their event. Dominique wants the audience to be “engaged”. What does this mean? Engaged about what? What is the desired outcome of this engagement?

How many people?
The only meeting designs that scale are those that omit inter-attendee interaction; i.e. broadcast-style events. If you want or need interactive or participative events, the number of attendees is essential information for creating an effective design. (2/8/15/25/60/100/200/450/1000 people? Each level will generally require a somewhat different approach.) Dominique’s “up to 300 people” includes the possibility that some other breakout will be taking place that siphons off all but 30 attendees. We need either tighter bounds on this number or several alternative designs that cover a range of attendee counts.

How much time?
Are people together for an hour? A day? Two days? A week? Most of us have an idea of how much content we can be exposed to via lecture in a given amount of time. An understanding of the time needed for people to productively peer learn, make significant connections, and become a member of a valued community is far less common. The amount of time that people are together puts limits on what can be done and informs design decisions on the most appropriate processes to use during the meeting.

What venue?
Venues often constrain what’s possible at an event. Desired objectives like engagement may be difficult or impossible if attendees are stuck in fixed-seating in an auditorium. Working in small groups can be thwarted if the venue is noisy, or undersized, or adequate breakout space is unavailable.

What resources are available to support work on the event design?
Is the meeting owner willing to work on the event design, or pass full responsibility and authority to a trusted alternative? Can you afford a day of my time to assist with your design? Are you looking for free advice? (Dominique was.)

We need answers to all these questions—and often others—before workable and effective meeting design is even conceivable. (I thought about adding the event budget to the above list, but, though it’s obviously ultimately important, it’s less relevant in my experience than you might think.) I don’t expect clients to spontaneously volunteer all this information before we first talk or meet. But it certainly doesn’t hurt if they do (and I get some reassurance that the client has made an effort to really think through what they want and the steps they might take to get it.)

I’ve probably missed some other pieces of information that are important. What do you think should be added to this list?

Six reasons you should hold multi-day events

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I have held a number of one-day conferences. One (very full!) day is the minimum time needed to process the essential components of a peer conference: the roundtable, some peer sessions, and a minimal spective. Frankly it’s a rush to complete even these basics in a day.
—Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, Adrian Segar

Occasionally, I’m asked to design one-day peer conferences. When I ask why the event can only be a day long, I hear answers like these:

  • “Our members are very busy and can’t take more than a day off.”
  • “Then we’d have to arrange for somewhere for people to stay overnight.”
  • “Our conference has always been a single day.”
  • “It’s too expensive to make it longer.”
  • “Our venue only serves lunch.”

Here are six reasons why you should do your best to overcome these objections and make your conferences longer than a single day.

Making connections takes time
Research has shown that people attend conferences for two principal reasons of roughly equal importance: educational opportunities and networking. (Note: I believe networking is becoming more important.) Networking—making connections with people and building relationships with them—takes time. At a one-day event full of traditional presentation sessions, typically, the only opportunities for people to meet each other are during lunch and a couple of short refreshment breaks. That’s very little time to network. Adding the dinner, evening social, and breakfast of a single overnight doubles, at a minimum, the time for connection available at a one-day event.

Getting there
A non-local attendee incurs fixed time and travel costs to get to and return from an event, irrespective of its duration. If your conference’s value to participants increases with its duration—if not, why are you making it longer? —amortizing these fixed costs over a longer event reduces the hourly expense of attending.

Attendees who eat together bond together
Academics may argue as to whether the reasons are biological, cultural, or both, but few would disagree that we’re programmed to bond over communal meals. A one-day conference provides a single lunch plus, usually, two refreshment breaks. Add just an extra half day and we get three refreshment breaks, perhaps an evening social with munchies, dinner, breakfast, and lunch. That’s a big difference!

Something magical happens overnight
In my experience, overnights during a conference facilitate processing of experiences from the days’ events. This is especially important at the start of a peer conference, where the first half day exposes attendees to a large variety of ideas and resources, but the effect is useful at any event. Although we all appreciate time to consciously process our experience, there’s growing evidence that short-term memories are turned into lasting long-term memories during sleep. I find that the rapid torrent of information shared during the first day of a conference seems to acquire shape and form in my mind overnight—the next morning brings clarity to the dominant themes and interests shared by the participants.

The above multi-day rationales apply to any conference. The following apply to peer conferences.

Reserving enough time for content
The standard Conferences That Work design employs four sessions that wrap around its content heart. For a fifty person one-day event, a roundtable, peer session sign-up, personal introspective, and group spective consumes more than four hours of traditional session time, leaving little time for the peer sessions. This has two consequences. The first is that a one-day peer conference has to drop the personal introspective. The second is that I won’t run a one-day peer conference any more, and recommend that you don’t either.

The minimum time I now recommend for a peer conference is a day and a half. Even at this length, there really isn’t sufficient time to add traditional session like a keynote. But participants consistently report that it’s long enough to provide excellent connection and community building time, as well as four sets of peer sessions tuned to their needs.

Peer session preparation
Many first-time participants are surprised by how well the vast majority of peer sessions are led and/or facilitated, when there’s such a short time between the choice of a peer conference session topic and the resulting session. And the volunteer leaders/facilitators themselves are surprised and empowered by how well they fulfill their role, despite sometimes worrying beforehand whether they will do a good job knowing the limited time available to prepare. Even so, a longer conference gives leaders more time to think about their session, consult with other peers, and prepare.

What other roadblocks have you experienced when promoting longer events? What other reasons do you suggest for holding them?

Photo attribution: Flickr user coba.