Conferences can often be unengaging and sometimes downright boring, as speaker after speaker talks about his/her views on various topics. Are conferences supposed to be presenter-focused or participant-focused? Wouldn’t it be great to design a conference so that it was both informative but also engaging for the participants? Based on our experience with planning, designing and facilitating numerous conferences, we have compiled a set of steps to guide the program design effort.

1. Purpose. Develop a clear statement of purpose from the beginning. Why are we doing this conference? What is the issue or problem we want to see addressed?

2. Product. Define the desired outcomes for the participants. What do we want the participants to walk away with from the conference? Consider the three Hs – when the conference is over, what do we want them to have their hands, what do we want them to have their heads (i.e., knowledge that they didn’t have before), and what do we want them to have in their hearts (i.e., beliefs or passions they didn’t have before)?

3. Probable Issues. Consider the participants and identify the probable issues that will have to be addressed in order to create the product and achieve the purpose.

4. Critical Success Factors. Identify the key factors critical to successfully achieving the outcomes. Define the success strategies and program approaches for addressing the critical factors.

5. Topics. Identify the information/topics participants will need to embrace (before and during the conference) to achieve the outcomes. Group the topics in tracks if appropriate. Develop preliminary timings.

6. Facilitators. Identify the session speakers/facilitators who can relay the topics in a way that is credible, engages, provides interactions and inspires the participants to action.

7. Engagement. Explore creative opportunities for participants to engage the content. Some examples might include:

  • Pre-Questions. Use three minutes at the beginning of a panel discussion to have participants work in teams to identify the most important questions they want answered during the session. Have the questions collected during panel introductions. Have a subset of the questions read before the panelists give their presentations. The team exercise energizes the participants and lets the panelist know up front the key topics in which the participants have interest.
  • Team Q&A. After a presentation, rather than ask for questions from the audience, give teams one minute to identify their most important question, and then rotate from team to team to ask a question.
  • Standing Polls. Use standing polls by having the speaker ask a closed-ended question, or make an affirmative statement, periodically during the presentation. With each one, have people stand if in agreement.
  • Rotating Flip Charts. Have participants in teams rotate from flip chart to flip chart where each flip chart has a question or issue to be addressed.
  • Best Practices. After the speaker has set up the issue, have participants work in teams to identify their best practices for addressing the issue.
  • Personal Action Plans. Have participants maintain personal action plans of strategies they will implement once the conference is complete.
  • Prioritizing. Involve all participants in using sticky dots or some other method to identify the highest priority problems, solutions, strategies, etc.
  • Elevator Speech. After providing a format, have people create their 30 second elevator speech that describes the benefit received from the conference or to sell a key idea from the conference. People work in teams to review their teammates and then select one person to give to the entire group.

8. Program. Finalize the program design and timings. Utilize principles of consensus building – delineation, merging, lobbying, etc. – if agreement is needed on the outcome.

Strategies such as these help maximize engagement and make the conference much more participant-focused rather than presenter-focused.

Learn more leading facilitation practices and engagement strategies through our flagship course, The Effective Facilitator. This course provides a comprehensive, structured approach plus over 100 techniques for leading groups toward better results.