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Do You Need to Reformat Your Conference?

These days speaking at a conference can seem like a cross between speed dating and performing at a poetry slam, there are so many different formats and approaches. Which one will work for your conference? Well, that depends. Here is some advice from the pros.

Rhonda M. Payne, CAE, chief learning officer for the American Society for Association Executives, introduced several nontraditional formats during the annual conference in 2016. She says, “ASAE recognizes that people learn differently. We mixed it up with a variety of learning formats and learning levels to put attendees in control of their own learning experience with options for inspiration, peer learning, and in-depth exploration.”

ASAE embraced the cultural shift toward learning in a limited amount of time with both Ignite talks (five minute presentations with 20 auto-advancing slides) and Story Slams inspired by The Moth radio show, where slammers have five minutes to tell a story based on a shared theme. They also made use of TED Talk–style mini talks that focused on one idea, and set up Open Space discussions for attendees to learn more about a topic of their choice.

Payne reports that, “The feedback was excellent on all fronts and we will be offering them again,” but despite this success, the organization has no plans to abandon the traditional keynote.
Brian Palmer, president of the National Speakers Bureau, agrees that there has been an increase in concern over audience attention spans. He says people look for speakers thinking, “Gee, if they only speak for 20 minutes that will be better,” but he cautions that attention spans may have more to do with the subject matter and skill of the speaker than the time they are given. Besides, he warns, the time and resources required to hire, prep, house, and bring three people to your event to cover one slot is triple the effort, and also triples the odds of having a speaker who doesn’t go over well with your audience.

The Ted Talk model works well if the speaker is covering just one great idea, but it is possible to hold audiences rapt for a full hour if the speaker is charismatic or includes great/funny anecdotes.

Adrian Segar, author and president of Conferences that Work, says, “You can be moved by powerful speakers but then not remember their names or ideas afterwards. It is just a momentary feel-good experience. That might be nice for your audience, but is that your goal?”  Segar recommends asking yourself: Is that really why your attendees registered and flew across the country for your event? Segar says the effect of most motivational speakers can be replicated by watching them on YouTube, but most people go to a conference to learn and connect with people.

Segar has been using his own conference format successfully for years. Rather than host “experts” to speak, he builds the conference around what attendees want to learn. The first half day of the event is spent discovering what issues need to be addressed in the industry, and what topics attendees want to learn about. They then appoint attendees with relevant knowledge or experience with the topic, and those people (or several people at once) take the stage to share their expertise. The talks are interactive, he says, because attendees chose the topics that are a priority for them, and audience members are expected to speak up with their solutions and experiences, too.

If your conference demands a traditional keynote Segar advises using the developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s format for the talk. Medina warns that after ten minutes of listening the human brain stops paying attention. In order to hold an audience, the speaker must include regular amounts of emotionally competent stimuli, or ECS. According to Medina, the brain pays attention to the following questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? Have I seen it before? Roughly translated, your audience members need to be regularly reminded of the benefits of your speaker’s information, why it applies to them, and why they won’t see it elsewhere. If not, science says pretty soon your attendees will start thinking about lunch.

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