At Professional Convention Management Association’s 2022 Convening Leaders conference in Las Vegas, much of the conversation was around how meetings won’t be the same as they were in the pre-pandemic landscape. And while that will require a lot of adaptation by association-event planners, one expert who presented at the conference emphasized this: As long as planners put the audience first when creating a session, attendees will get what they need and want regardless of whether the session happens in person or virtually.
Alex Culley, executive director of the Institute for Executive Development, opened his presentation titled “Approaching Continuing Education with Human-Centered Design” by saying, “From now on, you need to meet people where they are in their shifting schedules, changing behaviors, and shortened attention spans. Designing their education means centering the content and its delivery around what they want.”
Here are four ways that association-event planners can do that.
• Have session presenters clarify participants’ needs and expectations before each session’s content and format is finalized. “Ask the audience for input in the months and weeks leading up to the event; get their answers to a few key questions” to help shape the path the content will take and the degree of interaction attendees will have, Culley noted. And “ask not only about the information or the lessons they want, but also how they intend to use it—whether it is mostly for themselves, or whether it’s to bring it back to their colleagues” and boost the performance of the entire team.
Culley suggested repeating this process a few times before the event, using each subsequent communication to summarize participants’ prior feedback and make sure they agree with the summary. If so, then everyone will come into the sessions with similar expectations.
For session leaders who send out reading material before an event to get attendees primed to understand and discuss the featured topic, the start of a session is the critical moment to ask: How much of it did you read? “It makes a session so much more effective when you know the baseline you have to start from,” Culley says. “If only a few people looked at the material ahead of time, the presenter must be flexible enough to say, ‘That’s fine, we’ll adjust our starting point so everyone is on the same page.’”
• “Presenters must also be flexible enough to give participants multiple opportunities to stay engaged with the topic over the course of the session,” says Culley. “No lecturing for more than 10 to 12 minutes at a time. Create more frequent opportunities to interact, even if it is just a three-minute break from the presentation to say, ‘Please express what is top of mind for you based on what you’ve heard so far.’”
Further, presenters should involve both experienced attendees and early-career attendees in the interaction. “Of course, veterans have expertise that’s valuable for others to hear, but younger employees have good insight on specific topics, like the best uses of technology in their work, and often lack the confidence to share,” says Culley. “So, emphasize to younger attendees that things are so different from when the pandemic started two years ago that their perspectives are just as valid and useful, and their questions are insightful to others too. Create specific opportunities for them to share.”
• While the virtual medium is not as effective as face-to-face for small-group interactions that bring variety to a larger session, Culley says that presenters can design around that disadvantage. “First, you acknowledge to participants ahead of the event that you know virtual isn’t ideal for the task, and that many interaction opportunities that work in person don’t work as well online. But then you can ask people, ‘How can we do it better? Give us your suggestions and we can see what we can do with them.’ That generates buy-in even if you can only meet them part of the way on their concerns.”
For instance, “because the interaction won’t be as nimble as it is face-to-face, you could change the amount of time dedicated to collaborating in order to drive the number of interactions people have in the session. Don’t force things in virtual sessions, because that might fail completely. Be realistic, adapt your format, and keep gathering participant feedback in real time.”
Another tip for strong attendee participation: “When asking questions of the audience or soliciting questions from the audience in a virtual setting, you should not put people on the spot. You can’t expect instant responses; you will probably get a lot of dead air” and it will be a missed opportunity, Culley says. Instead, “tell people that you will soon want their responses to the following question, or that you'll entertain their questions in a few minutes. Ask them to use the Q&A forum now or to be ready to open their microphone to ask a question live. Then, before you ask someone to speak, make this announcement to avoid an awkward delay: ‘We are going to ask John S. to unmute his microphone and ask his question.’”
• One thing from before the pandemic that no longer works “is the idea that the best way to success is through a three-day conference where everything is presented in that window,” Culley says. “Breaking up the delivery of content across several weeks will keep people engaged and not burn them out. Use frequent connection points in order to build retention,” and to learn more about attendee needs and preferences as you go along. Ask them: What have you taken back to your job from our previous sessions? What would you like more of, and less of? Can you summarize three key lessons or points made during the most recent session? Lastly, presenters can send out reading material that reinforces the points made in the session.