If you attended the pre-conference workshop “Total Audience Engagement” at Collaborate Marketplace in Orlando, you saw SPIN’s Shawna Suckow perform the agenda shuffle. (If you missed it, picture Suckow up front, performing an amusing and effective dance mimicking a typical, boring conference.) “It’s called the agenda shuffle, but nothing ever moves. It’s static,” she explains. “Set it to whatever tune you want, but your attendees still won’t like it.”
8 a.m. Session, break
10 a.m. Session, break
12 p.m. Lunch, and so on…
You get it. Despite all we now know about how people learn and when they perform best, we keep repeating the same schedule—the same old agenda shuffle. We continue to cram each day of a conference with as much content as possible, giving attendees little time to reflect on what they heard or to discuss it with others. The typical schedule also disregards the fact people need free time to manage their own business and personal tasks while away from their homes and offices.
As much as we talk about engaging attendees and the importance of their conference experience, we stick to the familiar pattern because it makes our jobs easier. We’re relying on time management software. The board or the boss doesn’t want to change the schedule and doesn’t want to cut anything.
But you can take action, starting with small steps. Suckow suggests beginning the day a little later, say 10 a.m., allowing attendees time to get settled into their own work groove (especially after traveling or a late-night opening reception) and prepare for the day’s sessions. Then, end the day at 6 or 7 p.m., rather than 5 p.m. For local participants, it might mean avoiding rush-hour traffic. If an evening event is scheduled, starting it later shouldn’t be a hardship. You can end at the same time you might have anyway, saving money and giving guests the option to stay on their own dime.
Here are some other ideas to consider:
• Shorten your sessions. We know attention spans are shorter, so why all the 45-minute or hour-long sessions? Instead, try 25-minute sessions. Better yet, vary the formats and times. Make one an intensive workshop that might run longer or be divided into two parts. Ask your speakers to prepare 10-minute fast-break sessions in addition to their longer presentations. Create open dialogue roundtables, inviting speakers and attendees to come and go as they please.
• Don’t roll lunch into a meeting. You might think it’s efficient, but it’s not productive. Studies show we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are, and watching people trying to eat and talk is not pleasant. Instead, consider allotting 20-30 minutes for lunch (plan a creative sandwich/salad combo rather than a heavy three-course meal) and in lieu of dessert, serve energy-boosting snacks during the afternoon break.
• Recognize body chemistry. Make sure late afternoon sessions (after 3 p.m.) are interactive and stimulating. No lectures, please. Engage your best speakers, prep some pre-registered attendees to contribute their ideas and make it a standup idea or trend fest.
• Treat your attendees as the professionals they are. Begin engaging them in advance of the conference. Give them every opportunity to come well prepared. Provide pre-conference information connecting speakers and attendees, and put a list of participants on your event website, encouraging them to contact each other ahead of the meeting.
Paying attention to timing—from the conference starting hour to every other interaction—will increase overall satisfaction and usefulness of your event sessions. You’ll be surprised to find your efforts rewarded when you review post-event surveys. You may even want to do a little dance.
Christine Born, former editor in chief of Collaborate, is now editor at large. She writes about contemporary and sometimes controversial issues affecting meeting professionals and events, and also presents conversations and panels at Collinson Media & Events’ Marketplace conferences.