Crashing the Party: How to Throw a Great Business Conference

Last week Eric Garland called out big budget conferences. 

 In his post on the HBR Blog Network, The Posh Predictable World of Business Conferences, he wrote, “…million-dollar conferences are usually thought of as too precious to involve risk and adventure. They are like Hollywood — big budget and totally predictable,” and for the cost in cash, time and natural resources, Garland asserts, we should expect and get more.

Garland focuses on the predictable nature of big budget conferences – which, he implies, makes them less interesting and valuable to the attendees than they should be. He then observes that the social media spaces around conferences are where the valuable interactions are happening, where “people are free to unveil outrageous proposals, fight it out on comment streams, make common cause through private messages, learn, absorb, disagree, and generally participate in a vigorous intellectual process.”

 As I thought about the conferences Garland describes and our own experiences helping clients put on events large and small, I was put in the mind of Open Space Technology and Unconferences, the quintessential working-without-a-net conference experiences where the attendees create the content and agenda of a conference when they get there. Nearly thirty years ago, Harrison Owen had the epiphany that caused him to create Open Space Technology, and which I think is instructive here. He wrote in the introduction to Open Space Technology: A Users Guide:

“In 1983, I had occasion to organize an international conference for 250 participants. It took me a full year of labor. By the time I had finished with all the details, frustrations, and egos (mine and others’) that go with such an event, I resolved never to do such a thing again. This resolution was confirmed at the conclusion of the conference, when it was agreed by one and all (including myself) that although the total event had been outstanding, the truly useful part had been the coffee breaks. So much for one year’s effort to arrange papers, participants, and presenters.” (Emphasis mine)

The coffee breaks! By this time in our collective meeting history, it’s a cliché to say that the coffee breaks are the only valuable time during a conference, but as Lloyd Cole observed, “The reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true.”

Singer/songwriter wisdom aside, I realized that the crux of the problem really has to do with the basic intent of any of these gatherings, i.e., to confer with other people about stuff that’s mutually important to you.

What’s lacking in the face-to-face aspect of the conferences that Garland describes, but present in the social mediascape surrounding them, and which was also present during those coffee breaks that Owens describes, is actual conferring, between and among people, and about things they care about. What’s missing from the precious, highly orchestrated, expensive portions of big budget conference are the real connections that might enable people to make a difference together.

When we help our clients design and deliver large meetings and conferences, we recognize that unconferences aren’t for everyone (though I think everyone should try one at least once), so here are three of the things we focus on to help our clients put on the most engaging, productive, and inspiring events they can:

  1. Intentionally and thoughtfully choose the content – the content you present to your attendees should at the very least stretch their thinking, it should inform and potentially alter their perspectives, and maybe even inflame their passions. And it should be pertinent, for it is the raw material around which connections might be forged and change can occur.
  2. Pay attention to how content is presented – if that author of the moment doesn’t know how to tell a story or connect with the people in the audience, you and your participants won’t get as much out of her ideas. Coach your keynote presenters and other speakers away from traditional presentations and towards stories that make information accessible and truly meaningful.
  3. Create a framework for chaos – intentionally build in time and space for true collaboration throughout your event. Create multiple safe opportunities for your attendees to engage with each other around the ideas to which they are being exposed – space to argue, debate, process, inspire, and build.

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