There has been a rise in “unconferences” at meetings of late in response to meeting delegates increasingly shunning lecture-style, didactic conferences.
Google explains an unconference as “a loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured program of events.”
The thought of planning a completely unstructured conference scares many in the association world. Yet there are ways to increase the level of participation without drastically altering the familiar – and without breaking the budget.
Over the last three years at The Engaging Associations Forum, we have implemented the following five practices to improve the level of engagement with our participants:
1. REMOVE BARRIERS
Have the presenter mic’ed with a cordless lavalier, and get them out from behind a podium by using a high top table for notes or tablet. If you must have a stage, consider lowering the risers so speakers don’t appear to be “preaching from the mountain.”
2. ELIMINATE LINE-UPS
Why have a regular desk where someone behind a table hands out badges? Why couldn’t prepaid participants walk up to a wall where the badges are attached? And why do buffets have to be linear? What if they were round so people could approach from any angle?
3. BUILD IN TIME
Too often participants walk away from conferences with packed schedules, feeling like they had little time to absorb material. Allow people to have longer breaks, say for 45 minutes instead of the usual 15-30. That way they can check email and social media, and be fully present during sessions. For the busybodies who hate too much unscheduled time, set up post-session discussion groups in the coffee break space.
4. Q&A AND AUDIENCE ADVOCATES
People learn better when they can ask questions and discuss material. Make sure you build this into as many sessions as possible, and not just at the end. If you are afraid no one will speak up, pre-identify “audience advocates” – knowledgeable participants who are quick thinkers – and have them ask questions.
Anything you can do to create novelty will give a reason for people to talk and engage. At the Engaging Associations Forum in 2015, one of the most novel features was a flavored water bar with innovative taste combinations such as strawberry-basil and blueberry-ginger water. The added bonus of this feature was that we were using regular tap water and not bottled water, therefore saving cost (and the environment!)