Turn your Conference into a Learning Event

By Marco Valente | 691 words

A conference: people come together to discuss ideas that matter to them, exchange knowledge and wisdom, and have productive debates. A wonderful intention. But over time the conference has taken on a format of its own: keynote speakers, panels of experts, round tables, Q&A, with little variation. The result: frequent questioning of whether the conference was a good use of our time.

Challenge: Focus on talking about ideas that matter

What could improve? Preparation. Earlier, with a tiny fraction of world knowledge online, it made sense for a keynote speaker to repeat the same speech across many venues. With today’s technology the keynote speech does not need to be delivered in person. It can be downloaded and read on the way to the conference. The challenge is: how to make the most of being in the same room with an author of interesting content?

Ideas for improvement. Good preparation can free up the space for higher learning and deeper conversation. If you have already read that paper, the presentation can be shorter. It can focus on novel and unanswered questions. It can go deeper with formats such as round tables or more effective Q&A sessions. The author can be invited for her tacit knowledge; or expert, as-yet-unpublished opinion; or can share answers on TYCG’s only (things you cannot google).

Challenge: Limited attention, information overload

What could improve? Attention is a limited resource. It drops after only minutes of high focus, such as during presentations. Nevertheless, too many conferences are planned with:

  • Over-optimistic time planning: items are squeezed, breaks are sacrificed.
  • A packed line of speakers with a lot of information coming in a one-way flow. By the fourth speaker without a break, the audience is in information overload.

Ideas for improvement. The event is a flow. It is not just a series of time blocks to be filled with as many speakers or items as possible. Instead,

  • Use the time to allow participants to learn, discuss and digest what has been said or read.
  • Move from a “how much shall we speak?” mentality to “how little shall we speak”, so that the participants can get the most out of it. It seems subtle but it’s a fundamental shift.

Challenge: Exchanging information and ideas

What could improve? An exciting thing about conferences is the high concentration of people who are competent in a subject and can contribute much to the thinking of others. Some participants want expert feedback on their business idea or on their paper. Instead of the traditional time-consuming peer-review, a well-structured conference can curtail long and irrelevant comments, making best use of precious time.

Ideas for improvement. A room full of experts is a cornucopia of potential. Therefore,

  • Try live peer review! There are templates for structured feedback, which is impersonal, constructive and appreciative of what is already good. The actual form can change according to function and circumstance. The collective power of more brains and more knowledge can speed up the feedback process, and has a very high potential for learning.
  • We could experiment with massive sense-making in live settings and harness loads of data points visually aided by technologies, visual notes, distributed reporting, and more.

Challenge: Facilitating the event

Conditions for good conversations rarely happen by chance. Some points to bear in mind:

  • Facilitating an event is a skill, working with the flows of people’s attention, the interaction among them, the informational flow, and the collective mood.
  • Establishing ground rules for interaction can improve the quality of conversations. For instance, I’ve introduced the Q&A time of a speaker by saying, only half-jokingly: “Please ask questions, do not give long explanations of how smart and knowledgeable you are”. That simple invitation improved the quality of the conversation.

The best conferences both empower and engage participants in learning and knowledge creation, contributing to their professional development. I invite us all to design each conference with learning in mind; to think of it as a flow; to see it as a set of structured and facilitated interactions, resulting in great conversations and the generation of wonderful ideas.



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