When your conference ends there’s often little respite before preparation begins for next year’s event. It feels like as the tables are being broken down and chairs are being stacked, the call for proposals is already going out to solicit next year’s speakers – which might be your first mistake.
Here’s the old model we’re all used to: The call for proposals goes out, speakers apply with their talks, speakers are chosen by a volunteer committee, those speakers speak at the conference, attendees roll the dice and hope that they end up attending a worthwhile session. At the end of the day, you’ve basically left your conference’s content in the hands of your speakers.
As we attend more and more conferences, and become more and more tired of rolling the dice, the industry has begun to collectively say, “There must be a better way!” How can we make sure that our sessions are supporting a single theme? How do we keep speakers on topic? Is it even possible to break the cycle and evolve your event?
You can change the trajectory of your conference from year to year. But the old model is going to have to go and it’s going to take a concerted effort on your organization’s part. The result, however, will be unprecedented attendee engagement and growing attendance numbers.
Define your thesis
Jeff Hurt is the Executive Vice President at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in Dallas, TX. Jeff is an industry leader when it comes to crafting better conferences, annual meetings and professional development. When it’s time to focus your event Jeff says you should think, “Who’s my target audience and what’s keeping them up at night?” Or, even better, “What are the business outcomes of my target attendee?”
This is the first step when taking back control of your conference. Answering these questions immediately gives you your core learning objectives for the event. If your sessions are all supporting your core learning objectives, you’re on your way to creating truly effective content.
Tracy King is an independent consultant at InspirED, LLC. She helps people bridge learning science and practice to create engaging program content. For Tracy, after your organization’s membership has been polled, leadership should be asking the question, “What do attendees need to know to be successful in this industry?”
Curate your content
Your event is defined by the sum of its content. Much like a finely designed trade publication, people are counting on your event for relevancy and a dose of progressivism. Don’t disappoint them with stale, haphazard content.
Your favorite magazines, blogs and podcasts all carefully curate their content. Why wouldn’t you do the same for your event?
Finding the right folks
Curation will almost definitely mean taking a second look at your call for proposals process. If you’re looking for a very specific type of content, you’ll only be able to rely partially on proposals submitted by speakers. There will also be an element of recruiting the right speakers to support the learning objectives.
Tracy is an advocate of content curation, but she understands that for most organizations the process of finding speakers will be a combination of proposals and recruiting. “A good medium place for associations to be is to develop the curriculum for their meeting so they have the learning objectives in place and know what kind of change they want to see in their learners. Their call for proposals can be a mix of recruiting known speakers and opening a call for the other components.”
Conference quality control
Moving to a curation style of developing your event’s content also means that the organization will need to take greater responsibility for the quality the speakers are delivering. Or as Tracy puts it, “If you’re approaching a meeting from a learning standpoint, you have to be involved in the design of the learning.”
If you have recruited speakers, the task is a simpler one because you can outline your expectations from the beginning. If you are culling speakers from the call for proposals, you can still outline expectations, “but the commitment is a lot lower and you have to be committed to training and supporting your faculty in creating good learning,” says Tracy.
Break your patterns
You’ve probably noticed by now that we’re not talking about quick fixes. In some instances, we’re looking at major changes in the overall approach to a meeting. Igniting innovation can be a tricky undertaking and can often be difficult for many organizations. It’s best to start at the beginning, and change begins with taking a look at how you evaluate your event’s success.
Tracy says, “If the bottom line is not the only measure of ROI – if change and value in the workplace is something that is measured and part of your bottom line – you will be inspired to innovate, because how can you not?”
According to Tracy, being in touch with your attendees’ needs can’t help but spur innovation. “You’re in the marketplace and talking to the employers – what do they need? What does their workforce need? How can we provide that and be the premiere provider of that content? What tools do your employees need to be successful and rise in the ranks of their profession? That would inspire an association to deliver things differently.”
If we stop seeing our events as a collection of individual sessions and more as a complete experience – one that’s supporting our learning objectives – we’ll begin to deliver more reliably impactful experiences to our attendees.
It’s what Tracy calls an “arc.” Jeff says you can begin to craft your arc by answering the question, “What emotional journey are you taking people on?”
Every great story has a clear beginning, middle and end. It is our responsibility to lead attendees through the story arc and make sure that the experience itself is delivered in a digestible, cohesive format. Don’t be surprised if this has you rethinking certain assumed structures from previous years’ formats.
The human brain is primed to latch onto story – we use stories to frame our experiences. If the experience of an event has been considered, you’ll give your attendees the perfect tool for success – a solid framing device.
How to win with your call for proposals
For Jeff and Tracy, mastering this process is going to determine the success of your event in the future. Tracy put it this way: “In order for associations to differentiate themselves, they have to think in terms of their attendees’ experience and the value for the attendee. And the value needs to be ‘this is going to create positive change for me.’ If attendees are always casting dice at an event, they’re going to choose another event.”
Making a cohesive event experience, rethinking your ROI, curating speakers – it all stems back to your call for proposals. When you’re looking for speakers are you dictating the content of your conference? Or is your content choosing your objectives for you?
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