Meeting design when less is normally always more

Meeting design plays an important role in making the most out of conferences and exhibitions. Let’s start with big free to attend exhibitions. You know the ones I mean. Every year more and more sessions are added to more and more streams and it is always trumpeted by organisations normally in the form of something like this: “more sessions than ever! Aren’t you lucky!” You can’t argue with the first fact but you can with the second: often more is actually less.

Meeting design “less is normally always more” 

In this “stack ’em high” approach to satellite learning it is unlikely that the organiser will be able to:

– properly brief all the speakers

– ensure that they are all well supported

– ensure that they are all really good speakers and

– ensure that they speak in front of large audiences (making it worth their while)

These things are very often missing at the “more is more” trade show. Meaning that a lot of very important aspects are discarded in favour of quantity. Meeting design should focus on quality and NEVER, EVER on quantity.

Why are there four random chairs still on stage? Because there were too many sessions!

It isn’t just the in the world of free content at exhibitions that has this view that more is more it happens in meeting design within paid for conferences as well. I’ll take you back a few years to a 1000 attendee conference that I organised for finance professionals. As the new event manager for the event, which ran over 2 and a half days, the first thing under my spotlight was the sheer mind-boggling number of sessions: previously 100 sessions and over 110 speakers.

How did I ever expect finance professionals (of all people!) to agree that more was less?

As an efficacy and efficiently driven event planner I wanted to reduce the number of sessions. After adding some much needed meeting design and researching the content for the programme I settled on 60 sessions: hardly lightweight in content! Each session thoroughly researched and a great speaker sourced. At the time, as ill fate would have it, I had to deal with a large and particularly entrenched conference committee. My proposal was to reduce 100 sessions to 60. They thought I was mad? “More is more they cried!”

Following much to and fro (with less to and more fro) I was told to find at least another 20 sessions. Various apocalyptic scenarios were discussed should we not get close to three figure session number. We ran 80 sessions: the minimum I could run and still keep my job.

Fast forward a few months. Despite (or because of) the 20% reduction in sessions, the conference attracted more attendees than ever, and raised more revenue than it ever had.

You can imagine my delight delivering a number heavy presentation to the committee after the event: “A reduction of 20% in the number of sessions has contributed to 10% rise in profit. More can sometimes be less. Next year we will be running less sessions and I expect to have more attendees and more revenue”

I remember finishing the presentation with one choice delegate testimony. Can you guess what that particular delegate complained about? “Too much choice!”

Allow some white space

Meeting design tells us that, if you do not have time to process information soon after you hear or see it, it becomes much harder to learn. Taking the “less is more” approach will allow you to consider this as you structure conference content. For example, covering only three topics in the morning session rather than five, will allow delegates to discuss that content in more detail and they will retain more. See less is more!

This of course seems obvious but have a look at most of the conferences you see in the market. If you use traditional formats (with no texturisation or meeting design) covering more topics may help you attract attendees this year but they will learn and retain little. And what does that mean? They will be unlikely to attend next time.

Too much content without any meeting design and the event will offer more but deliver less. Instead, give you attendees time to process that content. Less is more. 

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2 comments

  • Dave Lutz February 1, 2013   Reply →

    Nice post, William! I’m with you on this. Most conferences that we examine attempt to be all things to all people. The challenge is that it’s difficult for a prospective attendee to identify the relevance for their individual situation.

    One of my favorite sayings from Jeff Gitomer is “a confused buyer, does not buy”. Conferences with a more is more attitude, confuse potential buyers and turn them off.

    Many conferences that we see where there are hundreds of sessions and thousands of speakers have a business model that is mostly comprised of speakers, speaking to speakers. We believe that model is not sustainable and usually is not attracting the audience that exhibitors or sponsors (most conference’s money machine) desire most.

    • williamthomson February 1, 2013   Reply →

      You’ve been there Dave! You look out into a relatively business audience. And you recognise some people. On closer inspection you in fact recognise everyone! Every person is a speaker and you feel like a scraggy dog in a pet store. Every other dog is looking at you and no one is buying!

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