Structuring conferences to ensure that your attendees learn is as crucial as it is difficult. Too many of our conferences fall short in helping attendees engage and interact with the content. And this means that attendees never actually learn much. The main reason for that is that the structure of the content is too, being kind, traditional, and being truthful, just too darn tricky.

You need some skill to structure learning. Anyone can suggest a handful of speakers, give them each 30 mins and hey, there you go, voila, a “Conference Programme”. But to design a conference programme rather than to “produce” one you need an understand of how people learn. From this realisation in the world of conferences “meeting design” was born.

Meeting design is complicated – but don’t fret! here’s some basic rules to get you going

Meeting design is a fancy term. It’s actually just what great classroom teachers have been doing for generations. It is nothing more than being creative and texturising the learning that takes place in your space. For a teacher it’s in the classroom and for a conference producer or architect it’s the leaning that takes place at the conference.

We still don’t see enough conferences use some simple meeting design so I hope this post and the haiku deck helps. I’ve also had in mind the conferences who have tried some meeting design only to see if failed, thereby putting organisers, attendees and organisations on the wrong side of the argument of why we need more creative conferences.

So here it is how to making meeting design simple. My ten little rules:

1. Keep it simple

Don’t over complicate things. All you want to do is to have a couple of different ways for your attendees to engage with the content at your conference. You just want to help them learn. You don’t need to try and replicate every part of the fancy guidelines you will find in meeting design books. You don’t need fancy names for your sessions and you definitely don’t want complicated instructions.

2. Don’t surprise your delegates

One thing I learned early on when putting programmes together was that no one likes surprises; especially delegates. So if you are going to add some different session formats make sure you have told your attendees (at least 5 times!). Most meeting design leads the audience to be more participative and not everyone likes this. So don’t put pressure on yourself by having people in the audience who don’t want to get involved in your “fancy formats”. So in all of your marketing material make it clear what you are trying to do and why you are trying it. And I would maybe even go as far as highlighting sessions on your programme or in your App with something like “An interactive and engaging session”.

3. Consider the introvert

You are possibly doing your audience a mis service if you are not catering for those who are less of a ‘show man’ and more of a ‘slow man’. There are many meeting design formats that cater for the introvert and you should include them in your meetings. Reflective and reading sessions have as much merit as body voting and world cafe formats.   

4. Include the whole meeting in your meeting design

If you are going to the trouble of adding new and funky formats to your conference programme it would be a shame to leave your creative skills in the conference room. How about using your skills to open up networking and to create different areas and environments in your social get togethers? Don’t just rely on alcohol to do that for you!

5. Fully brief your speakers and your chairman

I stress the word “fully”. Your speakers and chairman may have had other conference producers or architects talk about formats and meeting design before and they may or may not have seen them in action. So they may think they know what you want but your job is to make sure that (similar to attendees) they know exactly what you are doing and why and crucially what their specific role is within the formats you have created. For example here’s some tips on Pecha Kucha. 

6. Logistical skills are key to making meeting design work

This is where I’ve seen meeting design fail. I’ve felt my head drop in to my hands as organisers try to put complicated formats into spaces that just can’t cope. Five or six bustling tables with everyone chatting away in a tiny space is a very common problem. If you are going to create a session make sure that you can support it with logistics. You know, if you have a facilitated session, having working pens and a flip chart…..

7. The room and venue must support your creative creation

I’ve written a few posts on the need to find a creative venue if you are going to be conference creative. So here’s a couple of links to those blogs. Make your room a learning one and Create Experience not just events.

Curated audience

8. Not all formats are created equal

Some meeting design formats are just plain daft. My least favourite one is the Silent Disco where attendees flick between sessions on their wireless headphones. Brilliant at a disco but not a conference. Others just won’t work unless you have a very particular (peculiar?) audience. So don’t think that just because it is a new format that it is any good. Really think about the interaction of your attendees and your speakers to any new format. You know your audience. If you follow my rules you can be confident that some meeting design will help your conference programme but make sure that you don’t add daft formats and if you aren’t sure ask expect meeting and conference architects for help.

9. Little by little

For the vast majority of planners reading this post the advice is very clear: add a couple of formats if the conference is an annual one and you can be a bit braver if it is a new conference. But the key point is by adding a little more design each time is better than throwing it all in at once. 

10. Include what happens before and after the conference in your meeting design

My final rule is that you really should consider your design brief being more ‘365’ than ‘9 to 5’. To get the most out of some formats your attendees need to do things before they arrive and it is your job to support them. For other formats the value really arrives after they have left your conference. See the learning more holistically and think about your meeting design in the macro sense as well as the micro. 

I would love to think that all planners had to do was to follow these rules and their conference sessions would be spectacular. But as I’ve said this isn’t easy and to really understand how to do it well you have to cut your teeth at loads of events in a wide range of sectors. There are a few people who do this well and I am encouraging them to add to the post. We think we do it pretty well and we’d be only to happy to help support you in your meeting design.