Without a great program and great speakers, you won’t get attendees to come to your conference. But once you have convinced them to show up, your goal is to make sure they stay awake and have a great experience so they go home happy and excited–and tell all of their colleagues about your great event.
Here are some of my simple rules to keep your guests awake and engaged:
1. Give them a break. A good rule of thumb is to give them an intermission at least once every two hours. It’s difficult to concentrate for longer than that and everyone deserves an opportunity to stand, stretch, use the bathroom, return a phone call, drink some coffee, etc. at least that often. Yet I’ve worked with some conference producers who feel they need to cram every last presentation in to give their attendees their money’s worth, not realizing half of the folks are dozing off and the other half probably snuck out to their rooms to catch up on email.
2. Interact! Don’t let your attendees feel like an inactive audience at a play. Let them be participants and interact with the presenters. Don’t save audience questions for the last five minutes of a 60-minute session. Be bold and ask for questions almost immediately so the speakers cover what the audience wants to hear.
3. Prepare your speakers. Don’t just invite them to speak, but work with them on their presentations. Inform them about the audience and what they are coming to learn. Review their slide presentations for clarity, relevance and − ahem – possible boredom.
4. Stir the pot. When you build a panel, it’s fine to have different points of view represented. In fact, it’s better than having panelists who all agree with each other. Nothing’s more boring than one panelist after another agreeing with and repeating what the person before her or him just said. Look for some controversy.
5. Get a great moderator. Even if you have panelists who are pretty much in sync with each other, a good moderator can help create excitement and interest in the panel with questions, interruptions, reach outs to the audience, etc.
6. Change the pace. How many times have you attended an event and it’s panel, panel, panel? Or one solo speaker after another with no connection between them? Think of your agenda as a short magazine story. Each session is a new paragraph that covers an inter-related sub topic and builds on the session before it. The moderator should explore with each speaker topics that were discussed earlier.
7. Surprise them. You’ll find that there’s a lot of delight when unexpected speakers or guests suddenly take the stage, especially those with flair. You don’t have to reveal every part of the program ahead of time.
Most of you have attended a lot of conferences — what are some other ways that conference organizers have had you on the edge of your seat?