I came to the association world 10 years ago after years as a television producer. I took the conference programming position after reading the job description and realizing that it was – in fact – a producer job. As a television producer, it was my job is to tell a story, to capture and keep the audience’s attention, and to end my show on a note that made people glad they had spent their time in front of the television. The same can be said for conference programming.
When you begin the planning cycle for your event, decide what story you are trying to tell. And then tell it through your education sessions and your social and networking activities. What do your attendees need to learn while they are with you? How do you build the sessions needed so that they create a compelling overall story? For example, if the focus is on achieving important quality measures, then what is the thread that must run through each session so that the story of the conference remains cohesive? It’s more than a theme – it gets into the guts of each session and then the learner has the ideas and concepts reinforced over and over again.
As a conference programmer, I have learned that most adults prefer to learn from their peer group; from people who are walking the same walk. If you are developing peer led sessions, consider investing in some group coaching for the presenters. Many of these folks have important information to share but are not always comfortable in the presenter role. Encourage your faculty to deliver session content through story vs endless PowerPoint slides. Institute faculty member Bill Graham is a master of this concept.
Create opportunities for people to talk to each other. This is important in that it allows people to test what they have learned with each other and hear how others have used or intend to use the information. Over coffee. Over beers. Over Lunch. Around the table at the closing gala. This allows your attendees to add their own pages to the stories they heard in the classrooms.
And be sure to follow up with questions that don’t just rate the experience on a Likert scale. My favorite evaluation question is – were you able to implement one new thing immediately upon returning home? This lets me know that the story had a happy ending and that it was worth it for them to spend time with us.