You and I have both experienced it. Whether you’re delivering your presentation at the podium or monitoring a session from the back of the room, it is sometimes virtually impossible to ignore all of the faces buried in their smart phones, iPads or laptops. What gives? Is the meeting that boring?
If you ask people why they attend their association’s conference the vast majority will list networking, followed by education as their top reasons. But how can you network or learn something new if you’re constantly checking your email, texting someone, or looking at your Facebook page?
I know, I preaching to the choir. Ultimately, it is our collective fault if we don’t make our meetings so compelling that missing a moment is a big deal. It’s a tough call to ask everyone to turn off their devices and pay attention – after all, they did pay to be there. So what can you do to reduce the distractions and improve voluntary engagement?
Here are four ideas to consider for your next conference.
Choose the Right Speakers
Without a doubt the speakers and presenters you choose can make or break your conference. Speakers need to be not only topic experts, but motivational in how they present. No matter how big the name they should also be experienced at presenting before large groups. Presenters that choose to “wing it” often bring little practical value in what they share. The most common flaw in many presentations is that the speaker is an expert at identifying problems or challenges, but often comes up short at sharing solutions we can take back home and put to use. Give attendees something they can use tomorrow. That gets people excited.
Help Your Speakers Be More Engaged
We always talk about giving members content that is relevant to their lives. So what is relevant this year? The only way to really know is ask. Use your online community, surveys or forums to find out what your attendees are expecting to learn at the conference. Connect your speakers with members in the months prior to your meeting so they can gather information that will help them avoid the canned presentation they could give in their sleep and to craft something that is actually tailored for your attendees.
Try to avoid “drive by” speakers – the ones who show up right before their scheduled time and leave immediately after for their next gig. When conference attendees have the opportunity to meet and chat with a speaker it creates a lasting impression that reflects positively on your event. Although it may not always be possible, require your speakers to participate in your conference, at least on the day they speak. Having them attend meals, breaks, and at social event helps generate excitement by sending the message that they are there for your attendees.
Recognize the Value of Human Contact
We spend so much of our personal and professional lives in a virtual world today that I often wonder if we are losing the art of good conversation. While technology is a great tool to use at your conference for checking schedules, completing surveys and accessing content, it can’t replace the most important aspect of a conference – human contact. Don’t underestimate the power of human contact when planning your conference. Your attendees want to be together, to catch up, share ideas, and attend social events – to be engaged.
Put your technology to work to help facilitate conference connections. Post a list of attendees in your community that your members can access. Set up a forum where they can connect and start conversations prior to conference. They’ll spend less time looking for someone, and more time actually connecting with their colleagues and friends.
Continue Your Conference Online
Hopefully we all get some great ideas at conference that we are excited to take back home and put to use. However, in reality we go from being a collective group of inspired people to an army of one when we return to the office. How do we maintain the excitement generated by what we learned after we go home? One way is to keep the conference going online by creating a place for attendees to meet post-conference to stay energized or collaborate on what they learned during their time together. A conference micro-site or your online community would be a great place to host this activity. And as an added bonus, allowing members who did not make it to conference to connect there could have a halo affect that creates buzz about your conference and hopefully drives greater attendance next year.
Next week I’ll share another strategy for increasing engagement while growing non-dues revenue at your conference.
For more information about improving engagement at your conference, view our recorded webinar, Creating Meetings with Impact: The Move Towards Strategic Conversations, with Jeff Hurt, Executive Vice President, Education and Engagement with Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.