five ideas for a better conference experience

i love going to conferences because they frequently provide great opportunities for insights and inspiration. however, just as often, the conference experience is diminished by a predictable paralysis that inevitably seems to settle in every mid-afternoon.

conferences are meant to inspire not tire, but no matter how many diversions, DJs and fast-paced mini-talks a conference might schedule, it seems like every event suffers from an information overload that always brings with it a certain lethargy and fatigue.

therefore a few thoughts to challenge the status quo, with the hope that, if implemented, when a conference wraps for the day, one should feel compelled to act and engage.

(1) LESS YAMMERING, MORE HAMMERING (hat tip to julian bleecker).

no more all day conferences dominated by talk after talk. make it a half day conference that features a series of talks that are then followed by afternoons which are focused around workshops – providing a hands-on seminar setting to allow attendees to interact directly with speakers. make it about the exchange of dialogue, rather than a one-way conversation.


design the space instead of hosting the conference in an auditorium or theater. approach the floor plan like a production designer or installation artist. consider putting a round stage in the middle, with groupings of seats, like pods, separated by walking space in between to allow for more serendipity and interaction amongst conference goers. if there’s a backdrop or screen, make its surface viewable from all sides, or design a 360 screen. it would be amazing if one could use holograms instead of screens.


employ five or six well-connected superconductor-types whose only role is to bring people together. think of them as high-level greeters (and walking information resources) who can help introduce attendees by nudging them beyond the awkward mumblings by the coffee dispenser. ideally, this is the conference’s principal organizer, but, in reality, the organizer is rarely available. therefore, a conference should bring in a couple of ringers. even better if one of the ringers is a conference speaker as well.


lunch should be fun, with dining tables set-up for different themes. for example, ensure that one or two conference speakers can be found at each table; or organize tables around specific conversations, or, to keep it light, one could even have color themed tables: “everyone who loves british racing green, please go to the green table!” (where food that’s heavy on the green is served). what about tables organized by favorite travel destinations or favorite local haunts?


when returning to the main conference space after a break, attendees should be strongly encouraged to select a different seat, thus encouraging more interaction between conference attendees.

bonus thought: keep it intimate, keep it short and keep it flowing. the conferences that i’ve enjoyed most truly stick to these principles; and by “flow,” i don’t mean keep it entertaining – those two notions are not the same (though certainly not mutually exclusive) and the last thing conference goers need, is to be inundated with another blaze of razzle-dazzle.

conferences are ultimately about inspiration, serendipity, and action, and should therefore be organized around those values.


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