As in-person events continue to ramp up, it’s important to plot forward-looking agendas to help attendees thrive in fast-changing business environments. It’s also the perfect time to rethink event programs to be more attention-grabbing and engaging to match.
As a keynote speaker who trains thousands of executives to adapt to change and emerging trends annually, I’ve noticed things moving in a counterintuitive direction lately. Case in point: Currently we’re being booked to give longer programs with each passing month, with most sessions averaging 90-180 minutes in length in 2022 vs. 30- to 60-minute programs in the prepandemic era.
Much of this disconnect seems to come from meeting organizers trying to balance the need for greater learning and insightful content using rigid formats. In other words, planners typically want to provide attendees with as much training and education as possible. But they’re often trying to fit these programs into traditional content tracks — such as keynote speeches, breakouts and training workshops — and assume more time in the “classroom” leads to greater knowledge transfer. This actually isn't the case.
The key to boosting learning and retention has always been about finding new and novel ways to make subjects more relatable to participants — and to boost audience interest and engagement. The following inventive approaches to redesigning and crafting meeting sessions are just a few of many ways that planners can get more creative while still coloring within the lines when it comes to reimagining common event formats.
Micro-Tracks and Mini-Conferences
Consider carving out time during an event to run a concurrent track filled with bite-sized learning sessions that are hyper-focused on trending topics, such as cybersecurity, blockchain or the future of finance. You can even build in badges or certificates to reward audience members for attendance, and allow them to hop between these mini sessions to personalize learning paths and build specialization.
Don’t underestimate the power of game-based learning to help boost audience participation and involvement. One simple way to make events more engaging is to ask groups of attendees to present ideas, design new concepts and/or solve real-world problems as part of an entrepreneurial competition that comes with small prizes. But rather than just stop there, you’ll also want to invite colleagues from throughout the organization, as well as industry thought leaders or people from other fields to vote for winners and give feedback.
Randomized Expert Talks
Who says what you see on the meeting agenda has to be what you get? A great way to source multiple perspectives on a topic quickly is to start a discussion on a subject hosted by one commentator then drawing names randomly (whether from preselected individuals or any of your audience members) every 5-10 minutes and inviting them to pick up the conversation where it left off.
Another fun way to randomize discussions while maximizing impact is to structure a talk around a broad topic – the future of work, diversity and inclusion, etc. — and set a timer. Each time the buzzer goes off, the speaker must vary the subject of their presentation while still sticking to the broader theme. In the case of the future of work, conversation might flow from how to adapt to flexible working schedules to how to redesign your workplace to accommodating hybrid operations to how to connect with customers when most interactions now happen virtually.
Give participants a problem to solve that’s grounded in real-world challenges. Groups of attendees should be broken into tables and assigned a facilitator who can ask questions and keep conversations flowing. Facilitators can be swapped to keep things more interesting. Want to really spice things up? You can also pop in and announce a new challenge — for instance, a new Covid variant has delayed your return to office — to which participants have to adapt to.
Divide participants into teams and ask them: If you were a competitor, what would you do to outperform, outmaneuver and outcompete our business? Then switch things back around and ask contributors: What can we do to keep rivals from applying these strategies to our detriment? Putting yourselves in a rival’s shoes can be a powerful way to see where your organization’s strengths and weaknesses currently lie.
President and CEO of the International Association for Business Development and Strategic Partnerships, Scott Steinberg is an award-winning professional speaker, management consultant and bestselling author. His published works include "Think Like a Futurist; Make Change Work for You" and "Fast Forward: How to Turbo-Charge Business, Sales and Career Growth."