The Traditional Conference Model Must Die

Innovation guru Duncan Wardle tells us how to fix it. 

Innovator Duncan Wardle speaks to more than 100 meetings industry professionals at Northstar Meetings Group's Leadership Forum.
Innovator Duncan Wardle speaks to more than 100 meetings industry professionals at Northstar Meetings Group's Leadership Forum. Photo Credit: Ketara Gadahn, Studio Alani

"I've just written a blog on why the conference industry needs to be completely blown up," Duncan Wardle, a renowned innovation and design-thinking consultant, told 100 planners and suppliers Thursday morning. "Why? Because nothing's changed since the first time I went to one in the '90s," he said, challenging the high-level participants in Northstar Meetings Group's annual Leadership Forum at The Cloister at Sea Island, Ga.

"It's coffee then the keynote speaker. First the sponsor is on the stage; they speak too long. The keynote speaker doesn't have enough time. We promise time for Q&A but, oh, we've run out of time. We go to a break and then we come back to the Panel of Doom. How do you know it's the Panel of Doom? Because a third of the audience is on their cell phones."

As a professional speaker and trainer (represented by Goodman Speakers), Wardle sets one goal for himself: "If one person is on their cellphone I have failed. If people give you a day of their time, give them something back of value. Give them something back that's tangible." 

It's important that we give ourselves the time — and the permission — to develop revolutionary ideas, stressed Wardle, who spent 25 years with the Walt Disney Co., most recently as vice president of innovation and creativity. Making a conference dramatically more effective, he told Leadership Forum participants, can be as simple as rearranging room sets and having speakers spend an extra hour chatting. 

Following are some innovative ideas Wardle shared with Leadership Forum participants and in his recent blog post about conferences. 

Don't overpack the agenda.

Lack of time is the biggest barrier to innovation. If you don't allow yourself time to think, how can you possibly expect to come up with new ideas or expand your knowledge and skillsets? Unfortunately, the conference industry has fallen into the trap of believing that the best way to provide value for attendees is to pack every single second of their day with speakers and other programming. Conferences should offer less, not more, letting attendees actually retain what they're learning and walk away with a handful of quality ideas, tools and insights they'll be able to remember and use in their real lives.

Use speakers with substance.

The inspirational and motivational hallelujah speakers with removable teeth — they shake you up and they move around a lot, and at the time it's wonderful…and then it's gone. I'm fed up with going to conferences where I leave inspired and a week later somebody says, "How was that conference in New York?" and you say, "Oh, it was great," and then you have an honest conversation with yourself and say, "What have I learned? What tangible tools have I been given that will help me think differently and grow my business?

Require speakers to stick around.

Too many speakers get off the stage and leave. I think that's the height of arrogance. The introverts have their questions, but they're not going to ask me them in front of a room full of people. The extroverts don't have any questions, they just want to hear themselves speak. If you're paying that speaker, put them in a chair for at least an hour afterward, because people want their individual questions answered.

Don't put tables in session rooms.

Tables are massive barriers to participation. Remove the tables; you'll increase your engagement and participation significantly.

End theater-style seating.

A third of the audience in the back are two-thirds further away than anybody else. And how do I know it's a disaster? Because they're all on their cell phones, and they'll say they got no value out of the speakers. The Greeks used amphitheater seating, where everybody is the same distance from the speaker

Put new knowledge immediately into action.

Instead of hour after hour of panels and speakers, schedule a moderated breakout after every single speaking block, allowing attendees to discuss and reflect on what they just learned. Have the speaker or moderator lead real-world exercises that cement the lessons, laying the foundation for using these acquired skill sets once attendees return home.