How To Run a Small but High Impact Conference

Why have a conference anyway?

Conferences used to be about education.

But today, much of your educational needs are quite satisfactorily provided by Youtube.

If you need deeper instruction in whatever you are trying to learn, there are many excellent training sites like Lynda, udemy, the Great Courses and our own site,

Conferences used to be about connecting with people. But with LinkedIn, Twitter etc, you can reach anyone in your industry in minutes. No need to wait for a conference.

Still, some things can’t be learned by video. And some relationships don’t solidify by phone.

Are conferences worth it?

Certainly a great many conferences waste a great deal of everyone’s time and seem to be held for historical rather than practical reasons; many long-established conferences are little more than memorials to dead problems.

I cannot deny that conferences, even the more boring ones,  fulfill a deep human need to connect. Man is a social species. In every organization and every human culture of which we have record, people come together in small groups at regular and frequent intervals, and in larger “tribal” gatherings from time to time.

I decided to run my conference as Advanced Training. Here’s how I decided how many people to invite for attendance.

Conferences and Training Events can be graded by size into three broad categories:

(1) the general conference—100 or more people who are expected to do little more than listen to the main speaker or speakers;

(2) the training—20-30 people who are basically there to listen to the main speaker and apply the training to their own account; they are expected to present, participate and support the other attendees.

(3) the workshop—up to 10 (or at the most 12) people, all of whom more or less are working on the same problmes, are on an equal footing and under the guidance and control of trainer during the workshop period.

Observations About Conferences

  • The early part of a conference or training program tends to be more lively and creative than the end of it, so if a learning topic needs mental energy, bright ideas, and clear heads, I try to put it in the first three hours. Equally, if there is one item of great interest and concern to everyone, I try to hold it back for a while and get some other useful work done first. I use the“star” item to carry the training over the attention lag that will eventually set in.
  • Very few training sessions achieve anything of value after two hours, and an hour and a half is enough time to allocate for most training topics.
  • The practice of circulating advance material is, in principle, a good one. It not only saves time, but it also helps the attendees formulating useful questions and considerations in advance. But keep it simple! The whole idea of having attendees prep is sabotaged once the advance material gets too detailed.
  • It is a supreme folly to bring a group of people together to read them training material from slides. The whole point is to bring people together and have them interact, build relationships and learn from the experts who are providing the conference.

My event is based 90% on social interaction, practice, and putting new material to use immediately.

Carefully choose seating positions.

There is a growing volume of work on the significance of seating positions and their effect on group behavior and relationships. Not all the findings are generally agreed on. What does seem true is that:

  • Having members sit face to face across a table facilitates opposition, conflict, and disagreement, though of course it does not turn allies into enemies. But it does suggest that the chairman should think about whom he seats opposite himself.
  • In breakout sessions, there is a “dead man’s corner” on the trainers right hand side, at the end of the table. That person typically does not take initiative to participated during the training.
  • As a general rule, proximity to the trainer is a sign of honor and favor. This is most marked when he is at the head of a long, narrow table. The greater the distance, the lower the rank appears —just as the lower-status positions were “below the salt” at medieval gatherings.

Control Time.

In many  conferences, the most needy are the most vocal, and it takes these folks long time to say very little. When I lead a training, my own sense of urgency to move rapidly should help indicate to others the need for brevity. If it is urgent to stop someone in full flight, there is a useful device of picking on a phrase (it really doesn’t matter what phrase) as he utters it as an excuse for cutting in and offering it to someone else: “Difficult to gain someone’s attention by email—that’s very interesting. John, do you find it is always difficult to do this? To engage someone by cold email?”

Draw out the silent

In any properly run conference, as simple math will show, quite a few of the people will be silent most of the time. Silence can indicate general agreement, or no important contribution to make, or the need to wait and hear more before saying anything and none of these need worry you. But there are two kinds of silence you must break:

  1. The silence of diffidence. Someone may have a valuable contribution to make but be sufficiently nervous about its possible reception to keep it to himself. It is important that when you draw out such a contribution, you should express interest and pleasure (though not necessarily agreement) to encourage further contributions of that sort.
  2. The silence of hostility. This is not hostility to ideas, but to you as the trainer, to the event, and to the process by which the training is taking place. This sort of total detachment from the whole proceedings is usually the symptom of some feeling of affront. If you probe it, you will usually find that there is something bursting to come out, and that it is better out than in.

Protect the weak.

It is best to discourage the clash of personalities. A good training event is not a series of dialogues between individual members and the trainer, or a few participants ganging up on a weaker party. Instead, it is a cross-flow of discussion and debate, with the trainer occasionally guiding, meditating, probing, stimulating, and summarizing, but frequently letting the others thrash ideas out. The conference must be a contention of ideas, not people.

Lastly, close on a note of achievement.

In my experience, have someone present at the end of the training who has really taken the event seriously, worked during the off hours and made the most use of having coaches and trainers around. That person will show everyone what is possible with just a little training, and makes everyone ask, “Wow, what could I achieve if I worked at this for a few weeks, a few months or an entire year?”

Again, you can see how I organized my Advanced Training by applying here.

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