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9 format ideas to take your next conference from drab to fab

Business conferences get a bad rap, and when most tend to be boring PPT fests, one can hardly blame the critics. If you want to avoid falling into the trap of putting on a conference that no one wants to go to, and certainly won’t enjoy being at, here’s our list of nine format ideas to take your event from drab to fab:

1. Campfire

This starts like any other presentation, with a speaker (or speakers) presenting an idea to a group of people. Then the focus shifts from the presenter to the audience and the presenter essentially becomes a facilitator, inviting questions, comments, and experience sharing from the room.

Thankfully we’re seeing this format being adopted more and more. And for good reason. It balances a presentation with audience participation, creating a real dialogue around a topic, and true engagement in the process. For this to work the key is to have the right group size and right seating arrangement.

2. Speed presenting

Warning: This format is not for the disorganised! It's basically a twist on the well-known concept of speed dating, based on having 10 min to try and impress your potential future life partner, but this time presenters have 10 min with the microphone.

This forces the presenter to focus only on the important points and may even lead to less PPT fatigue (gasp), as there’s simply no time to scroll through 50 slides. This in turn means the audience is much more likely to remain engaged - because if they don’t focus, they might well miss the most important nugget being shared!

3. Fishbowl

Fishbowls involve 3-6 individuals seated in the centre of a room, while the rest of the participants sit around them in a circle, with a facilitator usually moderating the proceedings. Then you decide whether to have the conversation be exclusively between the selected individuals in the centre, or have one or more the “chairs” open to the audience to ask questions or make comments.

This format is particularly useful for events where the audience is large and there’s a risk of it not feeling intimate or engaging enough.

4. Pick a side!

This is an interactive session that gets people up out of the seats – as they literally have to walk to a part of the room to indicate a response to a question.

Not only does this create a strong visual representation of the answer to a question (much more so than hands in the air), it also creates an opportunity for participants to “connect” over a common belief or experience. So get them voting with their feet!

5. Group therapy

Participants are divided into groups (maximum 10-12 people) and each person takes it in turns to present their problem for the group to brainstorm possible solutions in 5-minute cycles.

This helps all participants feel like they’ve had a chance to not only receive a range of ideas from peers, but also hear best practice from others as the session continues. It also opens up the opportunity to find others in the group struggling with the same challenges, taking the value of the event well beyond the event day(s) themselves.

6. Open mic

This is similar to a fishbowl, with active participants surrounded by listeners. But it’s without a facilitator, meaning anyone can ‘take the mic’ and enter the inner circle to share something, and must stop when someone else approaches them to take over.

The format is great for allowing a variety of viewpoints to be heard, but clear topics of discussion should be established to ensure the conversation doesn’t lose momentum or get taken over by errant ‘railroaders’!

7. Shark Tank

Made famous by the TV series, this format is ideal for presenting projects, demonstrating technology or pitching something. With the help of a facilitator, participants are invited to the stage and have 3-5 minutes to share their ideas. After 5-7 pitches, either a judging panel or the audience is asked to vote on their favourite.

This is a high involvement session that creates real energy and is a lot of fun, making it a true crowd-pleaser. It also lends an air of being “current” as it takes a mainstream concept and brings it to an audience that might not have experienced it before.

8. Game Show

Another way to inject some fun into proceedings is to assemble teams of speakers, Family Fortune-style, to see how well they understand the challenges faced by the audience. To set up, poll the audience and have them vote on answers to select questions. Next, the speakers are asked to guess the top answers e.g. “What do delegates think is the biggest challenge facing the ABC industry right now?”.

No matter whether they get it right or wrong, it’s still a great way to deliver the results of the poll to the delegates.

9. Time to reflect

Usually the final session of a conference, participants privately reflect on three to five issues the event set out to address. Participants note their thoughts down, then they have an opportunity, but no an obligation, to share them with the group. You could take it one step further and have them write down their thoughts on post-its that are then pasted onto the ‘group wall’ of commitment.

The intention of this is to reinforce learning and create commitments to make changes based on the insights and experiences at the event.

- Team UC

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