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Should we transfer or transform information at conferences?

Like all the memes that start with ‘there are two types of people’, we believe ‘there are two types of conferences’, irrespective of whether they are in person or virtual: those that merely impart information, hoping the audience will glean the important bits and be on their merry way; and those that look to transform information.

When we say “transform information”, we don’t mean a panel discussion that picks a topic apart. Nor are we referring to the Q&A at the end of a session. We’re talking about a situation where a problem is posed and the participants, in small breakout groups, collectively work to find solutions (you can even do it on virtual platforms!) They then return to the plenary and share their findings and thoughts for the benefit of all, where further debate and refinement can be done.

Yes, it could be argued there’s a place for conferences featuring one-way communication when it comes to new and novel research findings or technological advances. But even then, why not open the matter up for critical review? Surely through dissecting, discussing and debating the subject matter, a potentially better solution could be stumbled upon?

So why don’t more conference organisers truly tap the “knowledge in the room”, and build something transformative? Here’s our take on it:

They don’t know how to

Truly transformative events are rare, meaning that not many conference producers have experience in staging them, especially in the virtual space. There isn’t a rule book either, because by their very nature they are highly customised and tailored to each audience’s specific requirements and their desired outcomes.

They’re a lot harder to organise

Yep, it’s a lot more work than just deciding on some topics and then finding a clutch of presenters to spout their opinions. With a transformative event, it all begins with research and carefully crafted programme design, then you need to review who’s "in the room" and construct the best way to get them collaborating. The latter is challenging enough for a live event, but it's even harder with a virtual event. It is possible though!

They require more manpower

In our opinion, moderation and facilitation are essential for any successful conference to truly deliver value. But for transformative events you can’t just appoint a chairperson and leave them to read a bio before a presentation and thank the presenters after. They need to actively manage the proceedings and help guide participants towards their goals. Meaning this is a job for a professional, someone with experience in listening and interpreting information as much as speaking. And preferably someone comfortable with tech if you're talking a virtual event.

They cost more

Given all the above, there’s the need to invest more when staging a transformative event, especially in terms of manpower for research, design and delivery. But that’s the thing – done right, it’s an investment. And in our experience the difference in outcomes more than outweighs the costs.

As an added bonus, if you’re staging a pay-to-attend or join event, you will find a lot more participants will see the VALUE when you offer the opportunity to join a transformative event, taking away one of the major objections anyone in conference sales knows all too well.

And what do participants at a transformative event think? Here’s what we commonly hear: "It was an experience rather than a conference”; "Name any other industry conference with this concrete of an action plan and strong commitment to act"; “The memories are still vivid in my mind”.

So the next time you’re planning a conference, ask yourself if you want to simply transfer information or transform it. Do you want to stage an enjoyable but largely forgettable affair, or create vivid memories? We know which one we’d pick.

And given the challenges the world is presently facing, we'd argue we need more of such, to help communities look towards "what's next?"...


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