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The Red Thread of conferences

Think about the last bad movie you watched. Aside from potentially questionable acting and wonky film direction, we can almost guarantee it was the storyline that was lacking. A well-crafted, original storyline, with a clear and purposeful journey from the opening scene to the last, makes or breaks a movie.

The same is true of conferences.

Poorly done, they are nothing more than a collection of disjointed thoughts and opinions, usually badly presented and rarely imparting anything original and therefore of real value. As a result they waste valuable time and money for participants and organisers alike.

As is the case for any blockbuster movie, it all depends on effective story telling.

For starters, there needs to be an overall theme that gives focus as well as purpose to every session, bound together with a theoretical “red thread”. Each session should have clear outcomes that link back to the theme.

In practical terms this means a participant experiences the sense of being on a journey…

It begins with the conference opening*, which should set the scene for the event, and importantly, articulate the expected outcomes. This is preferably delivered by someone either serving as a facilitator for the entire event’s proceedings, or a charismatic chairperson who is deemed a respected industry thought leader.

This is then extended to each and every session, regardless of format, length or location. And the purpose of each session is simple: to support what was set up at the opening of the conference. The litmus test here is: if you can’t easily explain why a session is on the programme and its link to the overall theme, then it probably shouldn’t be there.

That doesn’t mean each session has to directly touch a key “problem” that the conference is looking to tackle. There’s real value to be had in taking a more imaginative route sometimes: perhaps involving an outside perspective to inspire a new way of thinking; or utilising an engaging exercise to get participants to “workshop” ideas that might otherwise lay dormant.

Finally, the closing session(s) should serve as a meaningful summary of the proceedings and, format permitting, even allow for some type of formal annotation of the great ideas shared and discussed. The key here is to ensure that individual participants are clear on what they were invited to participate in and the respective opportunities they now possess to take things forward.

As an added bonus, having a Red Thread also provides clear direction when guiding and coaching presenters on their contribution. That said, presenters should have only been chosen if they were aligned with, and added value to, the theme and participant journey in the first place!

- Team UC

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*Priya Parker, author of “Art of Gathering”, rightly observes that the beginning and ending of any gathering is when you have the full attention of those gathered – and often we waste this on logistics about where the bathrooms are and what time lunch is. She suggests that we start instead, with a compelling purpose for why we are gathered and what we hope to achieve by being together in the room. Priya also has a great TED Talk on this.


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