How To Run Your Greatest Conference Ever
By Graham Jones
Like most good achievements, a magnificent meeting depends on planning and preparation. These are essential to a good conference and this article explains the basics of what you need to do.
The first stage in organising any conference is planning. Your plan should start with these questions:
In other words, start your planning with your meeting’s overall objectives. Write these objectives down and ensure that everyone involved knows them - from people who hand out the coffee to the speakers themselves. The answers to these questions will be your mission statement for the meeting. You must have a clear set of simple objectives for your meeting otherwise it will fail.
- What do we want our audience to go home and say about the meeting, apart from the fact that they had a great time?
- What is the key message we want our audience to remember?
- What action do we want our audience to take after attending this conference?
Having set your objectives you will need to work out how you will achieve them. Challenge all your assumptions about your proposed conference. For instance:
In other words, just because you have been set the task of organising a conference, does not mean you have to! If there is an alternative, superior method of achieving your objectives, choose that route instead. Do not opt for a conference just because it seems a good idea.
- Do you actually need a conference to achieve your objectives? Will some other kind of meeting or even no meeting do?
- Do you need one big meeting or a number of small, more intimate ones?
- Does the meeting need to be a grand formal affair, or an informal get-together?
Choose your key messages
Assuming you have set your sights on a conference, you’ll now need to work out what messages you want to convey. These will arise from your mission statement. It is worthwhile noting, though, that there is plenty of research to back up the fact that your audience – no matter how expert – will only remember a handful of messages from your meeting. Typically, the average conference day can only deliver four or five main messages.
Once you have set out your key messages, work out the order in which these will make most sense. Try to produce a logical sequence so that one key message clearly comes out of the previous one. This will make it much easier for your audience to remember the meeting. Do not put your messages together in some kind of internal sequence, such as by company department. Instead, put your messages together that would be seen as logical by the audience. If you do not know what would be logical to them, you need to do some audience research to find out. Indeed, finding out as much as you can about your audience is essential to any meeting.
Describe your audience
You now have a good idea as to what you want to say at your conference. But who will be listening? You need a definition of your audience that will help everyone involved. Your audience definition should describe a typical member of the audience – age, gender, job title, work interests, personal likes and dislikes, professional qualifications etc. Together with your conference mission statement and your key messages, your audience description will provide you with a very clear outline of your meeting. Together these three items will tell you:
Your audience description will also provide your speakers with a good guide as to what they need to say in order to get their message across. Knowing who they are speaking to is a tremendous boost for speakers as they can much more accurately target their talks.
- What you will say
- Why you will say it
- Who will be listening
- What they will do
You have now completed all the main parts of your initial planning and your need to move on to detailed preparation.
Preparing your conference
The first stage of preparation is script writing. You need at the very least an outline script of your event. Often, people produce a conference programme that shows the timings and the list of speakers. But this is not enough. Your outline script needs to be much more than a simple programme. That’s because everyone involved in the conference needs to know exactly what will happen, when it will occur and how it will take place. Otherwise, it might not be possible to ensure you meet your conference mission.
Your script should start with the logical order of your key messages you produced in the planning stage. Then allocate some timing to each message. Generally, no key message should take longer than 20-30 minutes to deliver; the human attention span is comparatively short and you’ll need plenty of breaks to keep your audience ‘alive’ and ‘fresh’. Also, at this stage, decide where to hold your long breaks, like coffee, lunch and so on. These long breaks should always come in your programme at dramatic points. You will want to leave your audience with something powerful to talk about so make sure the key message delivered before a break is controversial, emotional or surprising in some way. This will keep your audience on their toes and wanting to come back into the room for more. This means you may well need to arrange breaks at unusual timings – don’t opt for coffee at 11am, for instance, because that is ‘normal’. Instead, put coffee immediately after a controversial message, even if it means breaking for coffee at 10.30 or 11.30. In other words, shape your meeting around the messages, not tradition. By arranging your timing in this way, you will be helping to ensure the maximum impact of your key messages and therefore supporting your conference mission.
Your conference script can now have some detail added to it. For instance, you can now put some specific times onto your programme. These would include the length of each presentation, the length of each link between talks and the timing of any music, video or other multimedia you are planning to include. In other words, your conference script that determines how long a video or a presentation will be – not the items that determine the programme timing. Essentially, you are working much like a TV producer; these people have fixed times available to them – 30 minutes, 50 minutes, an hour. What they have to do is fit all the music, the dialogue and any breaks into that time – no less and no more. That’s what a professional conference script will be like – detailed timings of every item to be included. Far too many conferences decide what to include and then try to work the timings out afterwards.
Choosing your speakers
Your preparation can now move on to deciding whom you should use as speakers. You will realise that you have done a great deal of work already, and that the speakers will have to fit in with your plans if the conference is to be a success. You do not need prima donnas who say they need an hour to give their talk when your script only allows 20 minutes. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is more important than your audience. Hence, the script that has been prepared from their point of view is virtually sacrosanct. Speakers will need to be the kind of people who will fit in with your requirements; you cannot allow yourself to fit your programme around the speakers. Otherwise, you will fail to meet your conference mission. To ensure that you get the right speakers, prepare yourself a ‘Speaker’s Contract’. This is a list of requirements that you have of your speakers. When you invite someone to speak, you let them sign up to the contract; if they don’t like it, there are plenty of other speakers around. Professional speakers never have a problem with such contracts. In fact, they like them.
Suitable speakers are those that can deliver your key messages – not necessarily the most senior people in the business or an expert. Base your decision on who should speak based on their ability to communicate with your audience – not on any other measure. This means, for instance, that the best person to get a particular message across might be a senior manager, rather than the chief executive. This does not matter – what does matter is that the audience gets the message, not who they get it from. Indeed, some large multinationals use actors to get important messages across, rather then senior executives.
Having selected your speakers and got them to sign up to your contract, the next stage of preparation is working with them to write their talks. Under no circumstances should you allow a speaker to do this alone. If you do, you will lose control over your messages and your overall conference mission. In other words, speakers are going to need to work closely with you and accept their talks being edited – even written for them. In fact, many top company conferences use scriptwriters who produce all of the talks for all of the speakers. That way the delivery of key messages and the conference mission is tightly controlled. Of course, this does not mean your speakers can have no input. Their contributions are highly valuable. It just means you need to get them to work with a professional writer who can take their material and shape into something that fits with the overall conference objectives. Speakers will usually only be interested in their talk; hence they can disturb the balance of the meeting as they are not properly focused on the conference as a whole. Using a scriptwriter means that you can ensure that the meeting does not become unbalanced in any way.
Preparing audio visuals
The scripts for each talk can be the basis for the preparation of visuals for the conference. Often, speakers fall into the trap of preparing their slides and then trying to write their talk around them. This means presentations can often drift and lose the attention of the audience as they are not tightly controlled. By writing the words first, it is possible to choose visuals that are much more accurately linked to the material being said. Also, being able to read the text of a talk allows graphic artists to be more creative as they know exactly what the speaker is trying to convey. Never start a talk with visuals – always write the text first and add the visuals later.
Preparing the venue
You have now reached the stage where you have a detailed timetable of the programme, the words that will be said and the visuals that will accompany them. You now need to make sure that the environment in which all this activity will take place is set up to help you achieve your mission. You will need to visit the venue a number of times to prepare efficiently and effectively. You will need to look out for the ways in which your audience will pass through the building – gain a good idea of ‘foot flow’. Make sure the building is going to help you achieve what you want. If modifications are needed, such as barriers or signage, get them organised now. You will also need to work out items like seating arrangements for the audience and the speakers, as well as lighting, acoustics and a host of other ‘production’ factors. If you are not experienced in this aspect of conference organisation, you will need the advice of a professional conference director or a conference production company. Don’t make the mistake of getting these people in after you have made your decisions about the venue and your meeting. Get these people in early; seek their advice and their input to your preparation. These people organise many conferences and know all the problems – and more importantly can come up with solutions to any difficulties you may face. If you have already organised your mission statement for the meeting and drawn up your list of key messages, a conference producer will be so much more able to help.
Under no circumstances should you allow a conference to go ahead without rehearsal. Otherwise, the event itself will be the first rehearsal. Can you imagine seeing a play’s first rehearsal? Even professional actors can improve upon their first attempts. Yet, you are likely to be using people without such skills as your presenters. Hence, their first rehearsal is almost certainly going to be quite bad, compared with the final performance. If you do not have any rehearsals, your conference will be nothing more than a bunch of amateurs trying to do their best, and probably failing. You simply must rehearse; otherwise you will be unable to meet your objectives.
Ideally, you should rehearse each speaker alone, several weeks in advance. Get a presentations coach to guide them through some key improvements and to help them learn some stage skills. If you have people who are new to speaking at conferences, get them some basic training. Then, get your speakers together so they can perform a ‘run through’. In this way, everyone will know what will take place and the order of the event. They will also get a ‘feel’ for the detailed timetable. These kinds of rehearsals can be in any large room – a hotel, a village hall, it doesn’t really matter. However, you will also want your speakers to feel comfortable with the venue, so you will need them to run through their talks on the actual stage they will be using. Do this a week or two in advance, so they can go away and think about any changes in delivery they need to make and get a chance to practice them. Finally, the day before the conference you should have a full ‘dress rehearsal’ – lights, cameras, visuals etc. Only then will your conference mission be achievable. To do any less is to accept second best.
Guiding your helpers
Throughout the conference planning and organising process you will doubtless have a team of assistants, from admin to graphic artists to people who hand out the badges to the audience. All of these people should know what is happening at every stage of the process. For this reason you should produce a complete guide to the conference – a manual for the team involved. This should show all the detailed times, include important information about the venue, the hotels being used and so on. Make sure all the important contact information is included and instructions are added as to what to do in all sorts of eventualities. This manual will be the ‘bible’ which every ‘back stage’ participant will need to use to ensure the event runs smoothly. In the professional theatre, such manuals are an established means of ensuring the production runs smoothly. Initially developed by the producer, these manuals eventually become the stage manager’s rulebook for running the show. Your manual should do just the same.
On the day
Firstly, don’t worry. Secondly, don’t panic. If you have done all the planning and preparation thoroughly, any difficulties at this stage will be minor. Whatever happens ‘the show must go on’. So, sit back and enjoy watching the audience have a good time. If you have planned it effectively, they will. Well done.
Graham Jones runs The Presentation Business at http://www.presentationbiz.com to help you make great presentations and run magnificent meetings.
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