This is part 2 in our series rounding up the “research” we carried out into Redesigning the Conference Experience. Part one focused on ways to make networking more effective and inclusive. Next we’re going to look at ways to improve the typical conference session.

The content in these sessions is the main focus of the marketing efforts at big conferences. Whether it’s the superstar gurus of the learning or technology scenes, or a great case study, content still matters and content is what sells tickets and exhibit space.

Is content really king or are we just victims of celebrity culture?

Why are we so focused on speaker content? It’s a little odd. Most people who go to conferences agree that networking adds more value than speaker content, yet most of the hype around a conference centres on who is speaking. Booking the biggest names in the business is still the best way to raise the profile of your event and sells tickets, even though most of what the speakers will say is already available online.

Does this fascination stem from the wider culture of celebrity, or is it another indicator that audiences still don’t realise how much you can discover online for free?

Or perhaps as Phil Green suggested, the best speakers can create “a true buzz shared in the physical space”. At their best the emotional response these experiences trigger, can transform careers and for some people just one great new idea justifies the ticket price.

With the predictability of your average multiple choice question, the correct answer is:D: All of the above

Whilst you can find everything a speaker is likely to talk about with a little research, conferences provide an unusual learning opportunity. Rather like frog spawn it’s a bubble-like environment where you’re surrounded by like minded souls (and salespeople – maybe think of them as the slime?) who all want to share in the development process. In other words you are primed to learn at a conference. The day-to-day distractions of work and family are removed to leave a kind of tunnel vision.

Some people like that. Sometimes you need that.

Superstar Speakers. Time to go?

It’s kind of odd, ironic perhaps, that we spend so much time deriding sage on a stage methods of learning and then fill our conference programmes with them. Ironic too that we berate poorly designed slide decks and yet conferences are full of them too. No amount of passive aggressive back channel criticism will stop that – universal design rules for all conference content would though, wouldn’t it?

Why are the majority of conference sessions, so passive and why do most people accept that?

Like networking it’s partly down to the structure of the agenda and the choice of venue. If you limit speakers to 30 minute or hour long sessions, which in reality end up being 20 and 45 minutes, you make it hard to do something meaningfully interactive.

The layout of the rooms is another major factor. If everyone is sat in rigid lines facing the front, they are less likely to start up a conversation than if they are sat around a table with 5 or 6 other people. Of course you couldn’t fit as many people in a room, or sell as many tickets.

Room set up is critical to making sessions work, presenters need to be well briefed on the limitations of the room so they can make the best of whatever they are given. They should also be briefed on the audience. There is a lot that could be done to connect audiences and speakers before during and after their sessions.


If you persuade your audience to choose their sessions early on, it becomes easier for the speaker to connect with them before the conference. Speakers can share some of their content so the audience has a common foundation level of knowledge about the topic. The audience can ask questions in advance to help the speaker plan their session more effectively. Why not use Google Moderator, a free tool that lets an audience ask questions online and vote them up. Speakers can and in some cases already do things like this, but they don’t work unless the conference organisers integrate them into the marketing and communications plan.


As I said above, room layout has a big impact on interaction, so where it makes sense, avoid theatre style setups. But if you really can’t avoid piling them high, use voting sets or something similar. Can’t afford voting handsets? No problem try a mobile solution like Poll Everywhere or SMS Poll

Why are sessions always an hour long? Ok some are made up of two half hour sessions, but it makes little sense. Either make them longer or make them shorter. I’d rather watch a bunch of short sharp pithy ignite talks (about 5 minutes each) and then have a chat with the presenter, than watch someone pad out an hour long session.

Or give people long enough to really do something interesting. At UX London and Lift they run your typical conference sessions in the morning then after lunch you choose one 3 or 4 hour workshop with an industry leading professional. During this session you actually get to make something useful, instead of just listening and talking.

If we play around with the session duration and start times, people could actually jump ship when they find themselves in a session they aren’t enjoying and join something else, without feeling like a pariah.


Make it easier to talk to the speakers after the sessions. Why not run less formal conversation groups later in the day when people have had a chance to reflect on the sessions. Towards Maturity did this to great effect with the Exchange sessions at Learning Technologies this year. Let’s see more of that.

For more ideas on this topics make sure you check out Craig Taylor’s recent post.

These are all incremental improvements, what we’d really like to see is more creativity and courage in the way conferences are designed. Why should unconferences be confined to their current niche? Why are conference mobile apps so unimaginative? Why don’t we make better use of gathering so many talented people in one place?

In our final post of this series we’ll dare to think a little bigger…

Thanks again to everyone that contributed to all the conversations. In no particular order they were:

  • Barry Sampson
  • Clive Shepherd
  • Julie Dirksen
  • Mike Collins
  • Gill Chester
  • Mark Sheppard
  • David Havis
  • Andy Nock
  • Dan Roddy
  • Sarah Moran
  • Robert Weeks
  • John Curran
  • Alexei Hnatiw
  • Rebecca Gibbs
  • Brett Gillman
  • Craig Wiggins
  • Craig Taylor
  • Pedro Fernandes
  • Phil Green
  • David Lindenberg
  • Andy Wooler
  • Tia Carr Williams
  • Hayley Brown
  • Adam Harwood
  • Lorna Matty
  • Luke Hutchison
  • Martin Couzins
  • Ed Bernacki
Post by: Sam Burrough (39 Posts)