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Has your annual conference become predictable?
Do participants show up to the general session late because they know it starts with business for 20-30 minutes before the keynote?
Predictable meetings, routine conferences
Predictable: behaving in a way that is expected and can be predicted; can be prophesied; can be foretold; to declare or indicate in advance; especially: foretell on the basis of observation, experience, or scientific reason.
It starts with an opening general session, where everyone is seated theater style facing the front of the room. At the front is a stage with a couple of screens. Entertainment opens the session followed by a customary welcome, announcement of sponsors, parade of important people and then a keynote presenter or maybe a panel.
Following this, there are breakouts. Most of those rooms are set theater-style too as people passively listen to speakers or panels.
Then there is a break followed by more breakouts. Next is lunch, seated in rounds of 10 or 12. After lunch comes guess what? More breakouts.
This pattern is repeated for a couple of days with little variation except that there is usually dedicated time in day two and three to visit the tradeshow. And there might be a couple of evening receptions or parties.
The unforgettable conference called summer camp
I remember as a teenager going to a summer camp in Saranac Lake, N.Y. It was an unforgettable experience, full of surprise and wow moments. The typical summer camp was turned on its head from the moment I arrived on the bus, being faux hijacked by camp counselors dressed in over-exaggerated clownish costumes, forced off the bus at the camp entrance and then marched around to see the camp’s facilities with a make shift band playing pots and pans.
Suddenly, two of my friends were no longer in line behind me. I turned around and saw them whoosh by me on the camp’s water chutes. I then felt the tap on my shoulder and three counselors pulled me aside. They asked if I could swim, if I was afraid of heights and if I was ready for the unexpected. Little did I know that I was going to be put into a harness for para-sailing on the lake in front of my peers.
It was unpredictable. Camp organizers might wake us up at 2 in the morning for a surprise bonfire, marshmallow roast and impromptu firewalking experience. Or we would have lunch where we had to decode and prioritize a menu that included our utensils and food. It was tough eating green beans without a plate or fork.
It was safe yet thrilling. It was unexpected. I was encouraged to relax, enjoy and go with the flow of the finely tuned well-orchestrated experience.
The conference camp experience?
So, why aren’t annual conferences like that? Is it because we must behave like adults? Is it because we fear change?
What could we do to shake it up a little? How could we create an annual conference that was unpredictable, unexpected and had a huge WOW factor?
What type of support do we need to shake up the conference experience? Should conferences be predictable or not and why?
Jeff Hurt is education and engagement director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. This column appeared originally on his blog at Midcourse Corrections.