Four Conference Model Options


Once upon a time, many, many moons ago, in the days of old, in the rooms of the Inn, in the city of yonder, the time-honored, habitually-replicated, customary conference experience was basically always the same.

It was one-directional, from organizers to attendees.

Today, meeting professionals can select from a variety of conference models to customize the experience. Here are four conference model options.

Vertical Engagement: One-Directional


In the past, conference organizers constructed a schedule, selected a few orators, sold empty exhibit hall space to those peddling their wares, packaged the entire thing and pushed it out to potential buyers. The goal was to attract a buying audience that would consume the event.

The only way the audience could communicate with conference organizers was through smile-sheet evaluations or talking with a conference rep. When the organization decided it wanted to know how attendees felt about something, they hired a company to conduct market-research.

The conference experience was vertical, one-directional, from the organization and its speakers to the attendees. The attempt was to control the conference experience, the message and ultimately, what the audience was thinking.

Vertical Engagement: Two-Directional


Then some savvy meeting organizer felt that the conference experience lacked something. The audience needed a way to ask speakers questions.

Organizers made a slight adjustment to the process allowing some in the audience to ask the speaker a question. A handful of the audience suddenly had a voice. The “Question and Answer” time was born.

The conference experience was still mostly vertical, one-directional, from the organization and its speakers to the attendees. But it had evolved from a monologue to a minor, rudimentary dialogue with a few chosen ones.

The organization still attempted to control the conference experience and message for their audience.

Horizontal Engagement: Two-Directional


In the early days of the Internet, people connected and problem solved online. Thus, a collaborative, audience-centric conference model began to grow.

In 1993 the Open Space Technology (not related to technology) conference model was born. In OST conferences, participants create and manage their own agendas around core themes, usually decided once on site.

A decade later, Unconferences and “Bar Camps” gained notoriety. Also known as a Peer Conferences, likeminded individuals gathered to share and learn from each other instead of the organization’s contracted speaker.

Audiences discovered they had a voice. Communication was primarily horizontal from attendee to attendee without the organization’s involvement. Speakers were no longer needed as the audience was the expert. The organization’s role was to secure a venue and manage registration and meals. The schedule, content and experience were designed by participants.

Organizations had no control and very little influence on the message, the content and the experience.

Multi-Directional Engagement


As Web 2.0 grew, people became accustomed to a more collaborative, participatory, online experience. The rise of social networks, the ability to create (content, comments, posts, videos) and the opportunities to participate with each other online created a unique customized experience.

Because of the horizontal engagement forces online, people expected the same thing in the face-to-face experience. Audiences demanded that they have a voice during conferences or took them online via mobile devices for the world to see. Suddenly, audiences had a new influence as word-of-mouth of the conference experience scaled easily.

The Multi-Directional Engagement conference experience took the best from both horizontal and vertical models. Conference organizers created central themes of strategic importance for the experience. They curated content and secured the best thought leader-speakers whose messages aligned with the strategic threading. Not satisfied with just a speaker monologue, organizers intentionally designed additional peer-driven experiences that allowed participants to discuss and reflect on strategic issues.

The organization realized it could influence the message, the audience and the experience instead of trying to control it. Organizers saw attendees as active participants and not passive audiences.

Which of these conference models do you prefer and why? What are the pros and cons of some of these conference models?

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  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Jeff. The Multi-Directional model is my preference – sets the stage for richer conversations.

    * Horizontal is a step in the right direction, but #1 impact on quality of exchanges is WHO you’re seated near — often, a random choice. Perhaps pre-event survey might guide assigned seating? A bit controlling, but it helps when you’re surrounded by like-minded folks who are tackling similar issues. Add a seat rotation every 20 minutes and things could get interesting.

    Don’t want to get too caught up in semantics, but just using the word “speaker” tempts us to fall back into comfortable one-directional grooves. Facilitators? Getting warmer, but they’re supposed to be neutral — often the best conversations come from candid sharing of opinions & experiences.

    Troubadours? Defined as “wandering singers or minstrels.” So maybe there are a few Thought Leader Troubadours who get things started with compelling stories to frame small group discussions — then they wander the room, listen, and chime in to stir up even richer exchanges at the tables.

  2. Traci Browne says:

    I love Donna’s idea of Troubadours! Can we all steal it???

    There are times I want a pure open space conference and times I prefer your multi-directional definition. I don’t think there is one right way. It depends on the audience.

    As I work more and more with the open space concept I can tell you one thing I’ve learned. The world is pretty open to this idea. It is popular across all industries with one exception. The events industry. It scares the bejesus out of them even to the point they are afraid to try it for themselves.

  3. Troubadours that’s funny. I totally agree with seat rotation as I do not want to process over and over again with same two seat mates.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yeah, I agree that the quality of the exchange depends upon who you’re conversing with and who is in the room. Your thoughts about the right word for the leader of a education session are important. We need to find a better word that helps manage participants’ expectations too. I’ve thought about the words “content guide” or docents.

      So true…there is not one right way…it depends on the audience and the goals of the experience. I think there will always be those that fear open space because of the fear of the unknown…just saying.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Seat rotation definitely has its place for some experiences, especially if the audience is trying to learn from peers in attendance. Thanks for adding to the discussion1

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