Four Ways To Get Your Conference Education Out Of A Rut

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Ruts. We all have them.

A rut is a settled or established habit or course of action, especially a boring one. It is usually a boring, predictable, stale routine.

So, is your conference education stuck in a rut? Have you created predictable tracks and paths?

If you’re like most meeting professionals, you start planning for next year’s conference with good intentions and end up with the same format and tracks. Often you have very few new faces at the podium. The end result is a cookie-cutter experience.

Audiences Want An Education Refresh

If you want to retain and grow your audience, breathing new life into your conference education is a must. Here are four quick fixes to consider that will help you design an improved conference experience:

1. Make the Content Current

Results of a survey of 250 association professionals, conducted by Velvet Chainsaw and Tagoras in September, indicated that about 75 percent of respondents use a speaker’s call-for-presentations process that closes nine to 10 months before the annual conference. Attendees often complain that education is too basic and outdated.

The Fix: Re-examine your call-for-presentations deadline and shrink it to six to eight months out from the conference. Program 80 percent of your sessions for the initial marketing push, leaving holes that can be filled with relevant and timely topics. Announcing newly added sessions in the weeks leading up to your meeting is a drip-marketing campaign strategy that helps attract hold-out registrants. Consider an exclusivity clause in your speaker agreements stating that their content will be presented first at your conference and not presented at another event for an extended period of time.

2. Identify Content Gaps

Conferences that rely solely on the call-for-presentations process rarely produce the education that your participants need most.

The Fix: Prior to opening up your call-for-papers, survey or crowdsource your primary audience segments to gain an understanding of their major problems. Make it clear that proposals that map to your primary audience segment needs will be given greater consideration. After plotting the initial program based on the problems, then see which proposals match to the needs. Then seek out presenters that fill any missing gaps.

3. Coach Industry Speakers

Sending speaker communication to manuals or speaker portals isn’t enough. Much of this type of communication is ignored and focuses on logistical needs versus education excellence.

The Fix: Helps speakers prepare content that is current and includes audience participation. On average, it takes about eight hours to prepare a one-hour presentation. Are your presenters putting in this  much time?

A common attendee complaint is “there wasn’t enough time for the session.” Make sure your presenters are focused on the three-to-five things they want the learner to recall. Content reduction and laser focus should be your mantra.

4. Continuous Improvement

According to the survey referenced previously, only 70 percent of conference organizers ask attendees to rate each speaker in their session evaluations. If you want an improvement, you must have better data.

The Fix: Keep a speaker database or Excel workbook with ratings. Session evaluations should evaluate each speaker’s style, delivery and knowledge. Also, survey whether the presentation matched the learning objectives. Top speakers should be invited back and will need less coaching. The intent is to invite back only the cream of the crop. The top 25 percent is a good rule of thumb.

Leadership Participation is a Must

If your organization’s leaders are not actively attending and participating in the conference education, that needs to change. No board or committee meeting is as important as participating fully in the education and networking experience alongside those professionals that organizational leaders serve. Don’t allow these conflicts during official conference education.

Adapted from Dave’s People & Processes column in PCMA’s November 2011 edition of Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2012.

Why do you think some conference organizers resist change and cling tightly to their traditional call-for-presentation methods?  What are some tips that you would add to this list to improve conference education?

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  1. Warwick says:


    Great article, it’s the same thing for the most part in for profit conferences. Building events is a lot of work and many organizations default to the processes they have used before, so the the ways conferences are built may or not fit the audience need. On top of this many conference organizers have no idea what ‘keeps their attendees up at night’ and if they do, they sometimes don’t know how to take that knowledge and turn it into programming that ‘sticks’ ie that you can go back to your company and use the information from the conference and use it to improve things.

    Looking forward to further dialogue on the subject.


  2. Dave Lutz says:

    Warwick, thanks for stopping by and adding your experience from the for profit show organizer perspective. With attendance acquisition being a major focus for all segments, it’s critical that premium face2face experiences up their game to better compete on the education firing lines.

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