Four Basic Conference Principles You Must Adopt

Water down the drain

Brain drain or brain fuel?

Which would you rather create for your conference attendees?

Brain fuel for sure! Unfortunately, most conferences are nothing more than brain drains.

The Traditional Conference Tension

Conference organizers have to balance a common tension: fill seats versus creating a unique attendee experience. Usually, conference organizers land on the side of trying to fill as many seats as possible. Their solution to this challenge is to secure as many presenters and topics as possible. Their belief is that they more they offer, they more they will attract.

The result of providing as many presenters and topics as possible? Brain drain!

Just count the number of people in sessions versus the number in the hallways, coffee shops, and restaurants. If less registrants are in the sessions, the conference sessions have become a numbing brain drain.

If you want to create brain fuel for your attendees, you will have to step away from the traditional conference format. While the traditional conference format is efficient, it is not very effective. To create conference brain fuel, you have to plan some things differently.

You might want take some lessons from the Neuroleadership Institute’s Summits (NIS) where the goal is to create brain-friendly conferences.

Lessons From Neuroleadership For Conferences

NIS focuses on sharing neuroscience research that transforms how people think, develop and perform. After four years of conferences, they realized that their own annual meeting went against the brain science being shared at the conference. So they redesigned the experience.

Four Basic Conference Principles You Should Apply

Here are four basic conference principles from NIS based on solid brain science that you should consider and apply at your next conference.

1. Ideas are like food. We need to allow for digestion time.

Conference organizers need to intentionally schedule adult-white space for their conference attendees. Attendees need time to download, process and digest the information they just heard. The NIS provides 30 minutes breaks during the morning of the first day. In the afternoon the move to 60 minute breaks. On the second day the provide 90 minute breaks. They also encourage their attendees to take a 30 to 45 minute nap each day so their brains are refreshed and ready to think about new information.

The NIS leadership also works with speakers so that attendees are given time during presentations to think and digest the information they are receiving. 10 minutes of Q & A at the end of the presentation is not adequate digestion. Their rule of thumb is that every ten minutes of a presentation there needs to be one of the following:

  • Peer discussion of the ideas
  • An exercise that attendees do alone or with another person
  • Specific discussion of application or implication of the ideas
  • Standard Q & A

2. Social rules. Foster more time for people to connect.

One of the reasons people come to conferences is to meet other like-minded individuals. NIS built into their schedule specific time for people to meet each other during every session. Each session starts with people introducing themselves to the other seven people at their table. They also provide seated breakfasts, lunch and dinners for people to connect with others.

3. Do less and do it really well.

Sometimes less is really more! NIS limited their schedule to four breakouts per day. Instead of offering a smorgasbord buffet of everything possible, NIS went for quality. This is challenging for organizers because the focus becomes what is most important to offer and what can we omit. NIS admits this is probably not a good possibility for larger conferences but the concept of focusing on quality still applies to all conferences.

4. Work with, not against, the natural flow of energy.

Conference organizers should acknowledge and recognize the natural ebb and flow of their attendees’ mental energy during a normal day. The schedule should align with this natural flow. Here are some tips NIS offers:

  • Place big ideas at the beginning of the event when people can still digest them. Then weave throughout the remainder of the event.
  • Use the morning for big ideas and the afternoon for application of those ideas.
  • Programs after lunch should have lots of attendee interaction.
  • Decrease the length of sessions on the second and third days.
  • Put people into smaller groups after lunch for interaction. The smaller groups help keep them awake.

More from the Neuroleadership Institute on learning and conferences: Using AGES To Design Brain Friendly Conferences

Which of these four tips would be easy for you to implement immediately? How can your conference adopt allowing for more digestion time at your next event?

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  1. Paul Salinger says:


    So funny that you posted this just now since I’m designing the GMIC conference for next April right now and incorporating some of these ideas. Want to collaborate with me? 🙂


  2. When breaks are too long you lose people. Usually events are too packed without enough breaks and people get restless.

    A balancing act. I think interactive sessions are really important to keep people engaged.

  3. One of the ways we can support those breaks are to facilitate ways people with shared interests can find each other, and foster serendipitous meetings. Both can be done by varying the formats of the sessions themselves, from mini-charettes with observers to mutual mentoring tables to speed consulting. As well, the design of the venue can have a variety of casual meeting spaces for varying group sizes or for “just” two people to talk.

  4. […] of last month’s posts caught our eye. In it, Hurt lays out four basic conference principles everyone should adopt. We’re not going to rehash them here, but will add to his starting […]

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