The Art of Hosting

12 signs that a conference cares about its participants

Have you wondered what makes the difference between a ho-hum conference and one that leaves you inspired and energised? It can be tough choosing the right events to attend, and you’re always risking your time and your cash. I’ve been particularly lucky with my experiences at the conferences of The Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) and the SOLWorld events, both of which have been flourishing for more than a decade.

Here are 12 signs that a conference cares about its participants.

1. Music as you enter

Bright music playing when we come into a room sets an energy expectation. It shows that the organisers care about your mood and have considered a variety of ways of making your experience worthwhile.

2. Give us the Big Picture

It’s important to know the framework of the event. So the day should start with an outline of what’s to come. If the outline is presented visually, verbally and in writing, that should suit everyone.

3. Trailers

Much-loved in the cinema, they work well in conferences when workshop presenters have about one minute each to let you know who they are and what their session will be about. Now it’s easier to choose.

4. Choices

It’s good to have a range of topics and styles of sessions to choose from. Good programming in more complex conferences will help guide you through choices by coding for different strands, for example. And with choice comes responsibility for managing yourself through the conference experience, becoming less of a consumer and more of a participant.

5. Manage FOMO

FOMO is fear of missing out, which is likely to happen when there are so many good sessions to choose from and you can’t be at them all. The AIN conference has a FOMO booth where you can meet people to get advice on what to select and go back afterwards to talk about what you missed.

6. Attractive Resources

A resource table or even a bookshop stuffed with items by the presenters (and delving into detail on the conference topics) gives you somewhere to relax, browse and add depth to your experience.

7. Powerful Plenaries

When all the participants are in the same room, make sure there’s something new, different and inspiring. Too many conferences allow these sessions to be throat-slittingly dull. It’s a wasted opportunity when there’s so much to gain by a new process or inspiring content.

8. Instant Reflection

A collage of photos from the previous sessions rotate on the screens during breaks. The organisers screen a Twitter stream of the tweets about the event.

9. Get Out More

It’s great to have both indoors and outdoors options, when weather is suitable – especially during an event that lasts all day or longer. If you can’t have a session outdoors, a longer break gives you time for a walk and fresh air.

10. On the same Page

Get people up to speed with a pre-conference introduction to the topic for newcomers. Send out background reading material so we’re ready for less exposition and more discussion.

11. Open Space and other Wild Ideas

Look out for conferences that trust their participants to contribute to the topics and take responsibility for their own learning. Processes such as Open Space and World Café are designed for precisely this: trust a process that trusts you as a participant.

12. Where do I go next?

Good signposting to all the sessions and breakout rooms – on the walls, doors and in participant handouts.


How many of these are happening at your next event?


Details of AIN Berlin:

SOLWorld 2014 in Stockholm, details not yet available.

Click here for highlights and videos of Oxford 2012:

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Comment by Jan Maisenbacher on October 10, 2013 at 8:55am

Thanks Paul - what a great list....

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