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Rethinking How We 'Conference'

How to design a conference with the brain in mind.

Been to a conference lately, excited to learn from big name presenters, then found your brain throbbing by the end of the first day, unable to take in another idea? If so, you're not alone.

Most conferences are put together according to formulas designed decades ago, in an era before blackberries and information overwhelm, with scant attention paid to how the brain digests new ideas. However with a few tweaks, conferences could be a lot more fun and useful for everyone.

Conferences are not going away.
With everyone spending more and more time online, the desire for ‘real' human connections and a sense of community is increasing. Meeting this need, many hotels the world over are booked up a year in advance, whether it's a few thousand at a sex therapist convention (their recent conference tagline: 'dynamic, interactive, creative'), or 25,000 at the society for neuroscience conference. Every industry group seems to have its own global, national, state and local event. While conference attendance tanked during the GFC, the numbers are climbing back up again, to about 60 or 70% what they were. And in the same way that bands tour more today because no one buys records any more, with book sales down, authors are on the road more than ever, all vying to tell their story.

We're stuck in an old model
While conferences are getting bigger and more common, I don't think they are getting a whole lot better. They're getting more efficient and streamlined (think online registration and more meal options), but I don't think they are getting more effective.

People have two basic goals when attending a conference: to encounter new ideas, and to connect in person with folks you wouldn't meet otherwise. Whether you are there to learn, to network, to research, to buy or to sell, these two goals are common across the board.

However, conferences are not very good at maximizing these goals. Increased financial pressures on events means organizers are packing more into programs to try to make them more attractive, which means less ability to digest new ideas. And the increased size of events has organizers think in more industrial-type ways about herding people around the event, instead of thinking about how to form connections between people. I am often haunted by gaunt faces at the big conferences. These should be rich social experiences, yet increasingly leave people alienated.

The real dilemma: bums on seats versus participant experience.
Here is the core dilemma. For conference organizers (of which I am one), there is a conflict between wanting to fill seats (which requires having a large number of presenters and topics covered), and wanting to create the best possible experience for participants (which requires something else entirely).

Most conferences naturally focus on the side of filling seats. This means putting in as many ‘name' speakers as possible, and making the program look irresistible, the 'Sizzler' smorgasbord of events. The theory goes that if the spread looks so insanely delicious, people won't be able to resist attending. (One reason we attend if there are big names speaking is the reward from increasing one's status, that happens when we meet famous people.)

The outcome of this approach can be measured by an informal but telling metric: the number of people in the conference sessions, versus in the hallways, on the 2nd or 3rd day of an event. At a recent global conference I attended, the hallways were packed by the end of day two. People's brains couldn't take any more.

A different model
At the 2010 NeuroLeadership summit (disclosure: yes, I run this event), the hallways were bare at the end of the third day. This wasn't an accident, nor was it easy to achieve. This conference is all about the brain, so naturally we had to make participation as ‘brain friendly' as possible. Through experimenting over 5 events across 4 years we finally think we have it right (and by no means did we get it right at the first few events). The difference came from focusing on the participant's real goals, which are ‘useful new ideas', and ‘new human connections'.

After some soul searching, I have decided to give away the insights we developed about conference design. These insights can be applied at least in part to just about any kind of event, from a small leadership retreat to a bigger convention. (Though some of these suggestions in full would be challenging at the bigger conferences.)

In the brain, information is (somewhat) like food. It needs to be digested, before you can add more. And big ideas, especially new ideas, are like a lot of food - they really need time to be integrated, or you quickly become mentally ‘full'. (There is a new paper on embedding learning, called the "AGES" model, recently out in the NeuroLeadership Journal.)

Digestion doesn't get resolved by adding 10 minutes of Q&A at the end of a session. People need regular opportunities to digest information. The model we found that works is this: Every 1.5 hours there should be a serious break in the programming. The break should be at least 30 mins, then 1 hour, or 1.5hrs. The idea is you are never in a room for more than 1.5 hrs before a significant change of space (both mental and physical). Over a day this works out to allow 4 lots of 1.5 hr sessions, which is actually a lot of being in a room. But it's broken up a lot so that people can integrate the ideas through discussion or simply resting their heads. (Napping is also good for integrating information).

Secondly, and this is the harder part, conferences need to be more diligent about incorporating digestion into sessions themselves. At the NeuroLeadership Summit we use what we developed and called the "DEAQ" model for presentations.

Simply put, a session can't have more than 30 minutes of formal, pre-planned delivery. Within those 30 minutes, every 10 minutes there needs to be one of 4 interactive components:
Digestion (which means just letting participants discuss the ideas amongst themselves).
• An Exercise, which means an activity that participants do alone or with each other to experience a model.
• An Application, which involves discussion about the applications or implications of an idea, often facilitated by a person that is not the presenter.
• And of course, Questions, which is a standard Q&A.

A session that takes 90 minutes all up is so much more energizing and engaging in this format. There's more involvement, more ‘generating' of the ideas by the participants, which is one of the key requirements for embedding learning.

Using the DEAQ model isn't easy: presenters often push back, they know they can't just turn up and (somewhat mindlessly) do their usual shtick - but that has some upside to it as well, as you can imagine. It also takes educating participants so they get the best out of this format, for example explaining how to best ask questions.

When I have asked around, most people say the primary value from a conference is the people they meet, not the learning sessions. New business relationships are often far more valuable than new ideas. Maybe conferences have their time allocation all wrong here?

When you go to a conference and see there are 200 folks you want to talk to, but only get enough time to talk to 20, it can be very disappointing. The positive expectations of all these new connections is rewarding, but then unmet expectations cause a threat response. Conferences can and should get better at maximizing the human connections. Study after study shows that social matters to the brain. One study showed that someone's social connections determined health outcomes more than any other health factors.

At the NeuroLeadership Summit we designed the event so that everyone stayed together for every breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a drinks event, which added up to a total of 4.5 hours of unstructured social time. There was also, because of the design of the sessions, an inbuilt system that had participants meet everyone at their table, at nearly every session. So at a conference with 200 others, it's possible to have quality conversations with well over half the group, which is far more enriching on many levels. (Want the math? 12 sessions in total, 8 people at a table each time, makes for 96 people you meet and discuss the sessions with while at a table, plus around 12 hrs of social time.) All that makes for a great buzz, and tons of new connections, which the brain likes both internally and in the real world.

One of the challenges of this format is that now you only have 4 possible topics a day. How do you make that work? Now a conference becomes more like a piece of art. You have to decide what to leave out, and choose just the topics that are of most importance. Then do these topics really well.

This is indeed the harder bit, and not necessarily possible for bigger conferences. To achieve this you need someone like an ‘event architect' who has a vision and can oversee the building of the event really carefully, and work with all the people running sessions to make sure the content is right on the mark. You can't afford 1 or 2 bad sessions when you only have 4 a day. It's what you leave on the pile that makes the whole event richer for everyone.

The final thing to manage is to recognize the normal ebb and flow of mental energy during a day and during the program overall. Here's a few tips:
• Put the big ideas early in an event, when people can still digest them, and then big ideas can weave through the rest of the program
• Use the morning for really big ideas and the afternoon sessions for practical applications
• Allow for even more interaction after lunch within sessions
• Have shorter sessions more often as the program goes along, e.g. on a 2nd or 3rd day, when people can digest less
• Put people into smaller groups after lunch when interaction will help keep people awake

In summary, conferences can be a whole lot more fun and useful if we think about the real goals people have for conferences and build programs with the brain in mind. I hope this has been helpful to readers.

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