What makes a successful conference?

18 March 2010 0 By Viv McWaters

Regular readers will known that I’m involved in a national conference on evaluation of behaviour change called Show Me The Change. I’m excited about this conference for many reasons, but evaluation and behaviour change are not high up there. What? I’ve been known to dabble in evaluation. I’ve even been known to dabble in behaviour change. And they make fascinating areas of study. The reason I’m really excited about this conference is that it’s an opportunity take part in a radical departure from traditional conferences and to demonstrate how meaningful a conference experience can be while allowing the participants to do what they do so well – connect with each other and talk about their own experiences of evaluation of behaviour change including their successes and failures, and come away with renewed insight, inspiration and ideas.

I’m not one to get too excited about many conferences these days. That’s because many conferences follow a predictable pattern of ‘high profile’ keynote speakers, panels, Q & A, workshops that were selected months in advance by a steering committee and are too expensive to attend.

I remember a turning point for me and conferences. It was an international conference on community engagement, in Sydney or Brisbane – I can’t quite remember the specifics. I paid my own way as is always the case when you have your own business. It wasn’t cheap. More than $1000 for three days plus accommodation and travel. There were lots of speakers. So many that they were jam packed three at a time into one hour slots. You do the arithmetic. There was lots of very slick organisation. And lots of very boring powerpoint. There was no engagement. I kid you not. It was a classic case of the only engagement happened in the breaks, and there were so many people spread over a very large, soulless venue, that it was just about impossible to find the people you wanted to speak to. I also discovered a number of people who turned up for their session and then disappeared. So much for connection. But I can’t blame them really, because the form was not at all conducive to anything other than reinforcing traditional patterns of hierarchy and status.

Is it a risk to depart from this traditional approach? I guess it depends on your perspective. And seeing as Show Me The Change is about evaluation, I guess it depends how you measure success. So is success at conferences measured by the number of bums on seats? By profit? By the ‘VIPs’ it attracts? By the keynote speakers? Or by some less tangible measures? The ideas shared? The connections made? The collaborations that ensue?

What makes a successful conference for you?