Annual conferences are important for internal communicators. It’s the one part of the year when the boss actually puts you at the top of their priority list. A good conference can open doors and even help get you more budget. If it goes wrong it casts a long shadow.

But does the conference actually create any lasting value for the organisation? It’s hard to do so when there are often no clear objectives. Organisations simply have them, regular as clockwork, inviting the same people as last time without really thinking about it.

Sure, it’s great for everyone to get together, but conferences work best where there is a clear rationale and theme. This is the burning platform – how should we seize the opportunity? This is the challenge – how should we meet it?

Once you’ve figured that out think about what you can do with that group of people together that you can’t do any other way. Empower people to come up with solutions themselves rather than telling them all the answers.

Cut the razzmatazz

Conferences have to have an honesty to them. Cut the razzmatazz, ease back on the glossy videos and music, ditch the technology (which often just gets in the way).

Don’t talk at people – engage them in a conversation. It’s inevitable that there will be some leadership presentations. But make discussion and Q&A half of each session not a squeezed 10 minutes at the end. It’s almost always the most interesting part. Why not get delegates to grill your executive team onstage rather than having them present?

So often by the time it’s all over everyone is so exhausted that the follow-up doesn’t happen. It’s time to move onto the next thing. And yet the follow-up is where at least half of the value is.

If a bunch of issues are raised at the conference but then they’re not followed up people arguably feel even worse than they did before. And the organisation is losing valuable opportunities to change.

Avoid all the actions coming back to the leadership team to do. If you’ve identified a bunch of issues maybe ask at the end for a show of hands who wants to work on which ones.

And get delegates to commit to action individually. It’s cheesy but I still like pledge cards – but with a twist. Get delegates to swap them with a colleague who will chase whether it’s been done.

Top tips for a successful conference

Here’s a few more top tips for a successful leadership conference. I hope they help. What are yours?

  • Involve delegates in designing the conference – ask them what they want and put on sessions to meet those needs. And have a steering group of delegates to bounce ideas off
  • Do a pre-conference survey, then do one immediately after (we told them it was their ticket out of the room!) and then a few weeks or months later to see if progress has been sustained
  • Put table numbers and workshop sessions on the back of badges to ease the flow of people and avoid them all clustering around a board
  • Link your staff awards with the conference theme and invite shortlisted teams to attend the conference
  • No one can ever speak for just five minutes. And don’t have more than four people on a panel
  • Design the breaks for longer than you need. That way if things overrun you can eat into them. No one every complains about breaks being too long!
  • Be firm about what’s in the main conference programme. Don’t dilute it. Offer additional space for breakfast or lunch meetings
  • Make use of the content from the conference. Get the main sessions videoed and make them available to all. Encourage delegates to talk to their teams afterwards and give them the materials to do so
  • Follow up within a week of the conference with an email to all delegates with note about the key messages – not just what was said but what was heard. Explain the next steps
Image used under Creative Commons from MNicoleM