The Key Ingredients to Planning a Participatory Conference

The Key Ingredients to Planning a Participatory Conference

What’s more boring than a speaker who reads his entire speech from a piece of paper in a slow-paced voice and never looks up at the crowd? An attendee who isn’t given the chance to actively engage with the environment to learn and interact better.


What’s happening with your guests is more important than what’s happening on the stage. That’s why it’s crucial to provide them with enough participative tools. No, I’m not talking about brief live polls or short quizzes that just stimulate the attendee participation. I’m talking about going all in and planning a real participatory conference, which refers to an event thought and designed (from scratch) as an environment that will heighten attendee engagement and interaction with the learned content and other guests.


A participatory conference also includes transitioning from knowledge transfer to knowledge co-creation. Attendees are not the passive receiver of data anymore. Instead, they take active part as teachers and thought-generators with the final end of enriching the entire audience.


The conference guests are willing to commit themselves to participating by interacting with others and co-creating the learning experience. Considering these particularities, you may want to take note of the following steps and learn how to plan and run a truly participate conference.



Step 1. Encourage peer-to-peer learning interactions

One of the most important reasons why people attend events is to network and communicate with others. You can take good advantage of this tendency and steer this interaction toward learning.

For example, during panel sessions, ask the moderator to create groups and insert time blocks for attendees to talk to each other about the issues discussed. The moderator can also encourage the attendees to share their experience and takeaways with each other.



Step 2. Moderate the guests’ interaction

Learning from speakers is great, but why not leverage the knowledge of the entire group of attendees? If you want to run a truly participatory conference, you should free up enough time for people to talk to each other and the speakers.


To avoid chaos, you’ll have to make sure the person who’s running the session uses clear techniques of moderation and attendee interaction. Will you decide that people should talk in groups, and if so, will you mix up these groups for different tasks? Will you limit yourself to just pairing off the attendees?


To achieve a high-quality conversational dynamic, you’ll have to put all these aspects into place and design very specific moderation and interaction rules for everyone.



Step 3. Empower your attendees to make decisions

Another aspect you must consider when designing a participatory conference is giving your attendees the power to decide for themselves. What workshops do they want to attend? Which topics do they want to debate? For example, if you have a plenary session and a round-table setup, you can assign different discussion topics to each table. Then the attendees can decide where they want to sit and in which conversation they to engage.



Step 4. Invite leaders to give interactive speeches

There should be constant conversation between the audience and the event speakers. Invite your panelists to build their speeches around these interactions.


For example, you could have a timeline for each speaker and let them know how long their presentations should be, and how often should they pause during the presentation to ask the attendees different questions.


This lets the attendees take an active role and co-create the session itself with their reflections about different subjects.



Step 5. Build in a life-learning mindset

“We are here to learn, so everyone has the right to be heard.” This must be your event’s mantra. Often, people will refrain from participating in discussions because they’re afraid they don’t have enough knowledge on the topic at hand or might say something stupid.


To keep this from happening, your event moderator should remember everyone that their voice is important and they would be doing a disservice to everyone by not expressing themselves freely and fully immersing in participatory activities.



Final thoughts

Participation doesn’t happen by itself. As an event professional, it’s your responsibility to help attendees engage and interact more during the sessions. But don’t worry: By using the right strategies and practices, you’ll be able to create a safe participatory environment for everyone and help your guests transition from knowledge transfer to knowledge co-creation.

EVENTS - Kevin Van der Straeten

More about this topic and lots of other tips about organising events can be found in the book EVENTS.

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