Why do you attend conferences, and what makes a great conference?

Many of us attend conferences to observe and learn from the many great presentations from experienced speakers. However, there is another major benefit in attending: you are surrounded by industry peers. This means that the events have a dual purpose in networking. But, if you are spending all your time listening to talks then how do you get to meet like-minded individuals at these events?

When we started organising conferences at Happy that was a key driver: how do we make them great interactive experiences, ones where you don’t have to make an effort to meet people and you also get the chance to talk about what you hear?

The Happy Conference Methodology

Use cabaret (table-based) seating: Sitting in rows makes it a one-way speaker-delegate presentation, thus limiting the chance to interact. Get people around tables and it makes discussion easy and natural. This is absolutely essential for an interactive event.

Speak and discuss: Most speakers find it a challenge to create interaction. So we now set a clear format: Talk for nine minutes then ask a question of the audience – for them to discuss in pairs, threes, or just across the whole table. They only need to discuss it for three to five minutes. We advise that for a 30-minute presentation it is two nine minute sections and discussion, while for forty-five it would be three sections with discussion.

Note: You don’t have to get feedback. The important thing is that the discussion happens, not that everyone gets to hear what everybody has said.

Focus on stories: Stories are the best way to make a presentation memorable and the best way to help people understand what you mean. So we ask speakers to work out the key points they want to get across, and ask them to, ideally, have a story to illustrate each and keep their slides simple.

On slides, a good rule of thumb is a strong visual with a maximum of ten words per slide.

Swap tables: At the beginning of each of the four sessions of the day, have the attendees switch tables to introduce themselves to a bunch of new people.

Note: Of course, if you’ve just met your new best friend and can’t bear to be separated then of course you can move with them.

Include speed networking: Get people to stand and pair up. Put a statement on the screen (eg, ‘What it would be like to have a manager who coaches me’) and ask them to discuss it for a set period. Then swap partners, and a new statement. Try to include at least one statement relating to each presentation so it helps embed what they’ve learnt or prepares them for what they are going to learn.

We go for one minute sessions, although some prefer longer. And, I like to put it before lunch so that you can get back to somebody easily if you want to continue the conversation.

Use the badges: As well as a very big first name (60pt is good) on the lanyard, include something on the badges which can start a conversation. This could be what they want to get from the event, what they have to offer, or something personal like where they are originally from or their favourite ever holiday. We do an advanced survey as to get the information, to make sure we are prepared on the day.

Now, I’m not saying this is the only format that should ever be used. Some people do enjoy a day sitting and listening without having to talk to people. Some even use conferences as a chance to catch up on their email. But, this format means I can guarantee that, at a Happy conference, you will meet and (without having to make an effort) have a conversation with at least thirty people. I can guarantee it will be interactive, engaging and inspiring, and that you will get a chance to discuss what you’ve heard and relate it back to your own situation.

As Stefan Stern said of the conference as he arrived at in the afternoon: “Arriving at a Happy Workplaces Conference half-way through is like arriving at a party when people are already four drinks in. The energy was amazing.”

Feel free to borrow these ideas and to add to them. And, if you’d like to experience a Happy conference, check out the next one listed below, or visit our Upcoming Conferences and Events page to see all future events.

Happy's next event

Happy's next event is Creating Happy Workplaces in Charities and Social Enterprises, a joint event with ella Forums and Happy. With speakers from Christian Aid, the social housing sector and Happy, you will learn how organisations both large and small have implemented ideas around autonomy and trust, how to help your staff work to their strengths, and how to create workplaces with a no blame culture. The conference is aimed at leaders of charities and social enterprises, with tickets available for just £95 per person.

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