Some simple ideas on how to redesign the conference experience

Posted on Apr 14, 2013

Yesterday I got caught up in (or to be more accurate, butted my way into) a Twitter conversation that Sam Burrough was engaged in that was part of the great work he’s involved in around ‘rethinking/redesigning’ the conference experience.

Part of that exchange involved this tweet

I had a think about it overnight and have come up with these ideas


I’ve spoken at quite a few conferences/workshops etc over the past couple of years and always strive to produce ‘something’ (blog post, podcast, video etc)¬†for the attendees to access prior to the actual session itself to help them prepare, add context and ultimately help them get the most out of their investment in the session. Unfortunately the majority of organisers don’t allow that sort of material to be included in the official conference webpage – I know, I’ve asked! Instead they suggest that I market the material via Social Media (d’uh, hadn’t thought of that!), of course there are several short falls to this approach, some of which are:

  • Not everybody follows me via Social Media
  • Not everybody uses Social Media
  • Not everybody will be aware of hashtags

For me the almost guaranteed place that you will find attendees will be on the conference website and in particular on the session overview pages. So come on¬†conference¬†organisers, don’t hinder those speakers who have gone the extra mile – let them include a ‘link out’ in their session overview, maybe even an embedded video?


I’ve been to many conferences that had a conference app. I’ve only been to one that had a good conference app and that was Devlearn. If you’re planning on having a conference app for your next event, pleeeeeeeease make it a decent one!

I’ve never researched this, but I’d be happy to concede that a full-on video recording/slide sync recording is an expensive matter, particularly if you’ve got a lot of sessions taking place, however in this age of affordable HD video recorders, tripods and editing software why not set up some DIY recording of each session? An even simpler option might be to record the audio of each session and then ask the facilitators to sync it with their slides (Hey, if they want to speak at your conference make them work for it!). Here’s one I prepared earlier (won’t work on an iPad/phone)

Let’s be honest, when your conference attendees have a number of concurrent sessions to select from, other than previous experience/recommendations¬†of the facilitator, all they’ve got to go in is the session overview on the conference website. Why not invite each speaker (and potential attendees) to participate in a 10 minute online session in which they pitch their session and take part in a Q&A. It may also give the potential attendees an insight into the presentation skills of the speaker (AKA are they going to rattle off a load of bullet points at me?)


If you decide to conduct a ‘pre’ conference online session, why not go the whole-hog and think about a ‘post’ conference session. This could be a 15-30 minute session in which session attendees (I think ‘only’ session attendees) could follow up with any reflective questions and share any experiences that they have had in relation to trying to implement the speakers subject (if applicable). I’m sure this would help to break down the perception of the conference/workshop being a stand-alone event.

I’m sure that Sam and the rest of the guys ‘n’ gals that have been thinking about redesigning the conference experience will have tonnes more ideas, so make sure you keep your eyes peeled on their blog as I know that Sam is about to produce a write up on their thoughts.

Do you attend conferences/workshops?

How would you change things to maximise the experience?

Do you plan/host conferences/workshops?

Have you tried implementing any of the ideas above?

Did they work?

What have you tried in the past (regardless of whether it worked or not)?

Image source


  1. ColinSteed I’ll look forward to perhaps seeing them Colin.

  2. CraigTaylor74 love the prior ‘pitch’ idea,this should be the norm,I miss so many good sessions.Subject leaders at school should do this.

  3. CraigTaylor74 also rgds audio & slide capture. Uni’s are using panopto, echo360 & camtasia. Worth a look.

    • PaulJenner81 It’s all out there for the taking, just needs organisers, speakers AND attendees to start thinking and acting differently!

  4. Good stuff Craig, certainly correlates with some of the things people said were missing from most conferences at the moment. Of course, as you yourself noted at the last Learning Technologies, speakers also have to stick to what they said they would talk about in their pitches or proposals. Otherwise it’s meaningless.

    • burrough¬†Cheers¬†burrough¬†I had a good chat with¬†donaldhtaylor¬†about the discrepancies between the stated session objectives and what *actually* happens on the day. One of the likely reasons for this is the amount of time ahead of the conference that the organisers need some text from the speakers in order to market it etc. If course in the ensuing period of time, the world moves on, the speakers thinking may change, which can lead to the discrepancy.¬†
      I think a way to mitigate this would be the ‘pre’ conference 10-15 min session I mention in the post above to hear from the speaker themselves as to what they will be covering.

      Whaddya think?

  5. Hi Craig – I’ve just replied on Twitter but did you read my post in March about the Channel 4 ‘Star Test’ and how we could use this approach for pre-conference, and possibly post-donference interactions through the Conference App?
    Read more here …¬†
    All the best, David

  6. I guess if organisers can’t or won’t engage then it’s time for ‘fringe’ (that sounds too trivial) or unofficial pre/post events to happen. Like with learning technologies with yourself, Craig, and Martin Couzins and Sam Burrough on content curration. If you captured questions/thoughts from such a group that could be fed-back to the mainstream conference/presenter either at the time or offline. It was also great that I was able to use google hangouts to reflect on Mike Collins’ talk with Martin (who hadn’t been able to attend that talk) and Mike.

  7. CraigTaylor74 Interesting points Craig thx! Re pt 3 re rec sessions- would that be similar to our webtv channel ?

    • LT13uk Exactly that! ūüôā

  8. eGeeking Thanks Bianca, anything you’d add?

    • CraigTaylor74 I’d definitely take advantage of pre-con links & session commercials. Anything to help me know if a session is right for me.

      • @eGeeking¬†Hi¬†egeeking¬†As I mentioned to¬†@burrough in the thread below, the other benefit of a short pre-con session is ¬†it would allow the speaker to be more transparent about their session content, just in case it’s changed since they were asked to submit their speakers proposal (usually months earlier!)

        • That, and typical written session descriptions are usually so vague that you don’t know what the speaker’s take on the material will be and what specific audience they’ve created their presentation for. There’s been more than a few sessions I’ve attended at cons where the speaker’s session description was technically accurate, but I was totally not the audience they had created that presentation for.

  9. For me a key issue to avoid is overloading delegates with one presentation after another and no opportunity to reflect. I would advocate inviting speakers to include a ‘break-out’ session within their session to facilitate this. At Learning Tech people often sit around large tables which lend themselves to this but it can work in lecture style layout, too. The benefits would be that people can reflect and share their thoughts with peers straight away, helping them to make sense of what they’ve heard/learned – and networking. I guess some speakers will do this anyway but not enough!

    • Designs_JoanK¬†Hi¬†designs_JoanK¬†thanks for reading and commenting. I guess this would mean that the content of the session would need paring down, but ‘hey’, if we’re talking quality over quantity, then why the hell not?!

  10. CraigTaylor74 timbuckteeth Thanks, I’ll take a look :-¬£

  11. What is really missing in conferences and some (many) workshops is TIME. Simple as that. Time to discuss. Common designs do not assign time for discussions. In the last 5  years I have been experimenting with the Un-workshop format with groups of under 30 people. Some attendees are invited to submit an abstract.The organisers select the non-overlapping top rated in interest ones. Sessions are booked for 15 minutes talks and 45 minutes discussions.The results are AMAZING.  And the participants are happier then ever. @pfern

    • I’ve been thinking for awhile that conferences need to include a less formal track for more experienced practitioners. An unconference as a sub-conference would work great.

      • jrandersoniii¬†Thanks for dropping by, reading and commenting. I know that when I first started to attend conferences/workshops etc back in 2010 I found it a wonderful way to get up-to-speed quickly in my chosen field as well as a catalyst to further specific career-interest areas.¬†
        What became apparent very quickly after attending a few conferences is that many sessions simply repeat the same material, ideas, practices etc – which is of course great for people who are new to those ideas, but not much use for the experienced practitioners you mention. I know that the¬†@Devlearn conference has a separate ‘open invite’ track for those experienced track to put their heads together and discuss emerging thinking etc.

    • pfern¬†Hi¬†pfern¬†I’d certainly agree in your observation about the time to have quality conversations during the vast majority of conferences, however where is the accountability on behalf of the attendees to continue the conversations *after* the event itself?

  12. I think that a short video pitch or preview of the topic would be helpful. I’ve often turned up to a talk drawn by the title only to be disappointed by the actual subject.
    I think organisers could perhaps be more rigorous in separating vendor ‘sell’ talks from those talks from practitioners with ‘real’ case studies.

    • JulianStaddon¬†Hi¬†julianstaddon¬†thanks for reading and commenting. Whilst I agree wholeheartedly on your point of avoiding ‘sales pitches’, I have fallen foul of having some speaking gigs taken away from because I had become a vendor. Even though my sessions were in no way, shape or form a sales pitch (or even referred to the services my employer was involved in at the time) I was still excluded from speaking/sharing.

  13. As mentioned several times, the overriding issue for attendees is when the live presentation differs from the advertised version.  Having facilitated a small conference session recently, this is what sends down the positive evaluation of the event.
    I really like the idea of 1 minute video summaries to browse before and during a conference to get a real feel of the quality of the content and presenter.  Live rating of sessions via a quality app would be an interesting next step Рif rather putting presenters on the spot!
    Encouraging presenters to shorten the content of sessions to quality material, followed by a facilitated discussion would be positive.  Reflection time is often lacking.  Though if a quality case study is being presented, more detail is often what people are looking for.
    Finally, encouraging speakers to give specific take aways in their sessions would be much appreciated.  Particularly thought leadership session, which can often leave the audience full of ideas but without specific action points.

  14. CraigTaylor74 I found the blog useful.

    • frameweld Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated.

  15. I think the man to read on this is Adrian Segar. see¬†@Asegar. Peer-to-peer conferences are much better than talking heads, no matter how good the heads are and how many spiffy aids they have….

  16. Request conference participants to upload files to dropittome to and use dropbox to synchronize computers in various sessions of the conference. This is how we do at International forestry and Environment Symposium in Sri Lanka

  17. Excellent ideas, Craig.
    I recently published a blog post which I think is relevant here: “Boiling the backchannel”
    In terms of time, I agree with the lack of reflection time (or conversation time), but on the other side of the coin I am also peeved by sessions going *over* time. That throws out the timetable and makes it difficult when you need to come and go.

  18. I would love to see the conference experience begin with an extended run up where you can, as a delegate, get involved with the conference theme and/or the presenters.
    My idea, for FOTE (or indeed anyone capable of programming it), would be a conference App that incorporated the power of the mobile device (notably the always-on status and camera) and have delegate take part in a ‘star test’ video interview.
    Here’s my post on it … Please let me know what you think: “Conference engagement ‚Äď the next level? #FOTE13
    All the best, David


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