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June 13, 2007

CONFERENCES 4: Engaging formats

If the average person has an attention span of around 10 to 15 minutes before their mind starts to wander, as psychologists would have us believe, you need no further proof of the importance of working on engaging your conference audience to the maximum. However, you can use all the interactive and engagement techniques you like – as outlined in my two previous articles – but if the format of the conference is wrong, you’ll lose the delegates.

This is important right from the start of the event, according to Nigel Scott, creative director at live marketing agency Out of the Blue Communications. “People need to be given time to familiarise themselves with their environment on arrival,” he says. So refreshments before the first session can help delegates relax and get used to their surroundings.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Hunt, business development director of events agency Archer Young, believes “the subject matter or its method of delivery should change every quarter of an hour or so if your audience is expected to passively absorb information”. Although he adds that encouraging delegates to take an active roll through feedback and response, that this can significantly increase attention spans.

Even with interactivity built in to a presentation, or the use of workshops and breakout periods, the length of each session should certainly be no longer than an hour, so frequent short ‘breathers’ are key.

“A 10-minute break can significantly increase mental engagement,” confirms Scott.

Food for thought

Although often an afterthought, food is critical to a successful conference. Offering delegates the right food at the right time can have a major effect on the pace and flow of a conference, while the menu can be planned to boost energy and concentration levels when necessary. You certainly shouldn’t let your delegates go hungry or thirsty, as people in need of nourishment find it hard to concentrate. But, at the same time, it’s important food doesn’t dominate proceedings.

“There’s the risk of food and drink becoming the theme of the day, rather than just a 20-minute coffee break with pastry to boost energy, or even enhance the topic, before returning to the key message,” says experiential agency RPM’s specialist events director Alex Webb.

“Food should be available during breaks as well as at mealtimes,” says Archer Young’s Hunt. “The food should reflect the message and theme of the conference as well as being light. Foie Gras is as inappropriate with an audience of students as hotdogs and curly-fries are to your audience of visiting ambassadors. What’s more, a hearty lunch with mashed potato or spotted dick and custard will have your audience fast asleep as soon as they return to their chairs.”

Pat Crimp, head of events, sponsorship and business tourism at Visit Wales, agrees, adding: “As we’re becoming more food aware, menu choices are straying away from stodgy pies and bucket loads of caffeine towards more balanced meals with lots of fresh vegetables and fruit on offer. At a conference you want to retain your delegates’ attention, so it’s important to consider slow-release foods that will keep energy and blood sugar levels up. Healthier food options such as low-fat dips, mixed bean salads and fish help to avoid the lunchtime lull and lack of concentration.”

Pace and flow

So if you’re holding a conference over one or two days at the same venue, give delegates a chance to get to know the place from the outset rather than plunging them into a presentation. Then build variety into sessions, from presentations using varying degrees and methods of interactivity, to workshops, panel debates and break-out sessions. Try to make sessions around 45 minutes long with breaks in between for relaxation and refreshment. These also give delegates the chance to discuss the sessions between each other, aiding understanding and engagement. Think about the pace and flow of the format, putting yourself in the shoes the delegates who will be involved in the event.

If you can break the day up by taking your audience out and about to a relevant location for one or more of the sessions, this can help keep the proceedings fresh and exciting. Also, remember the importance of the kind of food you serve – an element that’s often neglected – making sure it’s little and often, as well as nourishing.

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