Organizing A Conference?
Three Principles Might Help

Unless you go somewhere exotic and participate in amazing teambuilding events, most conferences are relatively routine and forgettable. Often what is memorable are things like the time Barb put bubble bath in the spa hot tub, or when Norm got thrown out of the hotel after too much “networking.”

It is too often the case that the annual corporate conference ends up being little more than a lark. “It’s just an annual piss-up,” is how one executive put it. In these days of cutbacks and frugality, most corporations simply cannot afford to throw money away on an expensive wine and cheese party sleep-over. The answer, however, is not to cancel such events! The answer is learn how to conduct them better. The more we communicate un-humanly through email and teleconferencing, the more we need a positive and constructive face-to-face experience. There is no better way to create a working sense of the whole team and where individuals fit into it.

I have been speaking at conferences around the world for over thirty years. That includes groups from children’s hospitals in Canada to paint manufacturers in the UK to cattlemen in the US. From audiences of twenty people to ten thousand people. Regardless of the conference size, venue or purpose, three major principles seem essential for creating corporate events that are truly and positively life changing.

EVERYTHING IS A METAPHOR.Everything people experience at a conference is a message about what the organizers (and the sponsoring corporation) think of them—from pre-conference materials to the conference gift. For example, how does the message behind the name tag that simply reads "BOB", differ from the one that reads "Dr. R.J. Barns, Sr. Vice President, Chemical Spills Division, Western Region?"

What is the message behind pre-assigned seating? Or having anonymous, if not planted, questions being read off of cards for the President's Q&A session?

What interpretation do people attach to the fact that the President left right after his speech while the conference went on for another two days?

It's not a case of right or wrong, it's what message do you want to send? First decide on the message of your event, then make sure your methodology or design matches.If you want people to think, give them a book not another bag. Bags don’t make you think!One group had a “paint-ball war” between management and employees. Now there’s a wonderful metaphor for teambuilding!

A GROUP WILL ACT LIKE IT LOOKS. Which room layout would look most engaging, fun and productive; one where participants are in casual clothes, chairs and tables scattered with no apparent center of control, or the one where participants are in business attire, sitting classroom style behind computer generated tent cards looking up at an elevated lectern? How these two groups will behave is absolutely predictable. They will behave according to their appearance. This is a law of nonverbal group behavior.
You can't create a spirit of togetherness by having people widely spread out in the auditorium with most sitting at the back and the first four rows empty. Want togetherness? Book a room almost too small for the group. Barring serious organizational pathology, emotional closeness will follow physical closeness. Reach emotional closeness and you're not far from creating a spiritual bond – and it doesn’t get any better than that.

I remember speaking in a room set up in rigid classroom style, everyone in neat rows facing the front (despite my counsel to the contrary). The podium was at least five feet above the participant's level and the lectern was huge. The conference theme? Teambuilding. The executive who had it set up that way really wanted control over the participants and he got it. The teamwork theme was just him being politically correct. The conference was a joke.

PROVIDE LOTS OF ROOM FOR CHOICES. When you give people choice, you give them power. Choice and power are synonyms. When you give people power, you give them freedom. When you give them freedom, you give them back their life and individuality. When people feel truly free they will usually choose to unify and find purpose. And that is what you want, isn't it? The only exception to this is when the audience is angry, and then we are into a whole other topic.

I feel claustrophobic just reading the agenda from some conferences. Everything is so controlled and so predetermined. Literally every moment is scheduled. The conference ends up being done to people rather than the people doing the conference. No wonder there is so little enthusiasm and commitment. One agenda began: "Welcoming remarks 9:00-9:03." How inviting or real is that? You can tell there was lots of room for creativity and exploration. One person organizing an event for senior executives sent out a whole page of instructions on dress, starting with "While traveling wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes." Somebody needed to tell these sophisticated people what to wear on the plane? Was this their first trip?

I know some organizers believe absolute control and structure is essential. And if you are organizing an event for several thousand, this is probably the best way to go. My intention with these few guidelines is to help unify corporate spirit with our logistical, three dimensional and time-bound needs. The latter needs to change and become a conduit for the former. Let's start designing events that let the human spirit out instead of boxing it. Only then will we see what is truly possible. You will be amazed.

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Ian Percy is one of North America's most inspirational speakers.

Ian Percy is an international speaker and consultant and can be reached at


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