12 Strategies to Engage Conference and Meeting Participants

Kuala Lumur ParticipantsLong before I was involved in event planning, I designed and facilitated training and development for major corporations both as an employee and an independent consultant.

Through this experience, I learned that event and conference planners can greatly boost attendee engagement by borrowing strategies from the professional facilitator's bag of tricks.

Participant engagement strategies consist of steps that can be taken before and during conferences and business meetings.

12 Attendee Engagement Tips

  1. Crowdsource the content and content delivery methods: Before shaping the agenda, crowdsource conference content using surveys and focus groups with representatives from your target market. (This is equivalent to the training needs analysis process.) To facilitate crowdsourcing in terms of content delivery methods, add questions about presentation and learning style preferences to your registration form.
  2. Present content in chunks to accommodate short attention spans: Ask speakers to break presentations down into 10 - 15 minute sound bites.
  3. Keep it interactive: At the end of each sound bite, ask speakers to involve participants in discussing a question or completing a short exercise or case study in pairs, trios or small groups.
  4. Don't get stuck in a rut. Card games, board games and upbeat game show-style challenges in table teams can significantly boost energy and involvement.

    Instead of sticking with standard role-plays, forum role plays can be used for groups of all sizes.

    There can be many levels of participant engagement. For this video example, before the conference, some of the participants were involved as actors in the video that gave instructions for the forum role-play. Another participant shot and edited the video. Guess who you hear on the voiceover? The "actors" assisted the facilitator (me) and provided coaching to groups as they prepared for their forum role-plays. There were 2 conference break-out sessions that each involved over 200 people and used forum role-plays for the practice segment.
  5. Bridge: During their keynote addresses, if motivational speakers share a story about an experience that is not directly relevant to the audience, ask them to immediately give specific examples that are laser-beam focused on the day-to-day realities of attendees.

    When event planners book speakers who go on for over an hour about their mountain climbing exploits or athletic accomplishments, there can be a disconnect that triggers disengagement. Certainly, audiences can be inspired by high achievers from other disciplines. However, each example should be brief and immediately bridged so that the relevance is clear to attendees.
  6. Tag team it: If a motivational speaker is from another discipline, use a tag team approach. Have someone from the same profession as the attendees present a short and targeted example.

    (Alternatively, use a short brainstorming exercise to give attendees the opportunity to identify specific, relevant examples of how what the speaker shared can be used to improve effectiveness in their own jobs or businesses.)
  7. Keep things moving: Have no more than 3 groups come to the mike and briefly report back after each exercise.
  8. Use energizers tailored to audience demographics and the local and corporate cultures. Don't be afraid to experiment but, if the audience is conservative, stick to stretching, breaks, etc.

    Examples: Energizers can include table top energizers in colorful cloth lunch bags (Slinkies, stress balls, hand massagers, gum, Snafooz, Tangles, Rubik's cubes), stretching, aerobics, dancersize, short breaks, upbeat vacation videos that play while the group stretches, scenic music videos to play during small group exercises, quick relays, Congo line, beach balls thrown around the conference room.)
  9. Use a variety of debriefing methods. (We'll discuss this in a future blog.)
  10. Use some unconference breakouts to give attendees an opportunity to engage around content that is directly relevant.
  11. Brainstorming on the BeachBrainstorm: During conferences, executive retreats and business meetings, break the group up into trios or small groups to brainstorm solutions to specific business issues. (Use mind maps, storyboards, idea chains, force fields, etc.) Take it outdoors when possible.
  12. Experiment with alternative formats: For example, use attendee panels immediately after your final coffee break. A volunteer from each breakout session, team or table group should come on stage to form the panel. Give each person a chance to deliver a brief summary of content, highlighting take-aways and how the content can be used back at work. Open it up to questions.

Using these 12 strategies will significantly boost attendee engagement. Next week we'll discuss room set-up that encourages participation and pitfalls to avoid.

For More Participant Engagement strategies, also consult Participant Engagement vs. Instant Results.

Photo & Video Credits: Executive Oasis International

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