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Large Meeting Challenge: Call for Proposals Produces Too Many for Parallel Sessions? Take a Blended Approach

You put out a call for proposals for your large meeting coming up and your enthusiastic community responds with many ideas – way too many in fact for the traditional parallel break-out session format that was envisioned. What can you do about this? This is a good question and an issue for many large-scale gatherings.
Actually, this is a good problem to have as interactivity and community relationship building and networking are often why people come to these large events, but more often than not they get panel discussions and lines of speakers (see Duncan Green’s rant on this in Conference Rage and Why We Need a War on Panels).  So you are starting well, with many people attending interested in contributing and sharing their ideas. 
The traditional break-out room format is not necessarily bad, but it can be without good guidance, or if you are trying to fold too many things together. If they are endless, very large, anonymous and all have the same large panel and Q&A format, then people can “get lost” or skip these more easily if they are tired or use the time to squeeze in that last meeting before they leave.

Consider mixing it up, you can actually schedule all of these types of sessions into your large meeting:


  1. Parallel Session Breakouts:  Have the parallel session breakouts on one day with the strongest proposals and the most interesting proposed formats. Consider providing a template before the call for submissions that has questions that guide people into considering how to make it interesting and interactive and give Panels as one of many formats to consider, with some guidance on how to do these in the most interesting way (e.g. 2 or 3 panelists with juxtaposing views, rather than 9 people who just want to say their 3 minutes regardless of the topic.) These can be good with more complex topics that need time to develop and can have interesting methodologies included within if there are competent facilitators working with the organizers – crowdsourcing, storytelling, carousel discussions, etc. 
  2. Hold an Open Space Technologysession for one of the 2 hour blocks –  after lunch is a good time as people will move around a little and small, self-selected discussions can be more refreshing. And it gives the hosts a little more time to prepare.  I often modify the traditional format slightly. This could be in the main plenary room and could feature 15-20 parallel conversations with two rounds of 45 min each (I’ve also tried this with 30 minutes and more rounds, but it tends to feel too rushed and short then). These parallel table discussions with hosts are scheduled in advance with numbered tables and a “key messages” template to record any ideas and outputs from the conversations. These are good for brainstorming and getting feedback on ideas. 
  3. Hold an Open Mike time, or a Pecha Kucha (or an Ignite), or TED-like talk stage where people get a limited, set amount of time and are video’ed professionally. Hold it in a “studio” type room so that people/audience attending is good and a bonus, but peripheral. Pick the submissions for this that are more ‘show and tell’. You can do the filming over lunch each day and invite people to come and watch but tell them (truthfully) that there is limited space (that often encourages people more!)  Some of these talks could be featured in the formal plenary programme here and there as appropriate as they are short targeted interventions. In addition, as TED does, you can feature them throughout the year in your newsletters with a little blurb and add in video links to other communications. It is always nice to promote the work of members, and this is in their own words. 
  4.  Digital Poster Exhibition: You could also run a digital poster contest. Invite people with appropriate submissions to design an e-poster. Then have a number of large screens in busy places (the coffee area, lunch room, etc.) where the e-posters are displayed for 3-5 min each and change all the time, like a billboard. You can also feature these e-posters on the conference website, and archive them. Each one could have the photo of the person presenting it and inviting people to approach them for more information (face-to-face or by email).  The e-posters could have a custom e-template that people fill in, which could be a website template potentially and provide people with fields to complete with a title, text (e.g. 500 words), upload photos, add links, contact information, web URL, etc. Award prizes for the top 5 posters and announce them in the plenary and show them there. Let the audience vote on it for the prizes, or have the organizing team do that. 

And there are other formats that can also work, this is just a selection and to demonstrate what can be combined to showcase the different kinds of proposals you might receive. This blended format can also allow you to say “yes” to all of those who submitted proposals to share. The advantage of adding in points 3 and 4 above, is that in addition to an on-site F2F experience, they also give you video and image content to use later in your communications and learning and training materials, as case studies of what members are doing, etc. This adds additional value to participants as you are helping them disseminate their messages beyond who’s in the room at your large meeting. 

For each of these, produce good guidelines and templates. This is not to put square pegs into round holes, but to help guide people in their thinking about what good practice is for each of these formats. This takes a little more concerted effort to produce at the onset, and any follow up coaching you could provide is a bonus, but this can be welcome capacity development contribution back to your participants – as with highly active community members, your large scale event probably won’t be the only one they attend this year! (Try to make it one of their favorites)

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2 replies
  1. College Reine Marie
    College Reine Marie says:

    An individual semester of blended learning may emphasize classroom time at the beginning, then gradually increase the amount of work that students do online or during independent study. Many argue that class discussion boards, for example, are far more useful if the participants have met face-to-face first.

  2. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    I would agree with this, and I think it works also for networks and distributed projects. The relationship building effort at the beginning can help facilitate engagement from everyone to the virtual work that may come later (even if it is informal work and networking support).

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