You’re asked to help design an interactive and engaging conference of 200, 400, 1,500, or 10,000 people. Do you leap at the challenge or quake believing this is beyond your capacity?

Rest assured: You can do much more than you might expect, whether in side events, workshops or on the ‘main stage’ in plenary. People often come to conferences to build relationships within their professional community. Designing interactive sharing and learning into your conferences helps in building these relationships whilst also engaging with the conference subject matter and it is possible – even for very large groups.

With conferences often costing millions to stage, taking years to plan and involving large teams of organisers and facilitators (take the World Water Forum as an example – drawing more than 30,000 people!), meeting the learning, sharing and networking needs of participants is a must.

Many large conferences can seem formulaic, anonymous and unambitious. This is a missed opportunity when these events have an attentive audience of thousands of experts. Imagine what you can do with that amount of knowledge and enthusiasm – it’s an incredible resource to harness!

There are many tools and techniques that allow participants to provide genuine input and learn and share something useful, rather than listen to a long series of plenary presentations. Let them brainstorm, learn directly from their peers and be creative. The first step is to identify the results or impact you want from your event, and work back to select the best tools.

Flexibility is key. In large-scale events, people often choose what to attend from a variety of sessions in parallel (or they may choose to just have a coffee with a new contact), so you never know how many people will turn up to your sessions. You need to design each session of your event so you can scale up, or down, as needed.

There will always be speakers. But keynotes, plenary presentations and traditional panel formats can be made more interactive and stimulating by tools such as open space technology, ‘open mike’ time, TED-like talks on stage, as well as interactive audience-polling and Q&A tools.

In our last newsletter Brian McKenna described the Reproductive Healthy Supplies Coalition conference with 250 participants, which Bright Green Learning helped to design. Together we designed a programme that combined a formal agenda with creative tools that engaged participants with some great results, and closed with a moving summary by a performance poet!

We’re happy to be launching a new module on designing interactive workshops at large conferences on 6 March. We’ll be looking at what works well with really large groups, what to do when too many people want to speak at plenary, how to solve problems on site and adapt to the unpredictable. Why not join us!

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