Great events get attention, achieve results, and create momentum towards your goals. We all want great meetings, workshops and conferences. Having a list of VIPs who are attending your event helps demonstrate the importance of the topic and the work you are doing. As a result, organizers can focus a lot of energy into woo-ing the head of this or that. At some level that makes sense, as these people have positions of influence, they command large budgets and staff. They also attend other high-level meetings where, when they speak, their interventions are recorded into the official minutes of the meeting, and potentially help influence others who command large budgets and staff to act and support your effort from their lofty level of the hierarchy as well. Great!

However, the expectation and current paradigm is that the VIP participant always gets the prime real estate, that is, they will open the Conference and speak, potentially at some undetermined length, in plenary. This can sometimes pose a problem as you squeeze in more and more VIPs who want to attend.  There are only so many hours in the workshop day, and if you fill all the hours with official speakers making pre-prepared speeches from podiums on stages, you will run out of working time, quickly start to lose your eager audience and potentially jeopardize the impact of your event. You definitely don’t want to risk losing the buzz and energy and results that were promised when the VIP originally agreed to attend, and that they would talk about later.

Maybe I am being a little melodramatic here. Yet, it bears taking some time in the design stage to think about what you can offer your VIP participants that is an alternative to several hours of speeches at the onset of your exciting meeting. What are some other options?

  • If no plenary is a deal-breaker what about the Closing Plenary? Sharing what’s next and why this was an important meeting? Especially if that person might be from a country that is hosting another event further along the process.
  • There is always an Opening Reception, what about giving a short (but pithy) speech as the first toast? (Co-) Hosting is an honour you can bestow.
  • There might be a Welcome Dinner or Closing Dinner, another opportunity to make a speech. Call them Gala Dinners, have a head table with reserved seating, and arrange to have your best table moderator or facilitator there to make their experience fascinating and focused on messaging about the event. The speeches can also be spread out during the meal: starters, main dish, dessert. They should be short (toast-length) and not in a long line of speakers.
  • Set up a green screen or other video area and invite your VIP to make a short video statement about your event, what she/he expects and what they will do afterwards to promote your goal. Put the videos online, and show them during the event, make a closing video compilation that features your VIP speakers sharing their excitement for your work.
  • Can there be a High-level Panel? Put your most competent moderator on the job to interview them and draw out their learning and experience in your field – and as an added bonus, they don’t even have to prepare their speech in advance! (but make sure this is a real panel discussion and not just a string of individual speeches followed by 10 minutes of Q&A with the audience – not a “Panel Discussion”) If they are a character, they can also be the Moderator chosen to host the panel.
  • Can VIPs sign an MOU with your Programme, with another partner, with each other in a Marketplace area, or at a special featured point in the programme? You can bring out the conference paparazzi, capture some great images for the website, feature and applaud their initiative.
  • Are you offering any Awards? Can they present the Awards and prizes? Along with the media and photo opp, they can share some of their thoughts about the conference, competition and the winner and about their country/programme/initiative.
  • You can also feature some separate events for them and the other VIPs – a High-Level Reception (with a few speeches), a High-Level Lunch with their peers to share their own challenges and opportunities they are finding in relation to the work you are featuring at the conference. This is a perfect opportunity for them to share their learning, identify opportunities to support your work and share that thinking with their high-level peers, etc.

Don’t let these golden opportunities slip past, they are excellent opportunities to get glittering testimonials, quotable quotes, wise tips from your champions on how others can become champions too, etc. In fact it is easier to get these more valuable nuggets of wisdom from your VIPs in any of the above alternative contexts than in a Plenary opening speech, which is bound to be written in advance (potentially by someone else), read from a script, and riddled with protocol and acknowledgements and thank you’s. Something about them got them to their VIP status, and if they are with you at your event, they are there to apply their magic to help you achieve your goals. Consider giving them some other options than that 10 minutes, in a long list of speeches at the very formal and often rather dry onset of your event.




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)

(Want to learn more about our work? Sign up for our Bright Green Learning Academy Newsletter Collaboration by Design here.)