5 Tips for Designing a Great Conference Session

We love attending museum conferences. They’re a great opportunity to make connections, discuss concerns and solutions, and share best practices.

Museum Hack has presented at several conferences, including our most recent presentation at the New England Museum Association conference on “The Language of Museums.” Ethan Angelica and Kate Downey received amazing reviews of their session:

“Fucking awesome — lots of great insights about how to make my museum actually relevant to our audience.”
“Oh my god. Ridiculously useful information, presented flawlessly. Wish it was a day long session.”

These reviews inspired us to reflect on what we think makes conference sessions successful. We’ve compiled these reflections into five tips that you can use when designing your next workshop or presentation. Read on to find out more.

#1: Be clear, concise, and energizing about who you are and what you do.

“Spoke easily, freely, well-prepared.”’
“I’ve read about Museum Hack’s work, but this was very helpful in understanding how they do what they do.”
“Really useful breakdown of concepts.”

Conferences are terrific opportunities for discussing new initiatives and projects. But, sometimes, people get lost in generalities rather than exploring the nuts and bolts of what worked and didn’t work in their projects.

Our favorite sessions are grounded in detailed insights of programs, experiences, and attempts to reinvigorate and reimagine museums. They acknowledge the frank realities without sugar coating challenges, enabling their audiences to understand and discuss their successes and failures. These sessions are also authentic in their approach, recognizing that there is always room for improvement — and that the conference is a unique opportunity to receive feedback, discuss lessons learned, and explore possibilities for the future. The more specific about who you are and what you do, the more your listeners will glean from the experience and be able to help you in return.

#2: Walk the talk.

“Very useful. Clearly laid out concept. Incorporated techniques they talked about into the actual presentation.”
“Well formatted, PowerPoint way better than most — basic info on the screen, details in the talk. Embodied their ‘storytelling work!’ into their presentation.”

It’s one thing to discuss techniques — and quite another to demonstrate them. We love incorporating demonstrations into our presentations, because nothing is better than seeing the ideas presented immediately put into practice. Of course, this is a natural fit for engagement professionals, but it can totally work for other parts of the museum world.

Work in development? Demonstrate your methods for closing a large donation.

Marketing? Produce a campaign on the spot and break down how you do it.

As the old adage says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Watch how Ethan used passion and humor during our hack of the The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum after our TEDxFoggyBottom presentation:

#3: Make it Inspiring and Useful.

“Fucking awesome! Lots of new ideas to try with visitors and even board engagement!”
“My head is so full of ideas!”
“Unbelievably great! Precise, energetic, great responses to questions.”

While discussing ideas is primary when designing a conference session, it’s just as important to make your presentation inspiring. Recall the passion that started your idea or program, and use that passion to inspire others. What made this idea stand out amongst others? Why did you choose this program?

Keep your passion flowing throughout your presentation and end with an inspirational mic drop moment. How can audiences use the information you’re presenting? What makes your program or lessons learned so valuable to the future of museums?

Even if your presentation is a tale of failure — a program that never took off, an initiative that went sour — there’s always something to be learned. What are the largest takeaways? What parts of the experience are most applicable to the growth of all of our institutions?

Our favorite place to put this message is at the end. Give your attendees a positive, forward-looking message at the end of the session, inviting your audience to spark new questions and ideas.

#4: Show your passion.

“Energy was unbelievable and fun to share.”
“I wish the presenters were my friends. Really badly. I’d be entertained if they read me IKEA furniture instructions.”
“Their energy was contagious and perfect for a foggy morning.”

We think the best conference sessions are full of practical advice, but also allow the presenter’s passion to shine through. Presentations are even better when presenters allow their personality to shine through the facts, figures, data, and details. One way to do this is to tell personal stories that tap into your own energy while reinforcing the points you are trying to get across. By tapping into your source of passion, you instantly shine a light on why you did what you did — and why it can be beneficial for all museums.

#5: Make it fun.

“Super engaging and interesting; they made it fun.”
“Very engaging. This is the best NEMA session I’ve been to (this is my 7th conference).”

A little entertainment never hurt anyone. What can you do to enliven your session? Can you add a dance break in the middle? (We did once — it was awesome!) Can you gamify the explanation of that budget sheet? What if you explained your recent social media initiative in rhyming verse?

Although we are talking about serious stuff, finding the fun creates an experience that your audience won’t forget — while fostering high-level engagement with your ideas and learning objectives.

We’re heading to a few conferences this year already, but we’d love to attend more. Want us to come play with you? Send us an email! You can also click here to read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.

Originally published on the Museum Hack website.

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