Un-conference in NYC (Photo: SpatialK)

How to Run an Amazing Conference

Since BJ Fogg, PhD gave me his Design for Dance conference in 2014, I’ve learned a lot about what makes event production great. Granted, with a background in stage performance, BJ’s influence, and many amazing event professionals giving their input and advice, I’ve had a lot to work with. This article will teach you some of the most common mistakes that conference and event planners make, and some simple, extremely effective formats that will increase engagement.

Most conferences, even the biggest players like TED or SXSW, tend to make a few simple mistakes. Audiences spend most of their hours in chairs, moving only during intermissions, bathroom runs, and networking breaks. Even though research proves the value of multi-dimensional learning, our best conferences and events tend to keep the audience stationary. Most speakers are nervous because they aren’t easily able to engage the audience. They cannot see their audiences because of bright lights, are nervous because public speaking is the #2 fear after death, and they get limited real time feedback because audiences are supposed to be sitting down.

But I have good news: the solutions to these problems are simple and easy to add to your conference or event — and I’ll teach you how.

Always Add Movement

In the last two years I’ve been invited to half a dozen national conferences to add movement in between keynotes. Amy Cueva brings me to her health and design conference HXRefactored each year to add physical experiences P.E. to her events. With an audience that isn’t used to alternative formats, simple mindfulness exercises allow the audience to take the short breaks necessary to learn more during more traditional sessions.

At Partner’s in Connected Health, I was instead the facilitator who introduced each speaker, and then facilitated the Q & A that followed, while getting the audience to stand up, get engaged, and use our experts to solve their problems from stage.

In a revolutionary approach, BJ Fogg, PhD established at the first annual Design for Dance conference that each presenter would be required to get the audience moving 5 out of each 15 minute talk. While this approach might not be best suited to every conference type, requiring an element of movement forced each speaker to think (and move) outside the box.

Kaiser Permanente’s Innovation Learning Network had their 10 year anniversary celebration in May 2016, and I’m was honored to be overseeing their movement/play track., which encompassed seven 25–85 minutes sessions. I have curated Kim Nicol teaching meditation, Jenny Sauer-Klein to lead AcroYoga and Play on Purpose workshops, and more. Audiences were able to choose where they spent their time and attention.

In my recent events on The Future of Work we utilized an Un-conference format. Because one of the tenants of our Un-conference was “the law of two feet” — in other words, if you’re not engaged you are encouraged to stand up and move elsewhere — people regularly walked around as a part of their participation throughout the day.

Movement break lead by LeeAnn Mallorie at our Un-conference (Photo: SpatialK)

Use Alternative Presentation Formats

The sit-and-absorb construct is so pervasive, it can be hard to disrupt. However, alternative options are already out there, as long as you know where to look. Here are a few of my favorites.

World Cafe -

Bookend your conference with a whole group world cafe that gathers stories, themes and ideas from the whole group. As a bonus, include graphic facilitation.

Why it works:

  • World Cafe formats clearly delineate the beginning and end of your event.
  • At the Beginning: it puts everything out on the table
  • At the End: it creates meaningful next steps

TED talks

TED talk style presentations feature researchers where we learn the core of their research in 15–30 minutes through their personal style and visual slides.

Why it works:

  • TED talks are NOT boring
  • They include rigorous research
  • The talks include a visual format and engaging storytelling methods — that way, it’s not just a talking head on stage.

The Round

A panel format including up to 10 people. Person A interviews person B, Person B interviews person C, and so on and so forth until you circle back to person A.

Why it works:

  • Audiences get to hear and engage with multiple perspectives
  • There is potential to directly include your audiences in the conversation

Innovator Studio

Intimate interviews and Q/A sessions with innovators in the world of work. Think up close and personal — a la Tony Hsieh talking about Holacracy at Zappos, or James Lipton from Inside the Actor’s Studio. The interviewer is steeped in knowledge, is passionate about the people he interviews, and has a keen understanding their story. Q and A’s are invited from the audience. Each interview is recorded with two camera setup.

Why it works:

  • The two camera set-up allows the audience to see more closely, and provides content for engagement after the event
  • Audiences get the full story, and the opportunity to ask questions
  • It’s a truly personal experience with a well-known person
  • While they are in-depth, these interviews are only 15 minutes long, so people aren’t stationary for a long time.


Think Geoffrey Robertson’s television show Hypothetical. A leader poses hypothetical situations to a panel of practitioners, thought leaders and academics to hear how their ideas and theories may be applied in practical application.

Why it works:

  • It’s an opportunity to respond to a challenge
  • Audiences receive detailed, practical applications
  • It gets your audience excited about thinking creatively: How would you approach it…?

Hot Off the Red Carpet

Host short comedy interviews with various conference delegates or attendees about what they’re learning -

Why it works:

  • It gives people a chance to lighten up and approach deep thought with humor
  • It’s versatile: it can engage presenters, audiences, passers-by — anyone.
  • There’s a lot of opportunity here to engage outside of the conference — the interviews can be compiled as follow-up, live streamed, presented live, and more.

Co-Creation Connectors

Small circles of fifteen participants connecting with each other around topics, pain points and ideas. These are self-nominated, and facilitators draw out stories and build ideas with the group.

Why it works:

  • These topics, pain points, and/or ideas are gleaned from conference applicants when they register — curators then choose the most popular topics and ideas.
  • Like an unconference spread throughout

Innovation Jam

An innovation jam event consists of six parts (awakening, meditation, small group discussions, networking opportunities, and the creation of a graphic artifact). These parts can operate independently, or can stretch over one or two days. Each part is customized to meet the needs, goals, and culture of your event.

Why it works:

  • It includes movement and embodied experiences
  • Audiences get to directly participate in idea generation
  • It offers curators versatility, and the ability to pick and choose the components that work best in the context of your event.

Consider how you engage your audience before, during, and after your event.

Through an email list, newsletter, or even just phone calls with potential attendees, a curator can learn about the needs of the conference audience. Listening to the audience gives a more accurate read into what content and formats will best suit the attendees.

During the conference you can consider implementing an un-conference, allowing attendees to choose the themes that matter the most to them. A curator can provide the facilitators to ensure that each un-conference breakout is successful, while still giving attendees the full freedom of content choice.

Finally, after the event, it’s important to keep the conversations going. Collecting personal feedback, creating online forums for further conversation and networking, and follow-up emails sharing conference content and key take-aways are all great ways give the conference experience continued meaning for all participants and attendees.

Thanks for reading! If you have other ideas not discussed above, feel free to share them with me on Twitter.

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