Ideas to leverage technology to optimize in-person time
Hundreds of people in slacks and business jackets amble leisurely to their seats at round tables sprinkled with notebooks, pens with corporate logos stamped on the sides, and carafes of water. A slide at the front of the room shows a static image with the panelists’ and moderator’s names. The presenters take their place on stage and an hour-long discussion amongst the panelists commences.
The audience watches in silence, still as the shadows of trees in a forest. Every once in a while a shadow moves to the back to collect a pastry and coffee cup, then slides back into place within the crowd. The sound of the speakers’ voices reverberates throughout the room.
An hour later at the lecture’s end, the audience claps and migrates to the building lobby where they grab hors d’oeuvres and network in small groups. After 20 minutes, back to the conference room they go and the process repeats.
I’m surprised that most business events today—many that charge registration fees of several thousand or even tens of thousands of dollars—are identical to the 200-person college lecture hall—a learning model that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for its depersonalized, non-interactive learning. If participants are to listen to someone talk for an hour straight, why not make it an online video so that they can watch it on their own time; pause, reflect, and rewind as they desire; and save the cost of the plane ticket and hotel?
In grade school through college, a new philosophy of learning has developed alongside the rise of online education—“flipping the classroom”—which does just that. Students watch pre-recorded lectures online, freeing up actual class time for discussions and interactive projects. Khan Academy has been both a catalyst and enabler of this learning model.
Corporate learning professionals can similarly re-imagine the business event. Not necessarily “flip” it, because that wouldn’t work in quite the same way for a corporate audience (for one thing, there’s no out-of-event-hours work to flip the during-event activities with, whereas schools have both out-of-class homework and in-class learning). Rather, learning leaders can “interactivate” the event by using technology to optimize precious in-person time.
Before the event
Let’s start with what might happen in the days before the event. Participants should be able to:
- Create a profile. On the main event website, participants should create an account, register, select sessions they’ll attend (if applicable), and create their profile. Their profile should include the company where they work, where they’re located, skills they bring, who they’re looking to meet, links to their social network profiles (primarily LinkedIn and Twitter), and other information that would help facilitate networking. Participants may decide whether or not to make their profile public.
- See event details. This includes the schedule of events, speakers/panelists, list of other attendees who opted to make their profile public, sponsors, etc.
- Prepare to network. Ideally participants will be able to direct message other participants (again, those who opt in) and arrange to meet during a break or outside event hours.
Of course, all this should also be available via a mobile app.
During the event
Interactivating the actual event should involve facilitating:
- Engagement during presentations
- Networking and relationship-building
I’ll share some ideas for both of these elements of a successful event.
- Engagement during presentations
Studies have shown that actively engaging with presentations and seeing dynamic visuals rather than passively listening increases retention of information, and results in a more fun experience. Participants should be able to engage both with each other and with the content presented. A few ways this can be done are by using:
- Twitter: A Twitter feed using a specific hashtag can be embedded into the event website. When participants Tweet questions and include that hashtag, their question will appear in the feed, which can then be projected for all to see. The moderator can select the best questions to ask the guest speaker(s). Participants can quickly Tweet by going to the event website or mobile app, where the feed is already embedded and the hashtag is pre-populated in the Tweet field.
- Applications: A multitude of companies provide applications that allow participants to take polls and see results and ask questions to presenters. Concise, Wooclap, and sli.do are some examples.
- Open edX: While Open edX is largely used in online courses rather than live events, this open-source educational platform allows for all the interactivity a live event can ever hope for—polls with results viewable in real time, multiple-choice questions with instant feedback, embedded Google forms, and so many other options. Furthermore, event organizers can make this content available for participants indefinitely after the event.
- Graphic recording: This is a fun way to visualize messages in-the-moment and capture key takeaways. I once did this at a conference by drawing on my digital tablet and projecting it onto a wall.
- Networking and relationship-building
Networking should be a guaranteed part of live events. Event organizers can easily schedule time for networking and leave it to participants to connect, but it would be better worth participants’ time if they could quickly find others with the right knowledge or experience. As described above, one way to facilitate this is by allowing participants to create profiles, view profiles of others, and connect with them on their social networks. Then they could arrange to meet on their own, either during or after the event.
Other ideas to help participants connect are:
- Applications: There are apps specifically used for networking at live events such as E-180’s Brain Dates, which allows participants to view others’ profiles and then request and schedule appointments during allotted times
- Assigning participants to pairs or small groups: Event organizers can tell participants the schedule and their group members prior to the event, and provide a list of topics to discuss
- Conversation starters: Participants can use buttons or stickers to indicate something about them (e.g., everyone with a certain role within their organization wears an orange sticker)
- Room layout: Even the way food, tables, and chairs are arranged can help or hinder networking. Food displayed in beautiful and creative ways will spark conversation. Having several large tables (rather than many small tables) will force people to sit together.
After the event
The website will be the primary extension of the event after it’s over. Here, participants should be able to view video recordings of each presentation, view and download any slides and other materials presented, view participants’ profiles and connect with them, and see the activities (polls, discussions, multiple-choice questions) that occurred during the event and continue contributing to them. A nice-to-have feature would be transcripts of the videos so that participants can quickly read through what was said or search key words. This can be done using automated transcription software during the presentation and having a transcriber fix any errors in real time.
The Open edX platform is probably the best way to forge this online community. It also has a decent mobile app on which participants can access content and engage in discussions.
In summary, there are many effective ways to engage participants before, during, and after the event by leveraging technology. It takes some creativity and planning, but is well worth it. In this day and age, when just about everything can be done online in some form, how people spend their in-person time becomes more and more critical. A successful event will optimize this in-person time so that participants leave more informed and more connected, permanently.
 The only catch with using some of these third-party providers is that they usually require content to live on their own platform, and/or require participants to use devices they provide. Personally, as a conference organizer, I would want to drive participants to my own site and have them engage there so I have access to and control of all the data. Using another device can also be cumbersome to participants who would prefer to engage on their own devices.
 The Open edX platform is digital interaction heaven, but implementing it into your own website requires a bit of an engineering and UX investment. Drop me a message if you would like more information on the process and cost of doing so.