Do people want to come to your conference? Is it a battle to get registration numbers up? Do you know why people come to your conference?

When I ask these questions, clients may discuss the ROI of the conference, or suggest that using the newest technology, or seeing a big name keynote speaker is the way to bring in registrations. And absolutely, these will get a certain number of attendees registered. However, the technology and keynotes will be fleeting and registrations will not carry over from one conference to the next unless you wow them to keep them coming back. So what will create a loyal group of registrants who, not only want to attend, but who bring their colleagues?

The answer is audience engagement. More than anything, people want to be intrigued and energized when listening to content. They want to learn, not only from experts, but from their colleagues. They want to share their stories and questions and hear from others who have been through the same situations to know what worked and what didn’t.

This means forgetting the notion that conferences are only a speaker at the front, with people facing them in straight lines watching a PowerPoint presentation. Build sessions that are structured for the various ways people learn and take in information. As a planner or board member, there’s a very strong responsibility to make sure your location is conducive to learning. Linda-Darling Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt, and Jim Rosso from Stanford University, School of Education, have a telecourse for teacher education and professional development available online “HOW PEOPLE LEARN: INTRODUCTION TO LEARNING THEORIES. The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice, A Telecourse for Teacher Education and Professional Development”.

This section stood out:
“People learn by making sense of the environment and of stimuli around them. Greater perceptual development and learning occur in environments that are rich with stimuli and provide useful feedback in response to a learner’s efforts to act upon the environment. The nature of the tasks confronted, the ways in which information is presented, and the expectations for the learner’s involvement all impact the learning process. In addition, the nature of the social environment – whether and how learners have access to others who can model, describe, or provide feedback – shapes the learning process. Reinforcements from the environment and the nature of feedback from significant others can stimulate or undermine greater effort.”

I attended one of Jeff Hurt’s sessions (of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting – at PCMA 2013 in Orlando. It was the most engaging, and most inspiring of the conference. We were sitting at round tables with people scattered throughout the room. Jeff didn’t stay in one spot, he walked throughout the room, he sat down on the edge of the stage, and he sat at some of the rounds. He didn’t drone on about stats and info. Jeff started the session by asking us – the attendees – a question, trade related, and to explain our answer to the others at our table. That broke the ice. Then, as he moved on, he stated an important point and asked us to relate it to something we experienced. We then shared these experiences with our tablemates. Some people shared with the whole group as Jeff walked around asking for examples before giving us his answers. Jeff did this maybe four or five times. Yes, he used slides, I don’t remember handouts, but he engaged us and helped us get excited again by creating an atmosphere that promoted discussion, creativity and peer support.

Let’s start breaking the mold and get people excited to meet again by mixing the traditional lecture with more unique approaches for sessions. Don’t give up measuring ROI or showcasing the newest technology; just know that it’s ok shake things up and try something new. Most people, if informed that something is new and feedback is welcome, will appreciate your efforts. And the more they see results from your efforts, the more loyal they’ll be; making your conference a priority on their calendar.