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Powerpoint-drenched events are legacy. Why unconferences and white board sessions are the way forward

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 4, 2019
Stale slide decks, boring panels and cheesy motivational speakers have obscured the essence of enterprise events: peers learning from peers. Here's six proven formats you can use to make your event more interactive - and indispensable.

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Unconference from Western Mass Podcamp

Two years before co-founding diginomica, I was part of the launch team for the SAP Controlling conference.

Founded by SAP Financials expert John Jordan, and based in ridiculously sunny San Diego, the SAP Controlling conference rolls on. Obviously I'm completely biased, but there's two things I really like about the conference:

  • We're independent from SAP, and able to focus the content on attendees' needs - the vast majority of whom are SAP customers. That means we don't have to hype the intelligent enterprise or Leonardo or S/4HANA. We can focus on whatever customers find relevant. Yes, some of that is new SAP tech and roadmap stuff. Much of it is learning from their peers and field experts, getting more out of the software they've already paid for.
  • The core team is determined to re-invent stale event formats, emphasizing interactive sessions. They've also been very tolerant supportive of my desire to infuse enterprise shows with unconference structures and ideas.

Those experiments haven't always worked. But they've led to some conference staples, such as our unconference-style post-conference day, and our turbo-networking session that quickly mixes attendees into topic groups - giving them far more contacts then they would have made otherwise.

White board discussion sessions have become very popular at this show - to the point where attendees are actively pushing us for more. The standard "45 minutes of Powerpoint slides session" is going out of style here, to the point that I've suggested we advise all speakers to open for questions within the first ten minutes - before carrying on with their slides.

Six interactive event tactics that pay off

None of these event ideas are tied to SAP, or even finance and controlling, so they can be incorporated into all kinds of events. They fit in well with my enterprise event survival guide. I've urged vendors to take risks to make their events interactive. Here's some unconventional options that we've used:

1. A panel format based entirely on audience questions - For several panels, including one plenary panel, I told panelists no long-winded speaker introductions. In fact, no introductions at all, aside from a group picture slide. Two minutes each on why they are here, then the entire format is audience questions. Yes, during the plenary session, it got very awkward for a minute, waiting for someone to raise their hand.

When the audience realized we weren't going to rescue the silence, they stepped up. Ultimately the questions were terrific. The panel went in wonderful/unexpected directions not possible with the typical canned question format, where audience input is an afterthought.

2. Turbo-networking - It's a format I learned from Fast Company's old Company of Friends groups. The goal? Leave with more business cards and contacts than you could possibly get at a conference reception or birds of a feather lunch. Turbo-networking has more structure; it mixes people more thoroughly. I thought 2018 was our best turbo-networking ever; attendees seemed to agree.

I think that's because for each round, once we gathered folks into topical groups (e.g. geography, industry, and job role), they were provided with a question to answer as a group about a project challenge they are facing. We combined chaotic business card swapping with a chance to get real. People naturally cling to the people they know at a show, or the first people they meet. This type of session forces you out of that comfort zone enough times that the energy shift is palpable.

3. Open conference feedback session - Before the conference wraps, we do an open feedback session. Yes, we also do the standard session surveys using our Whova app. But we believe the chance to speak face to face with the event team is important.

Attendees put their projects aside to get here. If we screwed up or need to improve on something, they should have the chance to air it out, and hear our immediate response. Some of the best ideas come from this frank session. It's also a great opportunity to ask about which topics resonated, whether we got the balance right with HANA and non-HANA content, feedback on the venue, and so on. Yes - we take food feedback also.

4. White board sessions - There's no one right way to run a white board session, and you don't necessarily need a white board either. The goal is simply an interactive discussion on a topic of passionate interest. The key is picking the right topic and the right expert. TruQua's David Dixon led a worthwhile discussion on SAP analytics and planning options. Given the absurd amount of products SAP has in this space, and the push to the SAP Analytics Cloud, attendees had plenty of questions. Dixon wisely avoided slides and just opened the topic up.

This session wouldn't have worked if Dixon wasn't plugged into what SAP product teams are doing - so his relationships with SAP were a factor here. That's why you can't idealize informal sessions. The session might be informal, but the planning of that session is anything but. Some speakers simply aren't a fit with this format - not without training. Meanwhile, Paul Ovigele of ERPfixers led an important white board discussion on S/4HANA and the Material Ledger, one of the hottest topics for SAP controllers. This topic is loaded with questions on changing functionality and configuration, so it's a good fit with this structure.

5. Short keynote - highlighted by a customer presentation.  I don't know if we can claim the shortest keynote in enterprise software, but at sixty minutes max, at least we are in the running. The biggest chunk of that hour? A customer presentation. Project lessons and stories. The customer controls their own slides; we get the heck off the stage.

6. Post-conference unconference day - I've written on our post-conference day before. Why end the show with this informal half-day? To push for our goal: no attendee leaves the show with a question unanswered.  The unconference-style format is ideal for this, because we begin the day by polling for all open questions, and organize them into peer-driven, adhoc sessions.

Working through the structure and getting all questions logically grouped and answered is not easy, but the results are worth it. Creative formats can be very effective at enterprise events, but only if the right experts and skilled facilitators are present. You have to know your audience and anticipate what ingredients they will need.

Lessons and caveats before you dive in

One big thing I want to get across: you don't have to jump into the deep end to inject structured interaction into an event. SAP controllers have high stakes jobs and very practical mindsets. If they don't get a result from an event, they'll let us know about it. I wouldn't describe our event as experimental. It's more appropriate to say we want to get more interactive each year.

The fact that SAP controllers see the benefits of mixing things up is yet more evidence: attendees want to learn from their peers, without a wall of marketing messages in the way.

Yes, this is a smaller event on the enterprise side. But dismissing these ideas as unworkable at a larger scale is foolish. There could be a white board session track, for example. All speakers could be trained in advance on interactive formats. And: I've seen companies open up audience participation at a keynote to thousands. When a large event clings to stale formats with scale as the excuse, that's a failure in imagination.

There are two caveats I need to acknowledge. These types of sessions do place a higher degree of responsibility on organizers and speakers. Subject matter experts need facilitation skills or, perhaps, support in handling Q/A formats.

And attendees must step it up also. Let's face it, attendees are used to catching up on their email during boring panels, checking their phones while slide decks blur past. It may sound strange, but most attendees are not used to taking full responsibility for their conference experience. Why should they, when the format is so boilerplate, and the chance for input so limited?

That's why, on the first day, we always encourage attendees that this is their event. That means it's their job not to leave the event with burning questions. Often, we can change formats on the fly, but we need to hear their concerns/frustrations.  At most shows, that feedback only shows up on session evaluations. The feedback isn't acted on until the following year, at best.

To act on things quickly, you need formats that draw the questions out. Anonymous feedback is useful, but getting people to open up about their project issues and brainstorm solutions is the real win. We need to push away from the "learn from the gurus" mentality that event marketers are obsessed with. Entertaining attendees is a lot less important than providing them a structure to make lasting connections with each other.

A peer discussion yields far more insights than a motivational speaker who parachutes in with a barely-customized speech on business heroics. I've been a part of customer discussions where I thought to myself, "These folks are saving each other thousands of dollars in consulting right now." That's assuming the consulting is any good.

Technology can help also. Most mobile event apps still stink. I like our Whova mobile app because it's better at interactive banter than others. This year, attendees even organized their own evening activity using the app. Alas, most event apps are really just an online session catalog with a registration bar code that never works, and an incomprehensible floor map. That's a missed opportunity, and most shows whiff on it.

I don't think you'll regret injecting ideas like these in your events. If you have others we haven't tried, I'd love to hear them.

End note: this piece is part of my diginomica enterprise event survival guide series.

Image credit - The photo, by Michelle Girard of Michelle Girard Photography, is from a Western Mass Podcamp event where I first saw unconferences in action.

Disclosure - ERP Corp, which funds the SAP Controlling conference, has been a client since the inception of the conference. However, I was not compensated for this blog post by ERP Corp, nor is this a sponsored post from ERP Corp. I'd like to thank the event team organizers, past and present, for being willing to put new event ideas to the real world test.

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