The Conference Blueprint – Part 4; The Agenda

The Conference Blueprint – Part 4; The Agenda

Conference Blueprint Part 4; Now you can think about the agenda!

Our ‘Conference Blueprint’ prompts you to ask key strategic questions whenever you are planning a large-scale event. The first three parts help to ensure you have:
1. Agreed key objectives 
2. Documented who is responsible for the key activities as well as identified expertise you may need to help achieve the objectives.
3. Considered what you want the audience to think, feel and do following the conference 
Now, only in Part 4 do we start thinking about the agenda and the conference content.

But surely content is the first thing we consider, right? 

 

Nope! We’ve done a lot of work before even thinking about what the agenda looks like and that is on purpose.

There is an understandable temptation to jump straight into designing sessions, requesting content from session owners and allocating presentations; but you really shouldn’t do that without having a clear idea of what you want to achieve overall. That’s why this section is purposely a long way into the planning process.

When you do reach this point however, it’s now really tempting to start designing sessions individually. But remember, this is a strategic plan and so it’s important you stay at the strategic level.

Refresh your mind with your super objective. What is the one single thing you want to achieve? This should be the thread you continuously come back to in the plan. And then you can start to map out the big picture at a high level, focussing again on the experience of the conference.

The way we approach the high-level plan is by thinking about an ‘arc’. Where will your audience start and where will they finish and how will it all hang together?

How does it work in practice?

 

 

Let’s say your super objective is that ‘Leaders will fully understand their role in executing the new strategy’  

This is a pretty ambitious, but necessary super objective and so if we break it down what does this super objective tell us needs to be included in the agenda? 

 

1. The strategy needs to be explained
 
 
2. In order to understand it fully, leaders will need time to digest and reflect
 
 
3. A change of leadership behaviours is likely to be required; this needs to be ‘felt’ during the whole session
 
4. Their role in terms of what is expected of them needs to be conveyed
 
5. They need to leave clear on what they are expected to DO following the session.
Immediately we have high level ‘drumbeats’ of the session and pointers to the content. If the new strategy requires leaders to be agile, disruptive and innovative then your agenda needs to convey this. The whole feel of your event will need to feel disruptive and innovative.
  • you might have a stage layout which is different from the norm
  • you might greet people with an activity rather than the usual coffee and pastries,
  • you might use case studies from external companies to illustrate the behaviours you are trying to achieve.

The big difference is that you haven’t jumped straight into agenda 101 with the senior leader opening the conference followed by a procession of presentations, with a token team building activity dropped in for good measure.

You’ve considered your objectives and thought about how to achieve them with the benefit of a blank sheet of paper. You know the high level plan and can now order the content appropriately.

Why does this approach make a conference more successful? 

 

Our experience shows that in a lot of cases, agenda design is more a case of trying to back fill disparate ‘slots’ into an agenda hoping that in the end, it will all make some kind of sense (it rarely does, by the way. People usually leave so bamboozled, overloaded with information, that they can’t remember anything at all, least of all the key messages)

And of course, this is why having clearly defined roles and responsibilities is so critical up front. Who has ultimate sign off? They are the custodian of the objectives and design principles. HR might want a slot to share the new Performance Management Process? IS might want to showcase a new system coming up.  If both these requests fit the strategic plan, then they may feature in the content. But the answer is no, if they really don’t serve the super-objective or help the conference arc.  

Again, the benefit of using the blueprint template is it allows the design team the space and time to think about what will be in service of the audience and then makes saying no to such requests much easier.

A real example of this approach in action

Ok, you’ve waited long enough. Here’s the story

We recently ran a conference that needed to be a flagship event. It was the new CEO’s first conference and as such was going to gain much attention and focus. It was also the launch of a completely new strategy and operational model and so there was a huge amount that needed to be covered and understandably, everyone wanted to be involved and have a say.

At the outset a very small core design team was formed. Four people in total including two from Purple Monster. That team locked down the objectives with the CEO early on and crafted a set of ‘design principles’

Throughout the 4-month design process (yep, these things take time and investment) the design principles and objectives were challenged, pretty much daily. More and more content was put forward for inclusion, more and more sessions were designed and repeatedly the team had to pushback, challenge and reconfigure.  In order to stay true to the design principles, we had to convince senior leaders to go way outside of their comfort zone, at this critical time of transformation and for many, presenting for the first time to their new teams.  The team also committed to protecting ‘reflection time’ as if it were the crown jewels, and turned down many late requests to ‘squeeze something in’.  

It was one of the toughest and most intense conference preparation periods we have ever been involved with but the result far exceeded ours and the CEO’s expectations.

The strategic implementation of this multi-billion $ company was accelerated after this event because the leadership team didn’t leave bamboozled. They left with greater clarity and momentum. Of course we can’t take any credit for the strategic implementation, of course we can’t, but the process we followed and the relentless focus on the objectives and the agenda meant that every message landed with the audience effectively both in terms of what they needed to know but also what we wanted them to feel and most importantly of all what the executive team needed them to do.

Now all that’s left to do, is the whole thing again next year!

Next week in part 5, we will focus on the thorny issues of where to go and who gets invited!

Download the full Conference Planning Blueprint here…

If you want to tap into our conference planning expertise, then please do feel free to contact us here.

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Could you create your own ‘Festival of Learning’?

Could you create your own ‘Festival of Learning’?

Here, Danielle reflects on her week at two ‘ideas’ festivals and how that approach could be used to encourage self-driven learning in business.

Rather than spend a holiday sitting on a beach, I went on a ‘learning holiday’. Eight full days attending two ‘idea’ festivals that were being held close to where I live. The first is the oddly named ‘How the Light Gets In’ (or ‘Who turned the lights off’ as it is known in Monster Towers!) organised by The Institute of Art and Ideas. The second was the more widely known Hay Literary Festival.

I’ve always loved learning. Not always as much as I do now. You learn all the time working in a small business and so to take time off work to do some more learning may seem strange to some. Maybe it is. But as an advocate and practitioner of lifelong learning, who loved every minute of my holiday, I’ve identified five elements that these incredibly popular events do. I then wondered if they could provide inspiration for anyone looking for innovative ways to promote a learning approach in their organisation.

Both festivals attract thousands of people each year for a combination of debates, talks, workshops, music and comedy. (Plenty of that in our company) They both have a slightly different emphasis, atmosphere and target audience but both still focus on what I would call ‘learning for the sake of learning’.

1. They are open to all

People from all different backgrounds, experiences and areas of expertise attend talks on Biology, Cosmology, Philosophy, the future of education, politics and creativity. Some people attending might hold a Ph.D in that particular field and are relishing the opportunity to hear from other leading thinkers. Others have literally no experience or knowledge in that field at all but are just there to simply hear about something new. Maybe learn a few things they didn’t know before or listen to a debate to understand the different perspectives on a thorny topic.

2. Everyone creates their own learning experience.

Sessions are scheduled from early in the morning to late at night. Sessions on different topics run at the same time in different locations. There are a variety of formats; talks, debates, workshops and hands-on sessions. Topics are vast and varied. You can’t do everything and every person that attends will choose a slightly different combination of experiences. You can go along for the everyday for the full week or for just a single day. Some buy tickets for individual events across the week. There is no set agenda or path. You are free to create the experience that works best for you.

3. They focus on ‘event experience’

Although most people attend because they’re interested in a particular topic or want to hear from certain authors or speakers, it isn’t just about the content. It’s possible to go to either festival; not go to any of the talks and just absorb the atmosphere.

You could sit with a book in the Serious Reading room (as I did for a morning) or get a drink in the bar and read a book there instead (which I also did) (I figured wine in the Serious Reading Room would be frowned upon!).

You could mooch around the various stalls or stands, pop your head into the ‘People’s Front Room’ and listen to a band for a while or just spend time ‘peoplewatching’ in a riverside deckchair. It’s as much about the atmosphere as the content.

4. You are in charge of your own learning

With my corporate hat on, I would say that any learning opportunity is only complete with an element of reflection, capturing next steps or action points at least. Not at an idea’s festival. People are left to learn what they want, when they want and how they want. You can apply what you want to apply and ignore everything that’s not relevant. Each session that I attended though, I did learn new information that I will apply. The tangible:

  • I learnt about MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) for example which I intend to investigate more.
  • There was recommended reading about Creativity and Purpose which I will add to my ever-increasing reading list.

Others were less tangible.

  • I marvelled at how a seemingly obvious ‘correct’ position can have many layers of ambiguity and controversy which I only appreciated after attending a debate about where to draw the line regarding free speech.

In all these instances though I was left to take away what was useful to me. The person sat next to me would likely have taken away completely different outcomes. And that’s the beauty of it. We weren’t told what we should learn. We shared an experience and then applied what was relevant to us. (though it is fair to say on at least one occasion, the only takeaway I had was that I didn’t understand a single word they were talking about!)

5. The emergence of lifelong learning

Throughout the 8 days I was in Hay, the overarching feeling I came away with was the importance of Lifelong learning. It gave me the opportunity to absorb new information, wrestle with different ideas and consider alternative perspectives. It does require the ‘learner’ to want to learn, of course it does, but similarly it is only effective because the content is interesting, the speakers engaging, the atmosphere relaxed and varied.

There was space to take time out and reflect.

There was humour as well and information.

There was self-selection and self-reflection

Taking these ideas further…

I am personally passionate about learning and more specifically self-driven learning and I’m lucky enough to be involved with building our sister business The Alternative Business School which holds this type of learning at its heart.

If this is a topic you want to debate, discuss and deliberate then please do get in touch.

With the increasingly competitive landscape and the advantages for us all to be on a lifelong learning journey, then concepts like The Alternative Business School and festivals such as the ones held in Hay each year have a significant role to play.



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Translating the overwhelmingly technical into the wonderfully simple

Translating the overwhelmingly technical into the wonderfully simple

Translating the overwhelmingly technical into the wonderfully simple

When an organisation is introducing technical and complex changes, the temptation is to place all the relevant information in lengthy documents and make it available to everyone that may be affected.

The assumption being, that everyone will read it, interpret it and thus know what they need to know.  In most organisations, where the volume of information is vast, that is, at best, unlikely.  In addition, if the information has been written by technical experts, it may serve more to confuse than to enlighten.

Although the obligation of providing information has been fulfilled and thus can be ticked off the project plan, it often fails to enlighten anyone and can create frustration and confusion. There is another way.

Alana bought a new carpet-cleaning machine at the weekend. (She is an official grown up now!). She shared on Monday morning the excitement of unboxing it, which rapidly turned to amazement and then to confusion at just how many parts it seemed to have. Her mood shifted to despair as she realised how much needed to be done to assemble these items to produce a fully functioning bit of kit. Perhaps the carpets could wait a day or two?

Thankfully, the despair was short lived, because the very thoughtful carpet machine manufacturers had created a wonderful technicolour spread of just exactly what went where and the order in which it went.  As well as clear assembly instructions, there were visual diagrammatic steps for operation too. What attachment was for what surface, how much solution to mix and which brushes were specially for homes with pets. A potential technical minefield easily explained and the previously terrifying array of bits was swiftly transformed into a fully functioning domestic delight.  Result – a delighted Alana, some very clean carpets and a slightly disgruntled Murphy dog. 

Wouldn’t it be great if the same happened in business? Technical, complex and dry but necessary information conveyed in a way which people can quickly understand and apply.

Here is the thought process we go through when we are faced with the challenge of translating technically complex information into the understandably simple.

1. What one thing do we want people to know?

2. What do we want them to do afterwards?

3. How do we want them to feel?  

Then:

1. What is a metaphor, a phrase, an analogy or concept that conveys all this information?

2. What creative vehicle could we use to clearly demonstrate that concept?

3. What other information needs to be conveyed that can be weaved into this overarching idea.

 

This diagram illustrates some examples. These creative ‘hooks’ can then be used throughout the messaging to reinforce the key point. 

Having a strong hook isn’t going to be able to describe your complete IT network in 5 minutes but here are a few other techniques we use in order to make the technical more simple: 

1. Make it Visual    

Take a leaf out of the carpet cleaning machine manufacturer’s book- make it visual. Need to show the relationship between the head office and the factory floor? Show it. Depicting the environment in which people work makes it immediately relatable and recognisable.

2.    Don’t try and include every little thing.

You will run the risk of getting stuck in the weeds and never actually getting to the end of articulating what you need to. Extra discussion can address the more detailed data once you have delivered the basics.

3.    Make sure it is relevant

Sense check it with individuals from the business who live it day to day. They will soon be able to tell you if it lands with them at a human level or not.

4.    Include the benefits

This works well in process visuals – to be able to see the benefit of a certain process step really helps in getting buy-in from individuals. Click here for examples of process maps and other visual creations. 

5.    Have some fun!

Can you include in-jokes? No car parking? Temperamental printers or dodgy light switches? Feature a nod to these! The laughter of recognition is a great icebreaker.  

Here is a recent example of a before and after: 

Whilst we are not suggesting that the assembly of a carpet cleaning machine presents the same technical challenge as say, introducing a new ERP, we are ultimately seeking the same outcome. 

A communication vehicle that can simply explain process and procedure and convey the required complex technical information in a simple and effective way.  Visuals really are the key.    

By the way, should anyone want their carpets cleaning …Alana recommends VAX.  If it’s strong simple visuals you are after, then please feel free to get in touch!



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Avoiding ‘average’ communications

Avoiding ‘average’ communications

Are your communication efforts ‘average’?

Getting communications right is tricky.

Some people want visuals, some want detail, others just a quick note to let them know they’re included, but whatever the communications message to be imparted, it is terribly tempting to ‘just get some comms out’.

We know everyone is busy and they really are, but just taking a little bit of care and time over important messages will bear fruit in the end. So, what do we mean by ‘average’ communications?

Presenting long PowerPoint decks, reverting to the ‘norm’ for leadership conferences, standard talking heads videos or cramming town-halls with loads of content which simply ‘must’ be rolled out. Come on…. That’s just taking the easiest path to getting messages out there with little regard as to how they’ll be received. So why does it happen?

Unintentional lack of awareness

The author/presenter genuinely believes that telling people stuff will mean that it has been fully understood and internalized.

Unwillingness to put the effort in

You’re busy, so the quickest way to ‘get stuff out there’ is to take the path of least effort – normally slide decks of bullet points.

The perception of ‘silliness’

Anything that moves away from the hard content is perceived to be silly, wasteful or indulgent. The serious business-like way is seen to be serious business content.

Risk aversion

Standard communications are seen as the least risky approach. No-one ever got fired for presenting a content heavy slide deck so it’s probably best to take the comfortable and safe option.

The problem with average communication though is the wasted effort, budget and opportunity that organisations are paying for every day. How many times are messages communicated in conferences, town-halls, emails, even training programmes which you could classify as ‘average’? Not enough care being taken to how that message can be brought to life and therefore it’s unlikely to be remembered or acted upon.

How much is this costing the organisation? Not only in budgetary terms (spending money on communication and engagement efforts that are likely to be ineffective) but also the opportunity costs; opportunities to increase productivity, drive a cultural shift or change ways of working.
Here are some ways you can avoid the average communications trap:

1. Get to the essence of the message – what is the one really important point?

2. Use visuals – they are easily understood and can convey multiple messages in seconds.

3. Be surprising – Average communicators breed average communicatees. (Is that a word? No? Well just go with it – we’re being surprising! Ed.) If people expect to be talked at for 45 minutes then they’ll mentally prepare themselves to not listen for 42. Add an element of surprise to get people hooked in quickly.

4. Get people involved – let people interact with your content – run exercises, activities and games to create interest and involvement. It just helps people to connect to the point you are trying to make.

5. Avoid being ‘corporate’ – Business is serious, but it needn’t be dull. By making communication more relaxed and friendly, then people will feel able to engage on a more human level.

 

 

  

If you want more advice as to how to bring messages to life you might find this article helpful. 

An example of what not being average looks like…

Purple Monster are currently working with a client to help roll out a global programme about Cyber-Security in a manufacturing setting. It’s technical, complicated and full of IT information that is critically important but also difficult for engineering staff to understand as it isn’t their area of expertise.

This organisation wanted us to help them translate their cyber-security content into a series of workshops focused on the key benefit for the engineering teams. So we created a picture of a manufacturing plant including making invisible cyber threats visible.

Activities have been designed to interact with the picture. Where technical content is required then it has been drafted into an overall ‘flow’ which makes all the sessions hang together and the key messages reinforced throughout.  

For the relatively small outlay of our involvement, this global engineering function are now much more likely to not only understand the importance of being cyber vigilant but what they need to do in order to protect their plant. This enhanced knowledge could ultimately prevent shut-downs costing millions of pounds. All by this organisation choosing to not fall into the average comms trap.

Don't go for average!

We are experts in bringing creative and ‘different’ approaches to corporate communications and engagement.  



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Trust me, I’m a venue finder

Trust me, I’m a venue finder

If you didn’t know…Purple Monster has a venue finding business called Engaging Spaces.  Our friend and colleague, George, runs this part of the business. In between juggling duties as a Mum and venue finder, this week she was out and about filming some marketing videos. Her Wednesday went like this…

Alana and I decided to film a few more marketing videos for social media, something we’ve been playing around with for the last couple of years; having great fun and learning as we go.  The feedback on the videos has been great and each venue we’ve filmed in has welcomed the content.

For this session, providing helpful hints on how to work with us, I asked a basic starting question, ‘Where shall we shoot them?’ Now we’re a venue finding agency, so the obvious place was a great venue that we know and love working with.  We’ve built an excellent relationship with Warwick Conferences over the last year or so, sharing similar thoughts on the best learning environments.  We really love their creative, versatile, light spaces.  A quick phone call later and we were booked in.  Simple.

The video content that we were shooting was about choosing the right location for an event or meeting, as well as talking about the service we provide.  Being able to do this in a space that we highly recommend, made this one of those ‘winning’ days! The venue was fabulous and we were pleased with what we produced. #thumbsup

There was a real desire to help each other, sharing information and contacts.  They generously offered us the use of the space anytime. In return we offered to promote their lovely space; for all the right reasons.  There was nothing shallow, false, self-motivated or ‘going through the motions’ about our conversation. It felt like we wanted the best for each other and that it was a real meeting of minds. We just trusted each other and were happy to help each other where we could.

There are lots of companies that partner and collaborate and sometimes with the view of growing their own business of course.  But over the twenty-four year history of Purple Monster we have done a lot of collaborating. It is sometimes disappointing, sometimes rewarding, sometimes just thrilling, but it is always worth doing if you are prepared to share a little bit of yourselves and can encourage others to do the same. But you do have to be prepared to trust and that makes you a bit vulnerable. Wow. That’s a whole other article. Suffice it to say Wednesday’s experience was just a great example of collaboration!

Purple Monster and Engaging Spaces tips for finding the right venue…

  • Choose a venue that closely meets your objectives. Don’t be afraid to go for somewhere a little “different” if it fits with what you want to do.   
  • Think about how the environment will impact on the tone you want to set. Want people to feel relaxed and informal? Consider a space with sofas and comfy chairs. Want people to come up with innovative ideas? Think about sitting around a kitchen table (where the best ideas are formed!)  
  • Make sure the room itself is big enough to allow people to move around with ease. 
  • Location, location, location. Pick somewhere that makes sense for everyone and reduces the stress and time of travelling to and from the event. Even if it costs you a bit more for room hire it will still most likely be cheaper than people travelling further or requiring an overnight stay. 

It goes without saying that we highly recommend using Warwick Conferences.  Perhaps you can ask them, if they recommend using Engaging Spaces.  Or of course, take a look for yourself if you want something a little different: www.engagingspaces.co.uk  or get in touch on spaces@engaging-spaces.co.uk

Need help finding a creative and inspirational venue?

We are experts in sourcing creative, quirky and inspirational spaces for business meetings and events. 



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