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