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The curious case of conference QI

Innovation in conference design is all about creating dynamic links between speakers and their audience to energise all.

By Chris Wright

Attention spans are short. Conference developers must embrace the challenge of doing things differently. And in Singapore they are.

The city state’s Fintech Festival is a vast and sprawling event filling every inch of an expo centre that could double as an airport concourse. But amid the many booths and stages of the November 2023 iteration, real innovation in conference design was to be found in a curtained corner styled as the Founders’ Peak.

Here, Elevandi Executive Director Pat Patel was running an event called The Curious Case of Dry Powder. Onstage, he gathered five venture capitalists and bank digital officers, introducing them onstage not by their bio but by what they had wanted to be when they were growing up: an astronaut, a cricketer.

Each of the five had a few minutes to outline the case for a particular area of private sector investment: small business lending, improving instant payments infrastructure, embedded finance. And after each had spoken, the other four were invited to knock the idea down, marshalled with a pleasing acerbity by Patel (“can we wake up yet?”) The audience, through applause, voted on a winner, who then left the stage wearing a crown.

All conference developers need to be thinking this way. The usual format of endless panels, punctuated by the occasional self-serving PowerPoint, just isn’t fit for the purpose in the modern age. Nobody has the concentration for it anymore.

Conferences survived the pandemic with a vigour that has surely surprised everyone, but attention spans have not.

We have all got too used to Zoom and Teams. If we are to leave our offices and our new work-from-home routines, and travel great distances to a conference, we need something different to make the event worthwhile.

The Elevandi approach works. A look around the audience was most notable for what was missing rather than what was there: nobody was playing with their smartphone. With the format so engaging, and predicated upon the briefest of speeches, the audience was involved, and indeed essential to the process.

Innovation in conference design: what works

The Resonate team has been at many conferences all over the world this year, observing what works and what doesn’t. The best stand out because they start with the question of why they are relevant or necessary. They frame the key themes, and they build a narrative thread among them. They pull in the audience and give them sufficient consideration.

What they don’t do is give space to untrained speakers with too much latitude to talk their own book or lose the audience in a sea of impenetrable acronyms. They don’t hold technical sessions suitable to smaller audiences in the same room where ministerial keynotes have just taken place, so that speakers take to the stage against a backdrop of hundreds of people streaming out the doors, and then present to a fragmented audience in a half-empty barn of a room.

Making changes to comfortable formats is not easy.

Moderating a panel like the Elevandi one needs a skill set uncommon to many in the business: it requires the moderator to think more of the audience than the panellist, sometimes to make things wilfully uncomfortable and to challenge the speaker to adapt on their feet. A speaker who makes the grade stands out: they’ve earned their time and their audience’s attention.

Not easy. But this is the future. Most of us have lost countless hours in conference rooms staring into the middle distance because the presentation from the stage has lost us. It’s widely accepted that the real merit of conferences lies in the networking, the connections made in the coffee breaks, and that’s just fine, but the panels still need to serve the people who are sitting there watching them.

Good presenters have understood this and moved with the times. Watch Manisha Tank or Sharanjit Leyl, both at the event, or our own trusted partner John Dawson. These are among the best moderators in the business, their skills honed by years on the high wire of live television at the highest level.

They have the knack of appearing to speak to you individually as an audience member. They keep their panellists on track, they know their stuff, and they know how to use Slido or other audience interaction tools such as polls to make sure that the audience is not only part of the discussion but essential to it.

When we at Resonate are asked to assist with conference design, with agenda development or with live moderation, we start from a position of suggesting how might we do things differently. How can we help to make this new? And, most importantly, how can events organisers change the role of an audience from one of somnolent and passive observation to one where they are part of the event, their own experience and insight elevating the whole enterprise?

All conferences must make this shift. The best already are.