Stories are woven into almost every aspect of our everyday life, and it seems as though we just can’t get enough of them. Scientists tell us that our love of stories is related to the ‘feel good’ hormone Oxytocin. When a story resonates with an audience, it elevates feelings of trust and compassion and can positively influence our social behaviour – helping us build connections.
So it makes sense that using a story arc to build your conference into a narrative that delegates can contribute to and shape will increase engagement, boost information retention rates and if designed well can deliver a strong and clear takeaway message for everyone who attends. People simply find it easier to remember key points and ideas when they are delivered in the form of a story with a narrative from beginning to end.
The power of story
I’ve found it can be difficult to retain the attention of conference attendees over a long period of time, it’s human nature. Most people only have a limited attention span and today technology such as smart-phones also provide easy distractions. This can and does result in a limited amount of the information you are trying to get across being taken in by the audience.
Consider this point found in research by the London School of Business: People retain 65% to 70% of information shared via a story versus only 5% to 10% of information conveyed through statistics.
This research backs up my own experiences that delegates can be engaged through overarching narratives and story arcs.
How is a successful conference narrative designed?
A traditional conference design is an amalgamation of predetermined topics that are divided up by introductions, closings and social time. A traditional conference is heavily dominated by keynote speakers delivering presentations to the delegates in a top down approach with a limited amount of interaction or engagement in the story being told.
If you want to mix this up and step your audience engagement up to the next level, consider a participant driven design with three essential components: a beginning, a middle and an end. By having delegates play an active role in the story arc of the conference, rather than the typical top-down approach where speakers dominate the event, there is a chance for greater engagement and information retention.
Simply consider the main points or theme which the conference needs to cover and then design a format with a beginning, middle and an end – a complete delegate journey.
Ideally each phase builds on what came before, providing coherency, progression in the story and flow towards a conclusion that allows people to follow the day, make links and connect the entire picture together to form a greater understanding than what would otherwise be possible.
At the beginning of any conference, it is expected that time is put aside for attendees to get to know each other so that they can relax into the environment thereby making others more receptive. It is important in a participant-driven conference design that a lot of focus is placed here. Expect members to suggest topics, ideas and issues so that they are immediately engaged in the experience. Determine what people want to gain from the conference and apply accordingly so that during the middle of the conference you can address these concerns. Some pre-conference research / surveys can help you anticipate these and be prepared.
As the conference comes to a close, permit time for internal consideration of the knowledge gained before allowing attendees to express publically what they feel about the time spent together. Both of these reflections are important so that people can make their own judgements on what they feel they have gained.
How do I use a story to convey my message?
Within this design, effective tools need to be in place that hold all of the participant’s attention. Yes they have decided communally on the discussion, but look to the presenter and speaker to hold the entire situation together and bring everything into meaning.
Applying a story arc allows you to add a beginning, middle and an end where challenges are respectively introduced, explored and resolved. By developing a narrative within a conference, you invite the participants to play a part in the story and resolve the challenge both professionally and personally.
The key is to inspire and motivate others to move away from thinking individually and come together to accomplish something that they would never have been able to on their own.
Never design the conference narrative to resolve the story by its own accord. Ensure that all of the participants are given time to process each step and consider the actions they should take in order to achieve the opportunity. This way everybody learns from one another, they contribute ideas and develop a meaningful understanding of what the conference was about – they own the content!