Most delegates attend your conference to learn and to be inspired, so the priority for us as conference producers is to design a program worth attending.  An important part of designing engaging and impactful content for your conference or event is considering the physical and emotional environment you create for attendees.

You’ve pulled together an amazing line up of speakers who all have new and exciting information to impart – but don’t leave it there.  Remember what your mother used to say –  “It’s not only what you say, but how you say it!”.

There are numerous studies that explain the psychology of learning environments better than I can, but simply put, learning is influenced by the state of mind of the learner plus ambient factors such as air temperature, music, lighting and even the chairs they sit on.

When designing the flow of your conference program and planning how you want to engage your delegates, be sure to map the delegate journey and consider ways to improve their experience every step of the way. In doing this consider two questions:

1. How can you influence their state of mind?

Think about the arrival process at a conference for delegates – it’s often hectic, disorientating, and even stressful.  This can lead to people going instinctively into ‘survival mode’ and up go their defensive behaviours.

It sounds simple but take some time and think this process through. Ensure there is clear directional signage within the venue to enable them to find you without issue; if the venue is large consider personal signposts so people have someone to greet them along the way.

If appropriate for your event, consider registering delegates after they’ve had their coffee and had time to put their bags and coats on their seats. Prioritise their state of mind on arrival and make them feel welcome, relaxed and at ease because research shows that when we don’t feel threatened, we have a willingness to be open to new ideas and direction from others – creating the ideal learning environment!

Conference Experience

Image Credit: Professional Conference Organisers Association

This is just one example, if you focus on the delegate experience like this throughout the entire conference or event, your audience engagement will noticeably improve.

2. What ambient factors should I consider?

We’ve all experienced sitting in that session and it’s suddenly freezing, am I right?  It’s distracting, and often difficult to concentrate in the same way as sitting for hours on end in uncomfortable chairs can be.  These factors seem obvious but are often overlooked and form an integral part of the delegate experience.

To add to these practical considerations, consider the energy levels in the room and match the room setup to ensure maximum delegate / speaker interaction.  Change the seating configuration to ensure the room feels full – or if your room has fixed seating then move people together at the beginning of the session.  Try different seating arrangements such as circular rather than rows, or cabaret instead of classroom.  This will raise the energy levels, and add to the experience for both the delegates and the presenters.

Conference Experience

Image Credit: Professional Conference Organisers Association

Other considerations for a well designed program include:

  • Well-timed breaks – make sure the program isn’t repetitive or running too long between breaks
  • Music – especially when delegates are walking in and out of sessions
  • A great MC – they will keep the energy levels up, make people feel welcome and manage the learning environment to ensure delegates feel included
  • Q&A sessions – allow ample time for delegates to ask questions, and turn it around and get your speakers or panelists to ask questions of the audience to spark conversations
Conference Experience

Image Credit: Professional Conference Organisers Association

Don’t forget conferences should be inspirational – they should inspire delegates to implement what they have learned by motivating and energising them.  I’d encourage all event planners and conference organisers to keep looking for new and exciting ways to engage your delegates – let’s keep them coming back!