Infusing interaction into your conference can be a daunting task. Interaction can be scary as you need to give up some of your control and let your attendees take the reins. Luckily, there is a place where you, as an event planner, can try new interactive meeting formats before you apply them at your event.
The FRESH conference is Burning Man for meeting designers. It’s a lab, an incubator, where you can take a dive in new formats, test the latest technology, and co-design sessions in real-time.
The fourth edition of the FRESH Conference, hosted by Hesperia Tower hotel in Barcelona was dedicated to ART. Over 200 meetings planners gathered to co-create art, experience the future of meeting design and engage in intensive networking.
Inspired by what I experienced at FRESH15, I’ve composed the list of 9 disruptive session formats and techniques that will help you make your events truly interactive.
How to run a rehearsal session
Before the official opening, presenters Tim Ferguson and Jeff Bateman facilitated a session on how to run a rehearsal with your speakers. Firstly, Tim explained participants the background of successful rehearsals. And since FRESH is about seeing the process, Maarten Vanneste actually did a dry run of his opening speech. Tim then gave him feedback, showing the session participants how to rehearse with their own speakers.
Conferences are about helping your delegates build new knowledge. Showing people how things are done is much more powerful than just letting them sit and listen through one-way presentations. If appropriate, don’t be scared to show your attendees the chaos, the process of creation or the backstage to help them better understand.
Interactive opening session
Maarten set the tone of the conference by introducing the FRESH15 theme (ART) and gave an overview of the event objectives. The opening session was a mash-up of:
- official welcome
- the introduction of the theme & event objectives
- acknowledgments to sponsors
- the introduction of the host city
- brief interviews with artists and presenters
- real-time art performances
To live up to the event theme, Maarten invited 7 attendees on stage, who were given clay to model a statue while Maarten was experimenting with the video mapping software. The session was also captured by Jarno, the live illustrator, who was painting figures present on stage in real-time!
Most of the sections did not last longer than 5 minutes, allowing Maarten to maintain attendees’ attention throughout the 60-minute session.
It is crucial to set the tone of your conference right at the start and present the wider context to your delegates. Hold an opening session where you announce the theme of the conference, introduce the team and provide some energizing content.
There are a few things you could keep in mind when coming up with the powerful event theme. Try to make it:
- authentic by tapping into the local richness and context
Barcelona was recently voted as the most innovative city of Europe and it also has a rich art legacy. Therefore, FRESH couldn’t have wished for a better host city as the conference has the ambition to be both innovative and artful.
- relevant to the industry for which you organize the event
Art and events often walk hand in hand and event professionals are always in search of new art inspirations. At FRESH, attendees could draw inspiration from ubiquitous art forms.
- ambiguous to leave enough space for each attendee to extract his or her own meaning
FRESH offered a wide range of art sessions where participants could create their own experiences and walk away with different, personalized lessons and ideas.
Effective networking sessions
Networking is something that the FRESH organizers took very seriously. Realizing the importance of connecting people, they organized a moderated networking session where people were prompted to meet others in brief 3-minute rounds. The moderator was keeping track of time and announcing participants when to switch partners. Very wisely, this session was held on the first day before the official dinner, so people had a chance to meet others and start building new relationships right from the start.
For many attendees, networking becomes the reason number one for attending conferences. In most of the cases, networking is hugely neglected and left completely up to delegates. If you want to increase the value of your event in the future, pro-actively endorsing networking will be a must.
Get inspired by the FRESH session Meet More People described above or check more networking tips in this article.
Musical team-building session
Musician Joshua Samson from Most Balls than Most facilitated a wonderful musical session with strong team-building elements. Following Joshua’s lead, participants clapped out simple rhythms while standing in the circle. Then they grabbed plastic tubes and started to gradually produce more complex rhythms.
People were deeply immersed in co-creating music. As a result, they got naturally drawn to one another, and when the activity was over, they seamlessly continued the conversation. In the end, Josh got over 35 people involved in creating some amazing tunes with plastic tubes.
Musical team-building activities encourage cooperation and better communication within groups. For your event, you can hire a professional music coach who will hand out easy-to-play instruments to the group members and help them make music together.
Participants must listen to the other members and play their part at the right time which demands cooperation and good non-verbal communication skills. This activity can naturally improve group work and communication in teams.
The Fresh Conference 2015 came up with an effective idea of how to connect attendees and sponsors – learning carousel. In the exhibition space, attendees were split into groups of 3-5 and were told to move in groups from one exhibitor to another. Sponsors had 2 minutes to show them their product and 2 minutes to answer attendees’ questions.
Before moving to the next table, delegates voted on how much they liked the solution. In total, there were 10 rounds and the sponsor with the best overall rating won the FRESH award.
Maximize the value of breaks for your sponsors. It’s practically the only time they can meet the delegates. Make sure to place them close to the networking areas where delegates naturally spend coffee breaks.
You can get inspired by FRESH15 and gamify sponsor-attendee interactions with activities like learning carousel, providing more value to both parties.
Ongoing art performances
Art was encoded in this year’s FRESH and could have been experienced at every step. During the breaks, delegates had a chance to watch, listen or participate in a wide range of art performers; from real-time body painting, human statues during lunch breaks, electrifying dancing or modeling with clay in a group.
Organizing short art performances during breaks is a great way to keep your delegates energized. It’s a win-win situation. You can give exposure to raising artists and entertain your attendees at the same.
Participatory art creation
Similar to Burning Man, FRESH15 put a strong emphasis on participation, inclusion, and co-creation. To put it simply, everyone was invited to play and experiment. To everyone’s amazement, the opening networking dinner spontaneously evolved into painting session where delegates painted each others’ portraits on the main stage wall.
You might get inspired by Burning Man’s mantra “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.”. Provide your attendees with a place and means for working with their hands so they can get pleasure out of creating something tangible.
Among great collaborative projects are LEGO team-building sessions, Mash Machine (that won the FRESH award) or the art collaborative session such as the one described above.
Interactive panel discussion
Panel discussions can be either a highlight of your event or horrid 60 minutes of boredom. FRESH15’s panel on How innovative is the events industry was definitely the former case. Panel moderator Victor Neyndorff kicked off the session with the poll revealing that 63% of session participants didn’t consider the events industry sufficiently innovative.
Victor elicited a conversation by bringing attendees actively into the conversation right from the start. He took interaction a step further and incentivized asking “spicy” questions by giving out chili chocolates. Throughout the discussion, session sidekick Robert Davenschot fed in audience comments and question to drive the conversation further.
At the very end of the panel, attendees were given paper sheets and were asked to write a letter to themselves describing what action they want to take based on the things they had heard during the session. Attendees would receive the physical letter within 2 months reminding them the steps they had promised themselves to take at FRESH.
There is hardly any other session format that would be more fitting for active audience involvement than a panel discussion. Open a discussion by running a live poll to gauge attendees’ attitudes and then let your panelists share their views based on the poll results.
Don’t hesitate to bring your audience in a discussion as early as within the first 10 minutes and use their questions right from the start. Because inclusivity breeds interaction… And as a rule of thumb, the more interaction you can create the greater delegates’ learning.
For more tips on how to organize a truly interactive panel, read this article.
The FRESH organizers also allowed delegates to learn, discuss and experiment in small groups. They offered a range of concurrently running workshops where people could have hands-on learning opportunities with expert guidance. Participants learned by listening, moving, touching, doing and discussing. While the experts did present their topic, they left enough space left for discussion.
Learning is no longer only about what. It’s also about how. How participants learn has become as important as what knowledge they’re seeking to acquire.
Collaborative peer-to-peer session formats (such as workshops or campfire sessions among many others) allow delegates to engage in discussion with their peers, bring up their pains and share solutions. By default, these session formats carry a strong human element, which naturally endorses after-session networking.
Inspired by my experience at FRESH 15, I’ve tried to bring closer new interactive session formats that we had a chance to experience first hand. While the actual experience can’t be replicated, I hope my short summary will provide you with a dose of ideas for engaging events.
All photo credits: FRESH