What Could Your Next Conference Go Without?

There are staples to most association meetings: networking receptions, breakout sessions, and keynoters, to name a few. But what would happen if your organization decided to go without some of them? Could your event still survive—or perhaps even thrive?

If someone asked you to name items that you think everyone would have in their kitchen, what would you say? Probably something along the line of pots, pans, plates, silverware, coffeemaker, toaster, and so forth. Now what if someone asked you this: What are staples of every conference you either attend or plan? I’d guess some of the most popular answers would be attendees, education sessions, networking events, and speakers.

Now imagine if you took three of the more common elements of an association meeting—panel moderators, keynote speakers, and PowerPoint slides—and got rid of them. Would your meeting be worse or better? Here are some thoughts to consider before making a final decision.

To save us from boring panel discussions, first banish all the moderators.

Panel moderators. A panel without a moderator: Now that’s just crazy—or is it? Earlier this week, Jody Avirgan, producer for WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show and host of the bimonthly live-conversation series Ask Roulette,  wrote an article for, which begged conferences to completely ditch the traditional role a moderator has in panel discussions.

“In panel discussions, the moderator too often provides a structured crutch on which the entire group can lean its boringness,” he wrote. “To save us from boring panel discussions, first banish all the moderators.”

The result of these boring discussions, he says, is that attendees begin to zone out and turn to their smartphones instead. To avoid this, Avirgan suggests this: “Get rid of the old hub-and-spoke format, and make [panelists] engage with both each other and the ideas.”

If you’re fearful that a heated issue will come up requiring a referee, he’s quick to remind readers that panel discussions are not debates. “Any disagreement that would break out in this format is not anything that your average knowledgeable, passionate person can’t self-police,” he wrote. “And if not having a moderator forces you to think a little harder about who you invite, rather than DMing the easiest ‘get’ in your Twitter follows, is that such a bad thing?”

Keynote speakers. Most organizations want those big-name speakers who can drive registration and often get people up early to hear them talk. But do they really matter?

This debate is not a new one. Some will argue that by not having a keynoter, you’ll save your association money and allow your attendees to do more of what they came to your meeting to do: network with fellow attendees and learn. Others will say the keynote address sets the tone and energy for the meeting and is a good way to highlight and showcase the work an association has done since its last annual conference.

For me, keynote speakers really make or break my conference experience. At one conference I was at earlier last year, I thought the keynoters each morning did a great job of giving insight into a current trend—which just so happened to be the conference’s theme of the day—and also provided attendees with questions to think about as we attended smaller breakout sessions. But, at another conference I went to, the speaker didn’t know the audience she was addressing at all and just seemed to be spouting out a speech she had given many times before. On top of that, the conference allowed sponsors to hawk their products for a good 20 minutes at the beginning.

PowerPoint slides. We’ve all seen good slides (e.g., clean layout, easy-to-read font) and bad ones (e.g., paragraphs of tiny text, cheesy stock photos), even when organizations require speakers to stick to a certain template. So, imagine if you just didn’t allow speakers to use slides at your next meeting.

That’s what the xPotomac conference did late last month (and has been doing for a few years now). The one-day event, which focuses on media technologies most likely to affect businesses and marketers in the immediate future, had speakers instead use mind maps on their tablets and other mobile devices to remind them of where they were in their presentations.

“The result was more eye contact and audience interaction than you typically get when speakers are stuck in a pre-personal computer = overhead transparencies paradigm,” wrote one attendee in a blog post following the event.

Speakers kicked off a mini conversation with a 10- to 15-minute discussion. The final 25 minutes was then used for questions, answers, and conversation.

While there was a large screen in the room, it was filled with tweets and names of people using the conference’s #xPotomac14 hashtag. “The result was crowdsourced speaker notes not only perfectly calibrated to audience interests in real time, but also short and sweet enough (due to Twitter’s 140-character limit) to be able to be read quickly without tuning out the speaker,” she wrote.

Now it’s your turn: Do you think your organization’s meeting could survive without these three things? Or what other usual must-haves do you think meetings could go without? Please share in the comments.

"Sous Vide in the City: How Digital Dining Feeds Us," one of many panels at SXSW Interactive this year. (Digitas Photos/Flickr)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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