Reinventing the Boring Business Conference

Last Updated Nov 9, 2009 9:16 AM EST

Many of us have spent what seems like a lifetime at conferences over the years. I have been to more than a hundred since the 1980s -- at least three a year. That's about 800 hours worth.

The sad part is I can hardly remember a memorable one. Sure, some speakers and panels have been great. But not many. Not really.

So what can you do to up the memorable quotient next time you are asked to organize a conference? Start by breaking the mold, something the TED conference is so good at doing.

Harvard Business Publishing's Nick Morgan offers Three Ways to Make Conferences Better. His first suggestion I like a lot.

Conferences should tell a unique story.

"A conference should tell a story, one that unfolds and builds from the initial moments to the close. Like any good story, there should be moments of high excitement, followed by moments of relative calm," says Morgan. "That's different from panic and boredom in ceaseless alternation."
There are multiple benefits to this approach. Imagine I am putting together a conference on "The Future of Newspapers." Instead of offering keynotes and panels discussing the usual subjects ("Will People Pay for Content?") the story line might be about identifying the critical decisions that must be made for industry growth over the next 10 years by the next generation of newspaper owners and editors.

A story line engages the audience, making it easier for them to digest the information and eager to get to the next "chapter." The story approach also allows the organizer to expose the audience to speakers and views they've not heard before. In the future-of-journalism case, for example, we could bring in management experts on strategy development and innovative business models. How about a panel representing non-journalism companies (Apple) or industries (steel producers) that have successfully rebuilt for the 21st century?

Morgan also suggests conferences have a master of ceremonies who ties themes together and advances the story line, as well as a plan to involve attendees in running the conference and developing a network after the event concludes.

What are your ideas for making conferences better?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.