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Keele University issues go-to-guide for meeting planners

Conference stage with dancer

Do conferences only cater for corporate peacocks?

We are constantly reminded of the value of face-to-face meetings, but now one university believes the standard conferencing methods don’t always help organisations get the most from delegates, because they are geared towards ‘corporate peacocks’.
The Conferences and Events team at Keele University has been working alongside Professor Emma Bell from the University’s Management School, to explore why the tried and tested powerpoint presentation only plays to the strength of a small minority of  delegate personalities, while marginalising others.

Professor Bell believes that for organisations and associations to get true value from a conference environment, more needs to be done to encourage delegates to shine. As such, Keele University has issued a go-to-guide to help meeting planners and business heads better tailor conference environments to suit delegate personalities, from modest analysts, to rising stars, shrinking violets and curious connectors.  

Utilising the third space
Research by Professor Bell determines that the standard conference format of back-to-back presentations often discourages active participation by creating a masculine environment dominated by senior and more extrovert team members. These ‘corporate peacocks’ thrive in the space-grabbing environment of the traditional ‘show and tell’, while quieter, more analytical colleagues, or  junior staff, risk being side-lined or overshadowed by their aggressive associates.  

Professor Emma Bell explains: “Conferences are important spaces for professionals, particularly given that many delegates spend most of their working lives at desks or in the virtual world, on email or smartphones, where body language doesn’t matter. Face-to-face events create a third space, away from the day-to-day, where everyone is expected to perform and use body language to express themselves.  

“For years, conference organisers have used this ‘third space’, to focus employees on the task at hand and improve work proficiency. Indeed, conferences can be a powerful tool to achieve this, but many conference organisers get lulled into booking a single room and running back-to-back presentations all day. Only the most confident of delegates will flourish in this environment and many delegates can find themselves disengaged, or worse, find their confidence knocked by the experience.”  

The team at Keele University believes that more can be done to engage delegates by making conferences as varied as possible, utilising different spaces and disrupting the normal environment that delegates will expect to encourage active participation.  

Professor Bell continues: “Conferences are an important rite of passage for working professionals who can use this opportunity to demonstrate their proficiency in a face-to-face environment, but in order for this to work, you need delegates to  actively participate and engage in the event.  

“The fact that during these events a person’s style of speaking, their movements and reactions are being judged in a more formal context can be intimidating. Individuals can be made to feel as though their professional development or reputation hangs in the balance and failure to meet these expectations can impact negatively on their attitude to work, both at the conference and in their day-to-day role. More needs to be done to encourage everyone to get involved, not just those who excel at presenting in front of large groups of people.”  

Personality profiling – Keele University’s guide to making the most out of your conference  
1.       Tried and trusted powerpoint  - Suited to corporate peacocks
2.       Breakout /seminar sessions – Suited to modest analysts
3.       Panel discussions – Suited to team players
4.       Unconferencing – Suited to rising stars
5.       Team challenges – Suited to future leaders
6.       Exhibitions – Suited to curious connectors
7.       The great outdoors – Suited to anxious contributors
8.       Downtime – Suited to shrinking violets
9.       Virtual speakers – Suited to tech lovers
10.   Finishing touches – Suited to company advocates

1 Tried and trusted powerpoint  - Suited to corporate peacocks The conference love-affair with powerpoint has existed since the dawn of the digital age and it still has an important role to play in a conference environment. These presentations should be used by senior team members to establish their authority and motivate employees. Remember, the format is very hierarchical and will only play to the strengths of more confident delegates. 

2. Breakout/seminar sessions – Suited to modest analysts
When booking a conference, make sure that smaller meeting rooms are also available for you to book or use. This will allow you to break up the day with smaller task groups. Not only will this prevent monotony setting in during the day, but it also means that more analytical members of the team, who are typically quieter in large groups, can contribute valuable insight to the discussion.

3. Panel discussions – Suited to team players
Rather than one person presenting to a big group, why not turn your presentation into a panel discussion. This is a great way to make the presentation more discursive, breaking down hierarchical boundaries and encouraging employees to participate and have their say as a valuable team member. 

4. Unconferencing – Suited to rising stars
Unconferencing is a trendy word for disrupting the traditional format of a conference. Scrap formal agendas and make presentations much more informal so that more junior members of the team can help shape the day. Reorganising the physical space can also prevent delegates reverting to traditional conference behaviours.  Replace chairs with bean bags, or for something less quirky, why not simply remove ‘staging’ areas and rearrange rows of chairs into a circle around the room and have people present sitting down. This more informal environment can be a good way for less confident team members to hone their presentation skills and learn to shine. Consider getting an external facilitator to run the session in order to create a level playing field.

5. Team challenges – Suited to future leaders
Quizzes and games might seem to some like a gimmick that distracts from the purpose of the event, but it can actually be a great way to help delegates practice their leadership and team building skills. This is particularly suited to future leaders, who are good at responding spontaneously and relish a challenge.

6. Exhibitions – Suited to Curious connectors
Networking is an essential part of any conference, but these sessions are often limited to empty reception areas at the start of events, which can leave delegates feeling awkward and struggling to make conversation. Investing in an exhibition area can not only add a visual dimension to your conference, but will provide a natural networking environment where delegates can converse, while less confident individuals or early arrivals can comfortably admire the displays and engage with the literature between conversations, without feeling the need to be glued to their smartphones.

7. The great outdoors – Suited to anxious contributors
Academic research has shown that looking at greenery for just a few minutes drastically reduces levels of stress and anxiety, so when sourcing a location for your conference, don’t underestimate the value of green surrounds. If the weather is nice, conduct some of your group sessions outside and you can be confident that any stressed or anxious colleagues will become immediately more relaxed.

8. Downtime – Suited to shrinking violets
To capture the views of even the quietest attendees, ensure you have allocated space and time for delegates to relax between sessions. Downtime periods can take place in a bistro, cafeteria or even outdoors, and provide individuals who find ‘performing’ in a professional space more challenging, time to take a break and engage with their colleagues on a more informal basis.

9. Virtual speakers – Suited to tech lovers
Although conferences should make the most of face-to-face interaction, technology can also play an important role. Consider video calling key speakers if they can’t make it on the day, or if you’ve hired break-out rooms, why not use tools such as Google-Hangout to get each group to present back online. It will give tech-addicts the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities to the rest of the team.

10. Finishing touches –Suited to company advocates
Conferences are the perfect opportunity for you to get attendees to feel passionate about being part of an organisation and help to create long-term ambassadors. Little touches, such as evening entertainment and fireworks for overnight events, or goody bags and afternoon tea with company branded biscuits for one day conferences, all demonstrate care and build advocates from the inside out.

Sam Booth, Head of Keele University Conferences and Events, comments: “Professor Bell’s research provides an interesting insight into why it is so important for meeting organisers to tailor conferences and events to suit the needs of their delegates. At Keele, we understand that one size doesn’t fit all, which is why we continue to expand the range of facilities available to delegates on our 617 acre campus. 

“From the 600 capacity Ballroom at our Grade II listed Keele Hall, to our exhibition suite, small team meeting rooms, acres of outdoor spaces, sports halls and traditional lecture theatres which seat up to 400 delegates, we can provide maximum flexibility, and love to work with organisations to find the right space for their event.”

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