How to Engage Your Conference Audience Through Interactive Participation
When’s the last time you went to an amazing conference, or at least one special enough to rave about? For conference hosts, the pressure is on to increase conference participation and audience engagement by providing quality content well beyond watching a speaker on a stage reading off of a PowerPoint presentation. Anyone can read articles about the topics your speakers are presenting, so a conference needs to offer more than just content on slide after slide. So how do you create an event that provides value that matches the good money they’re paying to be there? Exchange PowerPoints for powerful play. Gamify your event with interactive ideas to increase conference participation.
These days conferences are getting bigger and bigger, and the expectations of them are continuously increasing too. Or, small conferences might have to be updated so they’re not the same as last year’s. As game experts, we often hear from conference hosts that audiences become harder to engage with in large formats, and they’re looking for a solution to customize a kickass conference or event. Besides great speakers (and colorful name tag lanyards) what else do you need for ultimate audience engagement? Provide something interactive to help attendees get the most out of the conference. The best way to provide your conference attendees with an experience and not a lecture is through interactivity. (Shoutout to all the kinesthetic learners out there!) We put together this list of some awesome group activities and icebreakers that you can implement to ensure a great interactive experience at your conference.
Everyone at your conference already has a tool that you can use for engagement: a cell phone. Use phones to get audiences to interact with the speaker by sharing a link to a poll. This works best to break the ice and capture the attention of a larger audience (50+) who would be hard to interact with on a personal level. During opening remarks use a fun poll to enliven the atmosphere and set the tone for your event with questions like:
- How energized are you feeling right now?
- If age is only a state of mind, what is YOUR state of mind right now?
- What are you most excited to experience during this conference?
Hone in on this chance for conference participation and compare the different answers and opinions collected from the audience to capture the mood. It’s fun for teammates and colleagues to compare their feelings. Check out this article for some of the top polling programs for your audience.
Table Teams / Break Assignments
Some conference attendees will be experts at the art of networking while others might need a poke/nudge/shove to get them talking to strangers. (Our orange jumpsuited crew is always down to chat with anyone.) For those who struggle with chitchat, a quick “hello” during the coffee break isn’t enough- an interaction has to be organic (or at least feel organic). To help, split attendees off into smaller, more manageable teams. You can split them up by department, randomly, or any way you like. Have each team create a unique name for themselves like The Ninjas, The Marketing Mavens, or The Sales Sharks. From there you can choose from a plethora of group activities from team projects, to group discussions and problem-solving scenarios. Or have them compete as a team all conference long for prizes with competitions ranging from tasks designed to encourage networking to challenges that reinforce what’s being covered at the conference.
Any meeting or workshop is better when you know about fellow attendees. This activity lets everyone stand in the spotlight for a few minutes and have someone else celebrate their accolades and experience. Within their groups, have conference attendees split up and interview each other to learn more about their new teammates. This structured “get to know you” intro takes away some of the pressure of walking up to someone and saying “hi”. Have the participants break into pairs and interview each other for five minutes about one another’s background, professional experience or passions. Give teams something unique to find out about each other. If you find someone from a different country, find out how to say "banana pancakes" in their native language. Then, have the interviewer introduce the interviewee to the rest of the group.
To get teams moving (and grooving) host a custom scavenger hunt in and around your conference. When teams are working together toward the same goal (winning), bonding happens much faster than it would in a boardroom. Plus, a scavenger hunt is a great way to get people to see more of the conference space. The Classic Go Game (think of it as a scavenger hunt meets Amazing Race meets America’s Funniest Home Videos) is a great way to get people up and moving throughout the conference. Split your group into small teams to make connection easier and introverted attendees more comfortable. Divide groups either at random for impromptu networking, or by department to lead to to fun competition. There are plenty of ways to customize your hunt by including company specific trivia and tasks ranging from fun to serious. You can implement facts about policies, have them perform standard employee tasks with a twist, or ask “what’s the name of the CEO’s dog?”. The game can be turned into a great content marketing tool for your association by having attendees complete tasks and share them via social tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Those not in attendance can see the fun they’re missing and the content can turn into promotion for next year’s event. If your conference has a vendor area, you can hide clues (and prizes) at vendor booths. Not only is it fun for the attendees, but your vendors will appreciate the additional engagement and promotion opportunity. For an added prize for conference planners, you can monetize the scavenger hunt by inviting sponsors or exhibitors to pay to be one of the stops on the hunt. Games can be a new stream of revenue for your conference!
Keep attendees who want to maximize their experience excited and in conference-mode even after hours with offsite entertainment options. They can opt in to keep playing after hours to get the most out of their time at the conference and take advantage of more chances to meet people. After-hours events are great networking opportunities in a more casual settings like happy hours, sightseeing tours, sporting events, or shows. This investment in fun, casual networking really is an investment. Attendees that are comfortable with one another are much more likely to engage during sessions and get more out of the in-between moments, increasing your overall engagement and conference participation.
Conferences used to be all about one person speaking to many, where speakers were the backbone of the event. The leading edge of conferences is hundreds or thousands of people sharing with and learning from each other. Even in speaker sessions, there are ways to engage the audience so they can interact with the speakers. Ensure that your expectations and the expectations of the speaker are aligned. Make sure to include time for Q&A so presenters can respond to questions that the audience is craving to hear the answers to. Look at conferences that are abandoning the presentation model and are adopting groupthink, discussion style panels to break out of the normal lecture rut. (Take a look at some of the best conferences like TechCruch Disrupt- with a 24-hour Hackathon and Startup Battlefield competition-and The Future of Storytelling Summit-where attendees are encouraged to mingle with speakers- for ideas.) If it’s appropriate, invite your speakers to abandon their presentations altogether and have Q&A instead! Or structure some panels with three to five experts on stage, and have audience members ask live questions or submit them with the same polling softwares you used before.
Things To Remember
To make your conference a success, it’s important to deliver on your attendees expectations.
Even going as far ahead as registration, asking your audience “What do you expect to take away from the conference?”, can help you better manage the impact your event can leave on people. As conferences around the world become more interactive, it’s important to keep up and personalize yours while making sure to increase conference participation and audience engagement. Gamifying your event is a great way to do this.
Worried that your conference won’t be as engaging as you’d like? Check out our convention games page, and subscribe to the blog for more insights into team building ideas! Do you have best practices you follow when planning a conference? Is there a conference you recently attended that was really innovative? Comment below to share your ideas.