When Conferences focus on plenary speakers and traditional panel sessions these days, some of us might feel that our experience could be better if we wait until they are available on YouTube. Any ticks or flubs are edited out, and the video camera inevitably has a better seat and vantage point than we do in the audience. And you know exactly how long each intervention will be -and we can pause, repeat or even skip those that are not quite what we're looking for (of course we need to be open to surprises too).
But when Conferences have exciting peer learning and interactivity built in, then no longer are you are just one person watching a string of speeches from a relatively uncomfortable chair, knowing that you are shoulder to shoulder with probably some of the most interesting people in the world in your field - although due to this format there's no way to know it. What if you were a part of the Conference? Or even, you were the Conference!
Running World Cafe's, Open Space Technology Sessions, Peer Assists and Carousel Discussions, and Fishbowls are some of the activities we recently ran at a large conference of some 16,000 people. Those took facilitation. However, there are lots of things you can do that don't take that kind of support and still build up the peer-learning opportunities at a large-scale event.
So, what are some of the ways that big events help feature and build its participants into the Conference?
What if you ask people to pick a button that somehow illustrates how they are feeling at the moment?
Not only is that a conversation starter amongst participants wearing them, but imagine that the button dispensers are tubes that create a physical bar graph of how the whole body of participants (or at least those taking the cool buttons, which seemed to be everyone) feels?
What if there is a tablet built into the wall where particpiants can take a photo of themselves and write on a message about a commitment they will make?
What about a simple graffiti wall and lots of coloured chalk?