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From Content to Context

For many years we appreciated the free notebooks and pens that conference organizers thoughtfully included in our branded swag bags. The three days in the downtown convention center, or at the picturesque resort, involved hours of presentations, roundtable discussions, keynotes and more. Our company sent us there to pay attention and learn. So we found seats in the rows of chairs in the ballroom and dutifully took pages and pages of notes while people on stages talked. And then never looked at those notes again.  

Why Are We Gathering? 

Curious about an industry trend? Just ask ChatGPT, hop on YouTube, or grab some popcorn and have a reel watch party on Instagram. The wealth of conference-related content is at everyone’s reach today and lets us skip the note-taking. In the place of all of that frantic scribbling, we now are invited think about conference content with more creativity and reflection—in real time. 

You see, conference attendees today are normally familiar with the information being relayed on stages; the blogs and news sites they read, the newsletters delivered to their inboxes, the flood of industry chit-chat they navigate on LinkedIn—all of this content explores the same industry news and trends that, in the past, represented the bulk of conference informational sessions. Here in 2023, as we wander the show floors and pop into sessions, we don’t want tutoring by the people speaking into microphones. Instead, we desire true engagement and rich experience with content and trust me when I say, what attendees need is CONTEXT.  

In other words, why does this content matter to me? How will it advance my career, or excite my team, or lead us toward cutting-edge ways to improve our business and relationships with customers and clients? 

Goodbye, Classroom. Hello, Collaboration 

To that end, the standard conference format, with industry captains and thought leaders on stages addressing rows of seated people, needs dismantling. Rather than treating guests like information sponges, the most rewarding programming encourages the people wearing name tags to collaborate. Instead of just sitting and listening in silence, they talk to each other about the content as it gets delivered—they might even interact with the people on the stages. Along the way, this approach leads to more than powerful conversations—it also helps bring about new and exciting ways of thinking about everything from team dynamics to marketing, product development and everything in between. 

How to design rooms that promote creative business collaboration and problem solving? For one, ditch the rows of seats spread out before the stage. Instead, arrange chairs in pods. The goal: to encourage attendees to use the content as launching pads for rewarding conversations, and absorb, apply and retain the frameworks in the right context. The approach is not new. It describes the school experience for many Millennials and most Gen Z’ers. They grew up in classrooms where engaging with content promoted, yes, CONTEXT. 

 The way we design business events often fails to understand how dramatically things have changed. It’s time to overhaul the way we structure the attendee experience. For the conference and trade show business to continue to thrive as it has for decades, it needs to hinge on engagement. Trust me when I say, it’s also a lot more fun!  

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