On February 15, we continued our webinar series to share best practices within the Conveners.org community. While adopting new session formats can be a heavy lift for leaders, those who have participated in rarely used session formats see the potential for them to engage, inform, and delight.

Best Practice #1: Know your audience

It is critical to design sessions with your audience in mind. What works for education professionals in California will likely not be appropriate to financial services professionals in New York. Understanding the mind-set, assumptions, biases, and cultural norms of your audience is essential to identifying the best activities to use. Pre-interviewing participants is a good way of getting buy-in and input for proposed agenda activities.  

Best Practice #2: Baby step, use modified traditional formats

Sometimes a 100% participatory agenda isn’t possible. These new models require time and resources to implement, and trying a new method carries a risk of disorienting attendees. In these cases, modifying a traditional format can be an easy way to increase engagement. On the call we discussed three examples of modified traditional formats to use as a first step towards building a more participatory convening.

  1. Turn the Session Upside Down. By asking for participants to share the topics they care most about before the session, then providing index cards on everyone’s chair to write their questions down throughout the session, is an effective method of keeping participants engaged and avoiding the tyranny of the microphone. When implementing this make sure to 1) have a few people in the audience with ready with topics (the guide of 5 words or less can be helpful), and 2) have runners standing by the audience who collect cards as audience members write down questions.

We had a panel conversation on Impact Investing at SEA that Avary led, where we took questions ahead of time. Usually the panelists talk and then do Q&A at the end. We turned that on it’s head and made sure that people were able to engage.

– Kila Englebrook, Social Enterprise Alliance

  1. Fireside chats instead of of traditional plenaries. Changing the setting to a fireside, or poolside, as in the case of Opportunity Collaboration, can change the attitude of the attendees even when the rest of the session is identical to a traditional plenary.  
  2. Short talks instead of a series of long presentations are a great way to quickly spark interest and start a conversation.  This format also works with how our brains process information and keeps people engaged even with short attention spans.

One of the formats we used was “Story Series” – it would be three-four TED-style talks, something around a theme but where they were not connected enough to have a panel discussion. After each 8 minute talk, the speaker would ask the audience a question, and that provided more interaction.  Then there would be a Q&A at the end for the whole group of 200-250 people.

– Jessica Fleuti, Skoll World Forum

Best Practice #3: Always have plants in the audience

People are often uncomfortable being the first person to step up and do something new. If you are using an interactive format, ask a few participants in advance to model the behavior you are looking for.

  • For participation on a written board (or any asynchronous written activity),  pre-populate the board to model the kinds of responses you are looking for.
  • For a Fishbowl format, make sure you have four people start in the center and have 8-10 people ready to be “tappers” and contribute comments to keep the conversation rolling.
greener mind summit fishbowl
GreenerMind Summit Fishbowl Conversation


Best Practice #4: Use Auditory signaling for smooth transitions

With alternative sessions, it can be difficult for people to follow the format and know when one activity has ended and another has begun. One example was given from Slow Money in which a gong was struck after 30 seconds to signal when it was time to move on to the next person.  Auditory signals can be a powerful way to transition either between participants or between phases in an activity.  Another method is to snap or clap to help others pay attention to the transition.  If you try “if you can hear the sound of my voice, please clap your hands” to get a large group to focus after having the freedom to talk in large or small groups, you can quickly gather attention without having to raise your voice.

Best Practice #5: Have strict deadlines for speakers

The best way to ensure that a session runs smoothly, is adequate preparation for the presenters. A strict deadline will help people stay on track, but it doesn’t work without a strong consequence for failing to meet the deadline.  Many conveners struggle with the idea of strict consequences, but the lack of strong deadlines has other consequences for staff rushing at the last minute to manage technology issues, or presenters going 5, 10 or event 20 minutes over their allotted time.  Fortunately as you move to more participatory frameworks,  the fewer speakers or presenters you will have, and the less this will be an issue.

  1. Schedule a pre-event call for all presenters, moderators, or panelists to go over frameworks, goals, and expectations for their session. Failure to participate in the call means they cannot participate.
  2. Require that all PowerPoint presentations be submitted a week in advance or the speaker cannot participate.

Challenge #1: Large groups are still difficult to facilitate

When facing a large group, the “Sage on Stage” is the standard format.  This is because it is far easier to set up chairs theater style, and only manage one person.  There are alternative session formats for large groups like World Cafe that allow you to present the group with a large overarching theme and then split into small groups of four or five participants.  You then give them a large piece of paper and marker. A facilitator presents groups with a potent question, that they then discuss. After a determined period of time, people are asked to rotate tables to start a new conversation.  Formats like World Cafe allow large groups to have a dynamic shared experience.

Challenge #2: Retention till the last day and lagging energy

Many conveners struggle with retaining participants for the full content of their final day.  If you have speakers scheduled for the afternoon of the final day, they can feel resentful or gipped if the audience is significantly diminished.  One suggestion was to consider adding an Unconference as your last day of content.  The model is flexible depending on the number of participants and you are able to fit in more participant driven conversation topics.

We put on a few events in the year – we have one main event that has grown from 100-400 people. We’ve usually used an unconference session and letting people vote with their feet. When we were at 125 participants that was the most effective.

-Rebecca Jewell, B Lab


Challenge #3: Uncomfortable formats for presenters

Ignite Sessions didn’t work very well because the presenters were not comfortable with the format.  If anyone is doing an Ignite Session, make sure the structure is really clear.  In the room we didn’t have a large digital clock – so the presenters were not sure how much time they had left. Some people who were not as experienced got a bit flustered.

– Sujatha Sebastian, Conveners.org

It is important the presenters fully understand the format ahead of time.  This will require multiple touch points to ensure the message sinks in.  First, schedule a pre-event call, second, provide a written document, third, provide references to online resources, youtube videos, and webinars.  Finally, make sure you meet with them on-site to answer any last minute questions.  It’s an unfortunate reality, but people need to hear something as many as 7 times for it to really sink in.

Challenge #4: Working around a set physical space

We are working in a very specific venue, and so almost all of our room options are fixed seat classroom auditoriums – it’s hard to square how to have audience engagement when people are sitting in a theater.

-Jessica Fleuti, Skoll World Forum

Alternative session formats often encourage configurations outside of the standard theater format and often require flexibility. If the available space can’t be flexible, you have to think creatively about adjustments that can be made to allow for the interaction you are seeking.

When having a panel in a room with amphitheater seating – before the panel started, we encouraged participants to put their stuff under their seats, and then had them stand up in the aisles, find someone they don’t know and share a story with the other person about their first memory about diversity – then you hit the gong to get people to share their memory.  It is a way to build rapport before they have to listen to the panel.

– Sujatha Sebastian, Conveners.org