Designing Events for Synthesis

Your packed education program will leave participants feeling overwhelmed unless you provide opportunities for them to synthesize their experience. Here’s how.

Author: Beth Surmont       

attendees with eyes closed meditating

Convening EMEA 2023 closed with a guided meditation to give participants “some time to stop, consider, and reflect individually and collectively” on what they had learned during the event, said Jaimé Bennett, PCMA’s managing director for EMEA. Read the “How We Do It” story.

beth surmont

Beth Surmont, CMP-Fellow, FASAE, CAE

As we rapidly accelerate into an era where tech infiltrates all aspects of our lives, events are one place where we can pause to be human, synthesize our thoughts in conversations, and create space to remember what is important. We have an opportunity to reimagine events not just as venues for learning, but as spaces for collective understanding. I call this approach “designing for synthesis.”

Many events focus heavily on speakers presenting information to a passive audience. While attendees may feel initially inspired, the content they hear — and the ideas that are sparked — often fade quickly because we don’t offer them opportunities to fully process and absorb what they are learning. Ultimately, we want people to be better when they leave our events, whether that’s through gaining knowledge, making a deal, or feeling connected to something bigger than themselves. But these things don’t just happen; we need to make intentional space for them.

The first step in designing for synthesis is to know the key messages you want the audience to walk away with. This tracks back to the “why” of your event. How are you highlighting industry challenges and positioning your event as the place to solve them? What are the macro problems your event is framed around? What strategic initiatives of your organization do you want to highlight? Structuring the event around these core concepts will bring clarity and focus to your agenda.

To shape an event that delivers real and lasting impact, the content needs to be orchestrated so that concepts build upon each other, allowing the attendees to connect the dots themselves, and create their own aha moments. Consider these design strategies to create moments of insight:

Ensure relevance. Prepare thought leaders, influencers, and experts on the main stage or in breakout sessions so that their messaging resonates with the audience. Whether it’s a well-known industry leader or a celebrity speaker, are they tracking their ideas back to the audience’s challenges? If it is an industry expert, are they the right person to be doing the talking? Are the perspectives relevant to each audience member? To enable their audience to apply the concepts, each speaker should stick to only one to three simple points and present their information in a way that is actionable.

Design session formats for synthesis. Go beyond table topics and create deliberate opportunities for peer-to-peer sharing. Use formats like Mastermind, where a participant shares their challenge and the group (of five to eight) brainstorms about it, or idea exchanges, where participants propose solutions to problems that can then be voted on, to go deeper. By employing facilitators for each group, you can ensure that these conversational sessions stay on track and have productive outcomes. Have fun with a debate session or a mock trial where different sides of an issue are presented for the audience to work through. Set up book club–style sessions in the evening with wine and light snacks where attendees can discuss the day’s sessions and process their ideas together. And don’t forget about your exhibitors and sponsors — these session formats provide valuable insights into their audience, networking opportunities, and a chance to hold meaningful conversations with potential customers.

Offer space for self-reflection. One of the biggest deficits of events is that they leave almost zero time for personal reflection. Schedules are packed from early morning to late evening, and it feels like a whirlwind. Participants gather a bunch of great ideas but are overwhelmed. And by the plane ride home they’re too exhausted to think. To truly create synthesis space, we need to put breathing room in the schedule and design intentional time for reflection. We can start events by describing the different learning paths, so they know what to expect. We can give them time to sit, think, and write. We can invite attendees on walks or give them time to play to let their minds rest. We could even hold facilitated action sessions where they can make a plan for how to take their ideas forward.

Designing for synthesis is really designing with intention, and like all good design, it puts the participant first. By shifting our events from overconsumption to thoughtful absorption, we can deliver more impact and improve our audience experience.

Beth Surmont, CMP-Fellow, FASAE, CAE, is vice president of event strategy and design for marketing, strategy, and experience agency 360 Live Media.

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