Rethinking the Traditional Model for Your Conference’s Education Program

Author: Dave Lutz, CMP       

Organizers spend a lot of time putting together their conference’s education sessions. Models vary, but most include a 15- to 20-person conference committee (slotters) and an army of reviewers (graders).

Progressive organizers are shifting to a blended model, where conference committees act more like content curators and advisers and less like slotters and graders. Session and abstract submissions are still an important part of the process, but a greater reliance is placed on curated sessions. A program assembled of submission-only sessions will never yield the best the industry has to offer.

Organizers can stack their deck by having presenters who they know will bring their A-game every year. Instead of asking them to go through the submission process, these presenters are hand-picked to create or facilitate curated learning experiences. They often are uber-connected in your industry and can be influential in having attendees show up at sessions. Help this group become even better by investing in speaker coaching/training.

Program committee members are being tasked to identify the greatest problems to solve, or opportunities to seize, for experienced participants. Organizers are using the advice of the committee to better communicate the learning tracks and outcomes in order for submitters to better align their session proposals. Committees are having fewer conference calls and preset meetings. Some are dividing the work up and having committee members serve as track advisers to staff and presenters.

Looking for ways to improve quality filters and overall fairness to participants in your submission process? Here are some to consider:

  • Single blind reviews — in an initial round of reviews, the submitter’s name and organization are not known to the grader, who grades the session with similar filters that an attendee would use to decide whether to register.
  • More reviewers, less to review — each submission should have at least three individuals review/grade. Set a limit of 10 or 20 sessions max for each individual to review. Embrace micro-volunteering.
  • Transparency — clearly communicate the process and scoring methodology to the submitters. Include fields so that reviewers can add comments that can be shared with the committee, staff, and submitter.
  • Submission restrictions — submitter must be a member in good standing; no more than two submissions per person, so that submitters bring their best ideas only; and the submission must be completed by the presenter, not the presenter’s marketing team.
  • A 21st-century rubric — adopt a four-point scale so graders are less likely to rank down the middle. Lose grading elements that are about following the rules, grammar, and spelling to emphasize learner-centric elements like business outcomes, active vs. passive learning, and the potential to lead to changes back in the workplace.


Mix Things up

If you have a meeting of OWG (Old White Guys), for example, you should identify desired diversity of the presenters. We’ve seen some organizations put a moratorium on manels (all-guy panels). Others have set desired metrics for some or all of these demographics:

  • company size or type
  • job setting, title, years in profession
  • race and ethnicity
  • U.S. vs. international
  • gender and age
  • sexual orientation
  • region or chapter

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

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