The Power of the Perfect Conference Closing

Behavioral science expert Dominic Thurbon on why the last hour of your event is so important to its success — and how he thinks you should use it.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

woman sitting with one leg crossed in from of giant screen showing lavender field

Julia Gräßer guides Convening EMEA 2023 participants in a meditation during the events’ closing session in Copenhagen, Denmark. Read about the thoughts behind the unusual close in “Beginning and Ending an Event With Authenticity.”

Dominic Thurbon, a Sydney, Australia–based entrepreneur who has created behavioral change programs for some of the most successful companies in the world, is also a speaker who thinks a lot about how behavioral science principles are — and aren’t — applied at conferences. One thing he’s noticed is that conference organizers “seem to spend a lot more time selecting and planning opening keynotes­ — on making big entrances and getting the setup right — than on ending on the right note,” Thurbon said. But what he knows from behavioral science is that participants’ evaluations of an event follow the “peak-end rule,” which is the sum of whatever participants experienced as the event’s highlight — “the biggest ‘up’ bit” — and how an event ends, Thurbon said. “If we really want to create events, conferences, and experiences that change behavior and leave our delegates better off than when they arrive, we need artfully designed closing keynotes.”

man with pink hair

Dominic Thurbon

To that end, Thurbon has developed a session — which he calls a “locknote” as opposed to a keynote — where he attends an event from start to finish and delivers a closing presentation that pulls all of its threads together. He then integrates them with broader themes about behavioral change, with the goal of “facilitating an experience that translates all the amazing content from the event into action,” he said. “The most common place for people to wind up after an event is actually back where they started. The energy fades, the buzz subsides, people get back to work and get back to being very busy and much of the impetus is lost.” A closing session should “leave people not just excited but ready and inspired to implement change.”

We asked Thurbon via email about the logistics of covering enough ground at an event to make it possible to present a real-time narrative of its content. One answer, he said, is practice — Thurbon once ranked seventh in the World Debating Championships, so he has spent years “listening to people talk, remembering what they said, coming up with a point of view on it, and then playing that back in real-time.” He also comes well prepared, he said. “Good briefings are critical.” But “when you add plenaries and workshops and breakouts all together, a two-day event might have 50 hours or more of actual content. So, of course you can’t cover everything. We’d be kidding ourselves if we thought that delegates could remember that much anyway.” The trick is to be “extremely” selective in pulling out the themes that are most relevant and important, he said. “It’s about getting a good feel for the points that are landing, the things people are really warming to, but also — crucially — the subtle things that people might miss unless someone draws them back to it.”

What role does AI play?

Convene also asked Thurbon for his thoughts on AI’s ability to summarize session content, which is then sent to participants, often through an app. Does he see AI as an aid to helping content stick with participants, or something else? His answer:

“We should see a role for technology in everything — everyone needs to be on the lookout for ways that technology can enhance or augment the human experience. I’ve been at plenty of conferences where AI tools are used to give summaries in near real-time. I love them and think conference organizers definitely should be using them, especially to save the human labor that would often be involved in pulling that sort of thing together. But the truth is, information alone tends not to change behavior. Experiences tend to change behavior — and even at events where there are AI-generated summaries of content, I very rarely wind up using that in my presentation.

“I’ve found the AI tools tend not to do a great job of differentiating between levels of importance in content. This is only going to improve, but at the moment, I find it far more effective to simply listen and use judgment to determine what are the most important things to summarize. Sometimes the most important insights don’t happen on the stage — they happen during side conversations or uncaptured Q&A or around tables during activities.

“So basically, I see a massive role for technology in summing up conference high points and sending notes around and giving people something to refer to. Conference organizers should be using them. But I don’t see that as a replacement or even really as attempting the same thing as creating an experience for people where we make sense of the conference for them in real-time and end on a note that encourages learning and change.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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