Conference Design in the State of Creativity (rated PG)

I presented a workshop, Big Ideas, Focused Action, Problem Solved, on 11.1.11 with my friend Cynthia Rolfe at the Oklahoma Creativity Forum (#OKCF2011). I was blown away by a number of things about the event (not the least of which is the fact that there is an entire organization, Creative Oklahoma, dedicated to promoting creativity in the state, with the aptly chosen website address What struck me most of all was the design and delivery of the conference experience. I have been chatting with friends and colleagues who attended the recent Service Design Conference in San Francisco and their insights coupled with my own reflections about being both a conference producer and consumer got me wondering about what it takes to design a memorable and satisfying conference experience.

Thus I arrive at the conference-as-dating metaphor and my desire to anthropomorphize the service experience of large scale events. A conference, like a potential date, must attract, entice, and engage if it wishes to become adored by the object(s) of its affection. A conference, like a date, runs the risk of being a waste of time (punctuated by free food and drink) unless it establishes a meaningful connection and lays the groundwork for deeper interactions.¬† A conference, like a date, creates dynamic tension. To use an oft-appropriated quote by JFK “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

To help avoid the dangerous pitfalls of conference design crises (and perhaps some dating fiascoes) here are a few suggestions for optimizing various conference experience ‘touch points’:

  • Eye contact (aka Deliver seductive visual and interpersonal communication from beginning to end)

OKCF2011 has a clear mission and a solid brand to support it. The conference logo and PR elements (like videos) were pretty and clever and, most importantly, they reinforced the mission of the event to catalyze creativity & innovation in education, commerce & culture (i.e. get people thinking outside the box).

  • Flirting (aka Pique prospective interest with digestible doses of self-disclosure)

OKFC2011 speakers and breakout sessions were revealed in the weeks leading up to the conference. This created anticipation, similar to what has been done with User Experience Lisbon (aka a hot date with many of the finest minds in UX like, ahem, Steve!)

  • Foreplay (aka Set the stage and help participants warm up until they find it irresistible)

House music pumping out of the main ballroom had heads nodding while we sipped coffee and looked for seats. In lieu of a standard emcee welcome, we were consumed by a cross-cultural multi-media musical collaboration that included dancers, violins, native American flute, images from Africa via the Wishing Well program, and laser light show. Sounds cacophonous, right? It was flawless and I was smiling with my whole head before a single person stepped up to the microphone.

  • ¬†The Main Event (aka Overdeliver on expectations and attention to the, um, details)

OKCF2011 rocked out their mission and the venue was palpably packed with creativity including collaborative sculpture, young artists gallery, random and delightful antics by youth improv troupes, musical performance, photo booths and book store (to name a few).  Organizers found opportunities to weave local creative talent throughout the event. My favorites were performance poet Lauren Zuniga  (whose way with words made me drool) and the local youth from Louder Than A Bomb (whose courage and cleverness made my creativity blush!)

  • Post-Coital Bliss (aka Reflect on the good times and stay connected)

The OKFC2011 event included plenary sessions with individual speakers and panels plus two breakout sessions with ample options to choose from. The fastidious documentation means I can go back and experience whatever I missed or wish to revisit. Silly sidenote: OKFC2011 had great shwag- the bags were great, but I am talking about the interactive souvenir stations. There was a dedicated photographer with a conference background and props who would take whatever pictures you wanted and print them on the spot. My personal favorite was the Picstories booth where 7 seconds of silliness were instantly transformed into a personalized flip book.

  • Keeping the Fires Burning (aka Amplify the good and commit to continuous improvement)

OKCF2011 waited exactly two days to follow up with all presenters and attendees to request feedback (who doesn’t appreciate a good feedback loop when establishing committed relationships?) and offer encouragement for bringing the learning back into our daily lives. They alert me to when the site has been updated with images and video triggering a trip down memory lane that takes me to the future (of possibilities) through the past. Sadly, I can’t say that about most of the conferences I have broken up with, er, attended.

Presentation, in its entirety, is below and beckons your comments and feedback (in an “oops! I dropped my handkerchief” sort of way).


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