11 suggestions to make conferences a space for great conversations

fieldsofconversationIt seems to me that too many conferences are designed to only transmit information – hence the default choice of presentations followed by Q&A. Of course transmitting information definitely has it’s place, but when you’ve got a room full of knowledgeable, enthusiastic and skilful people, is it really the best use of their time?

Is it not better to try and create the conditions for dialogue, where people can connect with each other more deeply, in ways that are open and inquiring? And perhaps, if you’ve given enough time, some of those really powerful, creative conversations where new ideas and new projects are born, might happen.

Of course, most conferences and seminars do aim to have engaging conversations between participants, and between participants and the main speakers. But unless you’re very lucky not many great conversations will happen unless the schedule is intentionally, and carefully, designed, to encourage and support not just an exchange of information or opinions, but deeper dialogue.

The four fields of conversation from the Presencing Institute, above, are helpful to distinguish between different sorts of conversation. So often the traditional Q&A session after presentations gets stuck in the second field – debate: talking tough – with people just wanting to get their ‘point’ across, rather than having any true spirit of enquiry. While coffee breaks – often said to the best part of a conference – languish in level one.

Here are eleven suggestions based on my experience that you might consider when designing an event for dialogue (in no particular order):

Be really clear about the specific objectives of the event

It’s easy to fall into the trap of having an event, because you’ve always had one. (The annual conference!) But what do the organisers actually want the event to achieve? What do potential participants want? This may need a few iterations to get these aligned.

Think about how dialogue could support those objectives

Often it will be obvious, but even if the primary objective is something else, dialogue might have a really powerful supporting role. If the primary purpose is, for example, to communicate new knowledge, regulations or procedures, dialogue will help the participants check and consolidate their understanding.

Plan how you will create a safe space

True dialogue often means acknowledging one’s lack of knowledge and recognising that others have different points of view and assumptions. In some organisational cultures this might be perceived as admitting weakness. Even if that’s not the case, opening up like this to strangers can be daunting. Plan the event so participants move through the fields of conversation; and start with less challenging topics to allow people to build up confidence.

Give the process the time it needs

If something is worth including in the event, it’s worth taking the time needed to do it properly. While a tight timescale can provide structure and keep things moving along energetically, just squeezing more stuff into less time isn’t going to help anybody.

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Participants in our Common Cause action learning programme said one of the things they valued most was the time and space to think.

Even simple things can make a huge difference

Dialogue doesn’t require complicated processes and particular room layouts – though such exercises can be really powerful. Just inviting people to turn to their neighbour in a lecture-style event, and to discuss a particular question or issue, can really change the tone and quality of a subsequent Q&A or plenary. Keep the instructions simple, perhaps have the questions or topic on the screen or the wall.

Match the technique to the objectives

There are some classic techniques such as open space, world cafe and the fish bowl. All well worth using in the right situation – but make sure the process you choose actually meets the objectives of the participants and the organisers. Also, the originators of the techniques put a lot of thought into them – be careful about adapting them for a different context, or cutting them down to fit a tight schedule.

Try stuff

That said, don’t be afraid to experiment, to adapt techniques, try unfamiliar ones and to invent new ones – just do it knowingly, with a good understanding of the other points here.

Make sure the dialogue elements fit into the whole event

This is really important if you only have influence over part of the agenda. You may confuse people and create unmeetable expectations if you drop an exciting dialogue based activity into an otherwise very dry and traditional event. Think about how it will link with the other sessions before and after, and if possible work with the overall organiser and those running the previous and subsequent sessions to ensure the whole event flows nicely.

Be clear who the dialogue is for

Go back to the objectives of the organisers and the participants and make sure it’s clear to you – and everyone else involved – who the dialogue is actually for. It might, for example, be to generate new ideas for the host organisation, or to provide an opportunity for learning and reflection for participants, or to develop stronger relationships between network members etc. This will affect how you design, introduce and run the sessions. Everyone will be more comfortable if they understand the purpose.

Consider whether you really need people to “report back” and if so, how to make that process useful

In many cases the conversation is its own reward. There is often absolutely no need to report back either the content or the results of a conversation. If you don’t need to, don’t. But sometimes the results of the dialogue are important and should be recorded and passed on, but must they be shared during the event? If so, think carefully about what aspects are really necessary and how sharing them can be a valuable process that contributes to the subsequent stages of the event. (“Reporting back to plenary” is a bugbear of mine! I might be moved to write about that in detail some time.)

Be human, have fun

Coming together to share stories and discuss ideas is one of the things that makes us human. It should be enjoyable and satisfying. Allow it to be so: create as little structure and process as necessary, and then keep out of the way as much as possible.


I’m fascinated by the process of creating and hosting events that stimulate conversations that matter, and I’m happy to share some of my experience. Do get in touch if you think I could help you.