The Art and Science of Hosting Conferences

Formats that multiply the values gained

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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Each year, tens of thousands of professional, academic, scientific and trade conferences are held around the world. Nearly all of them are a huge wasted opportunity. How huge? See what happens by contrast if a conference in your experience were to use one of the simple formats described below.

A conference, symposium or colloquium conducted in one of the formats below has a much better chance of fulfilling its purposes of exchange of information, synthesis of energies, and the stimulus and generation of new ideas. Members become far more involved, and more energized. Participants get far more value from each session. Issues become vastly clarified and illuminated. Presenters receive essential, invaluable feedback, stimulus, and definition on what they are presenting.

If you have a conference event to host, or are likely to, or have friends who are likely to, you want to mine the following formats for ways to multiply by several times the value of such a conference. So much work and effort usually goes into these affairs that to look at another consideration may seem too much of a burden — but here is three minutes’ worth of reading that just may make it all worthwhile for you ten times over.

Special Format #1 — for Conferences

Thinktank summary: At the conclusion of each presentation which has some meaningful or intellectual content to it, pull participants and presenter together into a 20-minute thinktank pursuing further whatever was the main issue to emerge during that presentation. Presenter may have a special group procedure he or she favors for this, or the presenter (or a special facilitator prepared or trained for this purpose) can use the Dynamic Format procedure.

Variant:  schedule a panel of diverse presentations on the same topic, followed by a 30-minute or longer thinktank session of all as above, in addition to the usual Q & A. (In Project Renaissance’s annual Double Festival, held each May in Maryland, we have been referring to these post-panel thinktanking rounds as “implosion sessions.”)

Windup:   the Grand Panel of the Whole, all presenters and participants together, reviewing and pursuing the main issues to emerge during the conference. Final day of the conference, which gives some staying power to the conference itself.


  • Participants will obtain several times as much value from each session so addressed, and from conferences which use this format.
  • Whatever information participants obtain from such events will be remembered much better much longer.
  • Nearly all participants will truly understand nearly all information presented, in contrast to what happens at most academic and scientific conferences today.
  • The conference as a whole will be much more energized, everyone much better involved.
  • Presenters will get much richer and more meaningful feedback, and get back much better definition on what they themselves have to say.
  • Everyone will come from the conference with a much richer array of insights and energies and inspiration.

In small, facilitated “buzz groups,” participants are much more involved because they themselves get to say much more very much more often, instead of having to wait long turns to speak. This evokes a very different quality of attention, perception and thought, resulting in a much richer and clearer processing of the information and context just previously presented. When you think and strategize what to say, then get to say it and, while saying it, discover fresh aspects to it faster than you have time to think about it or judge it, you have brain circuits going that haven’t been at work at any other time.

Also, there are several hundred effective methods for creatively solving problems now in successful professional use around the world. Beyond the aforementioned Dynamic Format, these afford special and unique ways to process information and context of the just previous session, leading often to new breakthrough answers for the presenters themselves, not just for the participants.

Having facilitators present who can use various of these problem-solving methods constitutes another great enrichment of the conference experience for both presenters and participants. Many of these problem-solving methods can be learned, taught or trained in very few minutes, and they become part of the permanent resource repertoire of everyone involved in the session!

Everything we’ve said, in this website and elsewhere, about Socratic Method, especially modern Socratic Method, comes to bear here in accounting for how these few simple formatting measures result in vastly more effective and enriching conferences. For some of the core part of the explanation, please see Feeding the Loop.

Special Format #2 — for a Colloquium

  • Set the keynote theme by one or more special presenters, to the entire audience.
  • All dissolve into smaller subgroups, each one facilitated by a trained facilitator.
  • Groups to review and process further that keynote theme. The keynoter(s) provide copies to each facilitator of what they perceive the main issue to be, and a body of the most useful and informative questions they can think to ask in the context. The facilitators may add or make up their own questions, and identify or steer the group to identify what they think is the main issue in the theme presentation.

Several years ago, North American Mensa hosted a major colloquium on “Consciousness,” held in Detroit. Project Renaissance’s own Win Wenger was invited in, not only to present but to train most of the facilitators in basic Dynamic Format, which he did in several hours. The keynote sessions then ensued, as did the subsequent breakout sessions. Many who attended expressed their feeling that this was the most successful event that Mensa had ever sponsored. This structure truly works!

Variant:   A colloquium might run a theme in which it alternates back and forth between whole-group and breakout smaller-group sessions. For example, a keynoter strikes the theme for the large group. Smaller breakout sessions follow, facilitated sub-groups developing that theme toward some goal or toward the solving of a major problem in that context. Sub-groups report back to another session of the whole group. That whole group session integrates their inputs and redirects breakout smaller groups again toward some further goal, alternating between these levels several times before concluding with whatever goals have been wrested into being from this combination process.

Thus, you have here several basic ways to make your own conference a richer and vastly more productive event, and to approach the Socratic condition where everyone is able to draw forth, from himself and from each other, his respective deepest and subtlest awarenesses at length, in depth, in detail toward full understanding, on topic after topic in your conference’s context.

Aside from participants’ obtaining far greater value from the contents of your conference event, with some of these suggested arrangements they will acquire working skills in ingenious/creative problem-solving as well, a not inconsiderable extra bonus.

A Possible Experiment and Synthesis

Prepare, in advance, a substantial number of facilitators in Dynamic Format and/or in various problem-solving methods and/or Socratic-level discussion methods.

At the end of each session of all kinds, divide into smaller groups, each one facilitated. Each facilitator chooses a method with which to proceed, hopefully a different method each time, so that, from round to round, participants will rotate through a variety of methods, facilitator personalities, and experiences centering on but extending beyond the presentations of your conference.

We are preparing a special handbook for facilitators, featuring the most useful methods and questions, for our own use in Project Renaissance’s annual conference, the Double Festival, held each May in Maryland. On request, we may make this handbook available for use elsewhere as well.

Variety of processes, variety of facilitative personalities, intensity of the smaller or sub-group encounter — these not only multiply the value and retention of value of each presentation so addressed, but will add layers of meaning and richness to the whole proceedings.

Dip Your Toes in the Waters — A Simple, Easy Start for Your Next Event

Is your event large enough to run three breakout presentation sessions at the same time? Here is an easy way to get started toward enlivening and enriching your conference without having to make the whole larger conference change over this first time.

  1. At the beginning of each of the three or more simultaneous breakout sessions, announce that, at the end, every participant is expected to debrief with someone from another session on the contents of what they are about to experience here. Special instructions for this debriefing will be given out at the end.
  2. At the end of each of the three or more simultaneous breakout sessions, hand out special debriefing instructions in each session space, together with one or two minutes’ oral announcement/orientation/general preliminary instruction. Each session gets the same instructions, but printed on a different colored paper.
  3. Allocate an extra 10-15 minutes for this special debriefing.

Instructions on the paper will read somewhat like this:

Quickly, find another person here to de-brief with — a person from a session different from the one you just attended. Their instructions will be on paper of a different color than yours.

Taking three to five minutes, debrief to this other person, and then have him or her debrief to you within three to five minutes. Nice as it is to find out what you can learn thereby from the other person, an even greater value and point to this debriefing experiment is to find what you can learn from yourself.

Aside from a quick overview of what your session did and was about, please center most of your debriefing on answering these two questions —

1. What do you think was the key point of this experience for you, or its value to you?

2. What do you think made that the key or most valuable point of the experience for you?

Please make sure your other person/partner also gets to debrief to you on his or her experience. Have him or her tell the debriefing to you without interruption, or with as little interruption as possible.

When the chime sounds, please hurry on to your next session. Thank you for participating in this experiment. Please let us know what you think of it.

You can run a feedback form then or later, or just have a couple of minutes’ feedback during the next whole-group session. One interesting point of inquiry will be to ask your participants how much they remember from the session they debriefed on, compared with how much they remember from the other sessions.

See also

  • Dynamic Format, the definitive protocol
  • Feeding the Loop, some of the core explanations
  • An example of colloquium design, at Winsights No. 90
  • Interactive learning through listening in Winsights No. 33 and Mutual Listening for some background on modern Socratic Method.
  • Winsights No. 63 for some guidance on asking the best and most productive questions.
  • Throughout this entire website are many highly effective problem-solving methods. You might want to browse especially in these sections: the original creative problem-solving techniques section and Win’s monthly column, Winsights. There are more problem-solving methods elsewhere in this site, but these two sections host the greatest concentrations.

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