Brain Dates and Amped-up Panels Could Give Events a Needed Boost

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When I hear Comic Cons mentioned, I picture people dressed up like Wonder Woman, Princess Leia and one of the Trekees making that funny peace sign.

When Kristin Arnold, president of Quality Process Consultants and a professional meetings facilitator, thinks Comic Con, she pictures panels with an air of exclusivity ("something that you can only get here and no place else"); visually interesting stage settings; and debates—not just banter—taking place between panelists.

In other words, ideas that publishers could use at their own events. "I'm going to suggest that we spend as much time working on our panels as picking our main-stage speakers," she said.

Two articles from AssociationsNow highlight that we-need-to-add-more-value feeling in our conferences and events. Power Up Your Panel Discussions focuses on what can be done to inject more engagement and interactivity into panels; and  Brain Dates Offer More Meaningful Networking answers the question of what comes after the popular speed networking. Brain Dates are designed to "unlock the knowledge that everyone brings with them and make it searchable for others, so that you can meet with somebody based on what they may be willing to exchange in terms of knowledge," said event company E-180's impact director Michèle Robinson. (That reminds me of an article I need to write on job titles.)

Here's how the Brain Dates work:

  • Participants fill out an online profile listing what topic(s) they might know a lot about and which ones they'd like to know a lot about.
  • You can then "browse knowledge offers in the marketplace and book 30-minute appointments with others based on their interests."
  • Then, in the Brain Date Lounge, matchmakers introduce you to your, ahem, date. Someone late? The profiles allow the matchmakers to do a reset.

"In a way, often people see it as transforming networking efforts into intentional and very meaningful knowledge exchange," said Robinson.

Some of this sounds familiar to what events guru Benny DiCecca used to tell us. "Are you asking the right questions?" He spoke of the research and surveying that you should be doing before creating events. "One question we weren't asking was, 'Are you willing to pay to go to an event to learn on this topic?' There is certain information that people would open up a checkbook and some people would not... You need to understand why they're there."

Here are more spicing-up-the-panel ideas that Arnold has.

  • Keep the dialogue dynamic. "Here's the deal with panelist dialogue: You really have to set the tone," Arnold said. Don't over-prepare them—you want the conversation to feel authentic.
  • Try different staging. Perhaps place panelists on different sides. Or let them sit around a coffee table. She also suggests a theater-in-the-round style. Having just come from a play in that style Sunday night—where I heard several "I couldn't hear" comments afterwards—that's hard to picture for a panel. But I could see an experienced keynote doing that. A town-hall style set-up could also help engage the audience.
  • Pump up the opening remarks. Instead of simply welcoming people to the panel, Arnold wants the moderator to ready the room for a vigorous debate of ideas, one in which the audience will be encouraged to respond.

That reminds me a bit of what Bill Haight, president of Magna Publications, told us a couple weeks ago. Take every opportunity to add personality to your outreach. His was a confirmation letter that instead of saying, "Registration is from 12-5; see you then," said, "Be prepared to start a real adventure, a life-changing experience. Come check in from noon to 5:00 and meet the exciting people you'll be networking with."

"Pick your format, pick your staging, and then come up with a really, really great opener," Arnold said.

Like DiCecca who encouraged doing much of the work before, Arnold said you should encourage brain daters to research the other person—and the topic—a bit before they come. That way it can all be fresh on their mind during the conversation, and there's less of a chance for things to get bogged down. 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…