Shaking up Industry Events to drive impact

Weber Shandwick's Katherine Docampo wants to revolutionise conferences, advocating for more innovative formats fostering genuine collaboration and change

By Katherine Docampo

“My executives get all their emailing done during the panels I send them to,” sighed one Fortune 500 communications officer during this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

It wasn’t hard to understand what she was referring to – just attend one of the hundreds of panels across Davos and you might confuse some for being a study hall, with heads bent over screens. After all, during a week like Davos, where physical space and personal time is limited, what better way to tackle email backlog than blending into the back of a conference room?

But in a post-COVID world where there is increased pressure on business leaders to lean into global issues and justify carbon-emitting travel, we need to ask more of our conference formats. And in turn, ask more of our people attending them.

From passive moments of multi-tasking to learning and collaboration

Tackling the greatest challenges of our time requires us to think and act differently. And in-person events, whether they are global conferences like Davos or smaller-scale convenings, help promote our understanding of problems and their potential solutions. They can be powerful moments for learning and collaboration. However, the default approach of a panel where speakers face a passive crowd and often stick to scripted messaging can fall short of moving the dial. More creativity, more risk, and in some cases, more investment is needed from event organizers – and equally by the speakers or sponsors who prop them up – to really cut through and make an impact.

From my years of experience as a long-time WEF staffer, here are four examples of “beyond panels” formats to help audiences get off their phone and help speakers go beyond their talking points:

Debates: Typical conference panels tend to be polite, with the moderator mostly trying to avoid conflict rather than look for it. However, conflict in the form of “respectful disagreement” is critical to fully understanding an issue and identifying the solution. This is why research and content specialists like Kite Insights have been developing Oxford-style debates at global events ranging from COP to the Cannes Film Festival. By curating two teams who argue “for” or “against” a given issue, the debate format permits speakers and audience members to test their own biases and explore alternative perspectives. Case in point – the format was a resounding success during The New York Times Debate at Davos 2024, which brought an overflowing room to its feet and featured VIP guests like Al Gore serving as debate judges, lessening any concern about multi-tasking audiences.

Simulation style: The scene is set: two dozen global business executives and policymakers are crouched on the floor of a dark room, while soldiers with rifles slung on their shoulders shout aggressive and confusing instructions at them in a language they cannot understand. They are struggling to find their way through a refugee camp, empty-handed, negotiating for food or medicine. They feel disconcerted, intimated, powerless and afraid.

Then the lights come and the “soldiers” step out of character, revealing they are former refugees, child soldiers, or aid workers. The simulation exercise they helped build – called “Refugee Run” – is one of many organized by Crossroads Foundation, a Hong Kong-based NGO that aims to sensitise global leaders to issues that refugees face, including ethnic conflict, corruption and disempowerment. With the ethos “you can’t understand a man until you walk a mile in his shoes”, Refugee Run was a feature during the WEF in Davos for a decade and helped open the eyes – and in some cases the wallets – of dozens of global decision-makers who have the power to shape policy or investment decisions.

By experiencing the topic of conversation firsthand, the simulation-style format immerses the audience and leaves little opportunity to disengage.

Virtual reality technology integration: An increasingly familiar sight in Davos in recent years has been that of a global head of state with a virtual reality (VR) headset on, testing out the metaverse. This is in part driven by the WEF’s investment in the Global Collaboration Village, which looks to provide an immersive metaverse that makes “critical issues accessible, undeniable and collectively actionable.”

While it remains a relative novelty, we are only seeing the beginning of VR’s potential for shaping high-level leadership conferences. The technology will have the greatest impact when it is used to integrate more diverse voices into the conversation, enabling on-the-ground stakeholders to both show and tell their lived experiences. In return, VR should enable leaders on the other end to more authentically react and engage. In an age where disinformation and distrust heavily distort the rhetoric around events like Davos, this ability to directly communicate inside-out should help break down unproductive barriers and boost broader public engagement.

Fishbowl session: Creating an immersive, simulated experience without a doubt requires more budget, preparation and technical support than a panel – so it’s important to recognise that many organise standard panels because they are easy and practical. That said, with small tweaks, there is a cost-equivalent approach to session design that enables a more engaging conversation and audience experience. That is the “fishbowl.”

In a fishbowl session, the main speakers and moderator (ideally four to six people) are seated facing each other in an inner circle (the “fishbowl”), while the audience is seated in a concentric outer circle. This face-to-face approach, which only requires moving around chairs, enables the speakers to better pick up social cues and interplay on each other’s ideas and energy, with faster-paced moderation encouraging a more lively exchange.

This approach is commonly used in sessions hosted by media broadcast companies, given the studio-like inner circle is easy to film (check out this WEF-Bloomberg session on the global gender gap in health). A more interactive twist would be an “open fishbowl” – where any member of the audience can, at any time, join an empty chair in the fishbowl. Either way you play it, the goal is to avoid an “echo chamber” by hosting a more authentic and dynamic conversation that allows speakers to interact and evolve each other’s thinking.

Coming together to share ideas is an inherently human desire, as proven by the rebound of in-person convenings after COVID. While a panel sometimes may be the only option given resource, it doesn’t always have to be the default. It requires creativity and courage to push people out of their comfort zones. We all owe it to each other to maximize our time together in the present to drive more positive outcomes for the future.

Katherine Docampo is SVP, leadership and impact communications at Weber Shandwick


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