In the closing days of 2020, we need to talk about the closing moments of virtual conferences. I recently read The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker—and highly recommend it for anyone involved in hosting parties or events, including conferences. One of my biggest takeaways: most associations don’t know how to close a virtual conference.
Parker says we’re “following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs. It is almost always a vain hope.”
Think back to the virtual conferences you attended this year. The last session is over. The chat box quiets down. The only thing left to do is to click and close the tab. Poof. Done. It feels anticlimactic with no closure.
It’s usually no better at in-person conferences. The conference ends with a keynote after which the chair goes to the mic and thanks everyone for coming. The crowd goes off in different directions. The venue echoes with the sound of chair-stacking. Feeling a bit bereft, you head to the parking lot or hotel shuttle bus.
How to close a virtual conference
Conferences should not just stop. They should end on and with purpose. Here’s Parker’s advice on closing a conference in a way that fills attendees with good memories, warm fuzzies and inspired action.
Don’t shirk your duty as conference host
Conference hosts are ghosting attendees. Abruptly disappearing from an attendee’s screen is like using a post-it note to dump someone. Parker says attendees “deserve a proper breakup.”
Most conferences end without much thought or purpose. The clock demarcates the ending. Attendees leave but “a gaping void lingers.”
Your job as host is to help attendees leave the alternative world you temporarily created. Give them the opportunity to take stock of what they absorbed over the past few days and decide what they want to carry with them when they reenter their everyday world.
Accept the mortality of your conference
Don’t you hate it when the party’s over? No more a-ha moments, hallway conversations, hugs, laughs over drinks or new lunch acquaintances. You must accept the impermanence of a gathering and honor its memory by thoughtfully and intentionally arranging a meaningful closing.
Too often, hosts try to prolong a gathering because they want to keep its spirit alive and “sustain what is better surrendered.” That’s true, we’ve written about extending the conference experience—but mostly as a way to help attendees take what they’ve learned back into the real world and assist them in deepening connections.
Announce last call
Don’t let the clock end your conference. Take charge of the closing. Studies show that openings and closings are peak experiences. Attendees are primed to have more attention during these memorable moments.
Prepare attendees for the end. Make a big deal of it. Let them know this is the start of the process of ushering them back to their other world.
A strong closing has two phases, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first, an important announcement.
Never end with logistics
A good closing does not include a litany of thanks and other announcements. Handle this “housekeeping” second to last.
Parker doesn’t like the way people are usually thanked. She suggests getting specific about how and what each person did for the conference. This approach is more meaningful to those who are listening—the attendees and the people you’re thanking.
Dedicate time to looking inward and turning outward
Now, we arrive at the heart of the closing: two phases that correspond to two attendee needs.
The first phase is looking inward. Schedule time for attendees to reflect individually and collectively upon what happened during the conference and why it matters. This is an opportunity for them to bond as a group one last time, prepare to say good-bye and retake their place in the world.
You can help attendees look inward by:
• Recalling why everyone came together—the conference’s purpose.
• Reminding them about common themes discussed in sessions or messages delivered during keynotes.
• Asking audience members what is making an impact or sticking with them.
The second phase is turning outward. Prepare attendees for separation and reentry—parting from each other and retaking their place in the world. Parker calls this “helping attendees find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.”
Help attendees figure out what they want to bring back to their other world by:
• Asking several of them to share how they’re going to apply the information they received, change their behavior, or turn ideas into action.
• Doing this exercise in breakout rooms if you have a small enough group.
• Taking a pledge on what they will do differently moving forward.
• Declaring their intentions on a public wall.
• Writing a letter (or email) to their future self.
• Giving out party favors that transform an impermanent moment into a permanent memory, for example, a journal or workbook.
You could prime attendees ahead of time for this exercise by asking presenters to take a few moments at the end of their session to discuss how attendees can apply new information.
Ask volunteers to lead accountability groups for different attendee segments—career stages, specialties and/or locations. Include this announcement in the housekeeping portion of the program.
Parker says closings are powerful moments of memory-making. Ending well is a crucial way to cement the feelings and ideas you want attendees to take with them.
A good closing at ASAE TEC
Most of the virtual conferences I attended this year stopped without a satisfying closing. ASAE TEC surprised me—and maybe surprised itself.
It ended with PivotFest, a panel of technology partners moderated by Reggie Henry, Chief Information and Engagement Officer at ASAE. The panelists recalled how their companies and association clients pivoted during the pandemic. This closing session probably would have felt the same as all the other conferences, but something unexpected happened.
Reggie described how inspired he was by the association community’s response to the pandemic. One of the panelists, Dave Coriale, president of DelCor Technology Solutions, pointed out how appropriate it was for a technology conference to end with Reggie talking about the heart of our community—the people. Reggie got a bit emotional thinking about that—and the chat box took notice in both a kidding and caring way.
This closing felt different. Reggie reminded us how far we’ve come as a community and how much the people element of technology matters. The conversation connected to our emotions. I admit my eyes misted up and I felt that warm sense of community you get when (virtually) surrounded by peers. It wasn’t a perfect closing per Parker’s definition, but it provided a sense of closure I hadn’t felt at other conferences.
Keep these words of Parker in mind when planning your next virtual conference: “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.”