Conference Hacks: What worked at the Clifton Strengths Summit 2019

If you'd prefer to listen to my highlights reel of the Clifton Strengths Summit, visit the First Time Facilitator podcast site. Otherwise, keep reading below!

As you'll read in this post, organising a great conference or event isn't rocket science. However, there are some key considerations and things you can't afford to get wrong.

On Episode 44 of the First Time Facilitator podcast, I shared my advice on how to create rewarding workshop experiences using a neuro-leadership model called SCARF. I thought I’d use the SCARF model again to share how this conference was so awesome.

I've recently returned from the Clifton Strengths Summit in Omaha Nebraska and I'd like to share what organisers did really well. If you're reading this, it's probably because you enjoy learning, which may also mean you enjoy attending conferences (or, you may be helping to organise an upcoming event!).

If that's the case, enjoy the read and don't forget to comment at the end and let me know about a great conference experience you've had!

What is SCARF all about?

The word SCARF is an acronym for the five key "domains" that influence our behaviour in social situations: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

SCARF centres around the idea that ‘social threats’ are perceived by the brain with the same intensity as actual physical threats. In other words, our brain is sending out the signal that we're in danger. What that means is, if you are feeling a social threat, it triggers the same response your brain would feel if you felt physical pain.

Therefore as workshop and conference organisers, your goal is to reduce the social threat response.

How did the event organisers use SCARF to deliver this event?

Status (S): Our relative importance to others.

There were different coloured name tags allocated to attendees.

  • If you had a black name card it meant you worked for Gallup

  • If you had a blue one, it meant you were a Gallup certified Strengths coach

  • If you had a green one (like me), you were an average joe!

I’m not Gallup certified, yet. I am now gunning for certification and a future blue name card (I have returned from this conference with Gallup/Clifton and the Strengths assessment pumping through my veins)!

Using this colour-coding scheme, you could tell quickly, those who had invested more (or my perception, who had more experience) using the Clifton Strengths tool.

From a marketing perspective, this works.

You may or may not want to use something like this at your conference - status was used here to demonstrate the depths of investment in the tool.

However, if you don't want status signals playing out, maybe keep colours neutral with your collateral, or incorporate the colours as an arbitrary way to split up groups during workshop activities (for example, "Go find someone with a red name tag and have a chat about x").

Certainty (C): Our ability to predict the future

Out of all of the SCARF domains, this is where they owned it - in the Certainty domain.

The conference app was next level. You could download it about six weeks prior to the conference and use it to gather all of the information. I believe they used a company called Glisser to create it.

The gamification feature added fun, interaction and connectivity. You were encouraged to upload your profile photo and biography prior to the conference. If you did this, you were given points.

You were also given points if you posted a photo to the social wall and if you messaged another attendee on the app.

Where did the points go? A leader board was created in the app, so you could track who was participating the most (there was an in-joke that those attendees with Competition and Achiever would be driven to play).

With the app, you could also view the agenda and opt-in to sessions. When breakout session was full, you were notified. Your name tag had a QR code printed on it, when you entered a breakout session, organisers scanned your tag to ensure you had signed up.

This gave you certainty that there was an empty seat waiting for you.

One other key detail in the app? The wi-fi login details #essential.

Transport was another thing - they had buses frequently runinng trips to and from the venue at certain hours during the day, to eliminate that question of, "How do I get to the venue?".

Autonomy (A): Our sense of control over events

Confession: My co-facilitator Adam Mustoe kept saying that one of the conference evening highlights in Omaha was karaoke night. I said, "Yeah yeah" but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, "Naaah". I was already sleep deprived from a big week in NYC and keen for an early night.

However, after being on a high from delivering our breakout session: The 7 Attributes of a Superhero Facilitator, I was definitely in the mood for socialising!

The organisers booked a two-storey bar in town and decked it out with great games (corn-hole, life-size Jenga), as well as a delicious buffet and selection of drinks. I was easily enticed for karaoke! By 11pm I realised it was time to leave... I woke up at 7.30am. The Summit closing ceremony kicked off at 8.30am but a) I needed to eat breakfast and b) I had to pack everything and check out before I went to the conference.

It took me close to 2 hours to do both. I ended up missing a Breakout session as well. I felt terrible.

The good thing was that on the app, you could select an item that said ‘Not attending this session’, which is what I did to free up some space for someone else to attend said session - I felt like I had some control over this situation (autonomy).

When I did arrive midst breakout session, I ended up meeting some wonderful Gallup staff, purchasing some Gallup training cards for upcoming workshops and having a chin-wag with Murray Guest. Murray was a guest (excuse the pun) on Episode 30 of the First Time Facilitator podcast. He lives in Newcastle, only a one hour flight from Brisbane but we met in Omaha! Cool.

This was very different from the Tony Robbins experience I went to which was over 3.5 days where I felt terribly guilty for even missing a minute of the action.

The other great thing about autonomy is that we were given a choice on which breakout session to attend. We were given all the information to make informed choices - the speakers bios, and detail on their topics.

Opting in to a stream during the day meant that you were getting information that you wanted to hear. Sessions were relevant.

And as always, you can’t attend every single breakout session, so it's nice to know you can download all of the presentations (which is what I'll be doing as soon as I hit Publish on this article!).

Relatedness (R): How safe we feel with others

Each name tag had our top five Strengths printed on it, which meant you could walk up to anyone and compare your Strengths all day!

It made conversations so easy.

You’re also drawn to the conference because of your love of the tool, so in terms of commonalities it was very easy to chat with someone and compare experiences - what industry they’re in, how they have used the tool, etc.

The conference has been running for a few years now, so there were a lot of people who use the time as a reunion time, to catch up with people.

In that way, you may have felt as a newbie, an "intruder" and perceived that it was tough to break through. I admit, on the first evening, that was my initial reaction.

But remember that courtesy bus I mentioned earlier? I had missed it by a minute, and so had a few other people. We ended up sharing an Uber to the event on the first night, and that’s when I met Katie Williamson from Fresno, California. We ended up being great conference buddies over the three days.

I was lucky that I was co-facilitating with Adam, who had been to the conference a couple times, and fell into his circle of amazing people. However, I also had fellow Australian's reach out connecting over the app as well.

If you were concerned about meeting others, you could use the app to reach out to others and suggest meeting them prior to the networking event.

The best breakout sessions were the ones which had some type of interactive element in them and you were asked to turn to the person next to you, or get into groups of threes. This helped, again, meet more people vs a lecture style presentation.

Adam and I incorporated quite a bit of this in our presentation, and it lifted the energy in the room, every time.

Fairness (F): How fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be

All of the activities were inclusive, the range of speakers and content covered was diverse and there was even representation between men, women, colour, age, industries, regions and experience.

They gave everyone enough lead up time to register for breakout sessions, so if you missed out, you couldn’t really complain - that was on you.

Sometimes at conferences, things change - which is all part of managing an event, but if it's mis-communicated, or communicated to some people (and not others), it can create confusion; and a sense of unfairness. The app ensured consistency with communication - everyone had the same information, at the same time.

Finally, you could use the app to submit questions for the Q&A at the end of each breakout session - a fair process, given that it's difficult to manage a lot of questions that come through and sometimes if you're sitting at the back of the room, you're missed!

What are your thoughts?

Have you ever had a conference experience which has either rewarded or threatened one of those five social constructs - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, or Fairness?

Comment below!

About the author

Leanne Hughes is the host of the First Time Facilitator podcast. She loves to shake up expectations and drive influential contagious experiences.

Leanne has facilitated leadership, on-boarding and team-building workshops across Australia, Canada, Indonesia and Mongolia and believes in a Strengths-centred approach to learning and development. She has over 13 years’ of experience across a range of industries including mining, government and tourism sectors.

In 2018, she was a finalist in the Australian Learning Impact awards for Learning Professional of the Year.

You can view more of her work at