There’s a lot of talk out there about how we need to plan our events in ways that help attendees learn, and remember what they learned. We are hearing more and more that the way we’ve always done things is wrong, and that to keep up, we must do it all differently. Great! So on top of trying to be environmentally aware by cutting down on paper and bottled water and doing everything else that goes into a sustainable meeting, planning menus for people who can’t eat meat/dairy/gluten/nuts or they’ll get sick, and having less money than ever to work with – now we have to create meetings that are “brain-friendly,” too? How the hell are we supposed to do that?
OK, don’t panic. It’s true that we now know what we’ve suspected for some time. The same old, same old is just plain boring, and people don’t engage when they’re bored. But what can I, a meeting planner, do about that, you might ask? There are lots of things you can do to shock your attendees out of their stupor. It takes time, but it doesn’t have to cost much money, if any. There are, essentially, two avenues open to you.
1. If you have any input into how your speakers deliver their content, train them.
- Get them to open with an icebreaker of some kind. I’ve had speakers who played music from their iPods as people entered – upbeat, fun music to set the mood. Have them do an impromptu audience poll to gage how educated attendees are about the session’s topic, things like that.
- Make sure they understand the role of PowerPoint, if they use it. PowerPoint slides should act as a visual support to the message, it should NEVER be the message! This one is hard for the old-school folks, but try to get them to stop putting their bullet points on their slides. Suggest that they put up images or single words or simple phrases instead. That will keep the audience focused on the speaker and not the print on the screen.
- Make sure they don’t talk for more than 20 minutes AT THE MOST before breaking to take questions. Research suggests that people phase out after 20 minutes, so you have to break it up and get the interaction going to keep the audience with you.
- Get people on their feet. This trick might not be appropriate for every session, but if you can get people up and moving for a couple of minutes it really helps.
2. Create new room setups. This is much more feasible for the meeting planner who doesn’t have input with the speakers. For some of it you’ll need to coordinate with the content planners, but some of it you can do yourself. Here are some ideas:
- Get rid of the banquet rounds. Nothing says “this is gonna be different” than walking into a session and not seeing a room full of round tables. The same goes for a standard theater-style setup. Try to change things around. I did a session once that had the speakers sitting on stools in the center of the room, with the audience chairs in a football-shape around them. Hotels and convention centers hate this because it’s more work, but get them on board early and you’ll be amazed at how much more energy is in the room just because you changed someone’s perspective by changing where they sat.
- Use different types of seating. Bring in overstuffed chairs and sofas, or cabaret tables, or even beanbag chairs. This can run you some money, but it’s worth it – if the setup is appropriate for the meeting. You don’t want your board of directors in beanbag chairs (most of the time, anyway). Also, don’t do this in every session or it will become as expected as banquet rounds.
- Add simple decorative elements. If you’re stuck with banquet rounds or standard theater-style seating, do what you can to change the look of the room. Get different-colored table covers instead of the standard black or white ones. Get something pretty or fun to go in the center of the table – flowers, balloons (small ones that won’t block anybody’s view), battery-operated candles – get creative. It shouldn’t detract attention from what’s going on, but if you can surprise people and give them something else to think about for a moment, that goes a long way toward helping them remember your meeting.