Your big meeting just wrapped up and you’re feeling pretty proud of yourself. After all, you had some of the best and brightest industry experts delivering relevant, “need to know now” information in slickly produced keynote presentations at well-attended general sessions. Your schedule was chock-full of educational breakout sessions, with more information presented by strong speakers. Yet when you sit down to tabulate and compile your evaluation forms, you’re surprised to see that your attendees weren’t as happy with your meeting as you were.
Complaints such as “Speaker relied too heavily on their PowerPoint”; “Too many sessions to choose from and not enough time for networking”; and “Needed time to make connections with other attendees” show up over and over again. Not to mention all those, “Room was too cold” comments. You’re disappointed and puzzled, because you thought this meeting was one of your best ever. So what gives?
Maybe the issue is not the content of the meeting, but instead how you are delivering it and what type of meeting you are creating for your attendees. If you’re still doing things the exact same way you have been doing them for the last 10 to 15 years, with a program full of speakers presenting with PowerPoint, then you are doing a disservice to your attendees. If you haven’t recognized it yet, your audience dynamic has changed. Today’s attendees are tech-savvy individuals who demand a fresh approach; audiences want to be engaged rather than simply addressed. Attendees who have developed their own networks on LinkedIn and Facebook, communicated in real-time via Skype and Instant Messenger, and posted their every thought on Twitter want to participate in their learning process rather than merely listen.
While your organization may not be quite ready to completely change your meeting to an “unconference” format that turns over complete control of the program to the participants to decide the topics, determine the format and present the information, there are ways you can integrate new delivery systems and technology to fully engage your audience.
Plan Your Meetings does a great job at their PYM LIVE Events of providing a method for audience members to contribute to the conversation or ask questions by integrating Twitter fountains in their presentations. Attendees can tweet or text their questions, which are displayed in real time on the screen along with the speaker’s slides. Providing your attendees with a means of providing instant feedback can help your presenters know if their message is being received and allow them to make adjustments on the fly in order to increase audience comprehension. It’s also a great way for attendees to share their own best practices and identify people who might have information they can use and should connect with afterward. It’s also a great way of capturing notes from a session and allows anyone who is following that Twitter hashtag to participate from afar, even if they aren’t attending the conference. And if you as a conference organizer are monitoring tweets, the next time an attendee tweets, “It’s too cold in here,” you can respond immediately to correct the situation.
You don’t have to be a member of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” audience to let your voice be heard, and you don’t have to be a millionaire to be able to afford the latest audience response system. With Polleverywhere, your attendees simply use their cell phone to text in their answers to questions posed by the speaker, and the results display immediately on the screen. You could also eliminate the need for paper evaluations by allowing attendees to text in their evaluations. The monthly pricing structure for this service is quite reasonable, and you can sign up just for the month of your meeting.
There are some exciting new apps being developed for attendees’ smart phones that can also enhance your meeting. Meetingapps.com is a great portal for meeting planners with apps categorized by functionality. In the Conferences tab, you’ll find apps that will allow attendees to get the latest alerts and updates from you, while also allowing them to connect with other attendees before, during and after the meeting. If you don’t see something there that meets your needs, it can be very reasonable to have an app custom made for your conference.
But don’t rely solely on technology to achieve your goals; you should also be focusing on the structure of the conference itself to increase audience engagement. Here are few simple things you can do to increase audience engagement when structuring your program:
Replace some of your breakout sessions featuring one person talking for 60 to 90 minutes with short, fast-paced presentations delivered by several speakers in a single period. Most talks are less than five to seven minutes each and allow two to three minutes of Q&A. Call them Lightning Talks or Ignite Sessions or something similar so attendees will know they are different.
Schedule time in the program for attendees to gather with others with common interests. The Texas Society of Association Executives is setting up an iLounge at their New Ideas Conference this September that will feature a CEO Genius Bar with CEOs on hand to provide expert advice; Common Connections where like minded attendees can gather at pre-determined times or schedule their own meet-ups; and Continue the Conversation-facilitated discussions following the keynotes for those who want to delve deeper into the discussion.
If you don’t have the space for a separate gathering area, consider making one of your sessions or meal functions a “Birds of a Feather” session where people sit with others who share their interests and conduct discussions about issues important to them. You can allow attendees to determine their own topics on-site. Provide materials for them to make signs to direct people to the appropriate table, or predetermine the topics and print signage ahead of time.
Lastly, take the time to survey your audience — both those who attend and those who don’t — and ask for their direct feedback on how they would like to engage with your meeting. Your conference can only improve by involving your attendees from the beginning. And the end result will be a meeting that exceeds your attendees’ expectations.