General sessions are the biggest opportunity your group has to get its message across to your attendees, and more often than not, that opportunity is wasted.
At most any conference you attend, general sessions are the “have to do.” Membership associations use them to conduct necessary business, like voting for new board members and sharing financial information. For groups of salespeople, this is when top sellers are recognized. For others, it’s where attendees get information about the direction of the company and their place in it. Whatever the reason, you’re going to get everyone in a room together at some point and talk to them about something. That’s a given.
Have you ever sat in the back of the room and watched the audience during your general sessions? If you’ve got a really good keynote speaker, or the group is fired up about meeting their sales goals, they’ll pay attention. More often though, they’re checking email, looking at the printed program or talking with a neighbor.
Why is that? Why won’t the audience pay attention to what’s going on onstage? Audience members may think they’ve heard it all before. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point. If they perceive that you have nothing new to say, they won’t listen.
How do you change that perception?
You probably won’t be able to impact the content much. There really are some things that just have to be done. But you can make a difference in how the information is presented. Any of these suggestions can freshen up your general sessions:
- Change the format. Use a talk-show format instead of presenting a parade of company speakers. Have the speakers sit in a group and “interview” them about things the audience needs to know. This takes a confident host and lots of preparation, but the feeling of informality and improvisation will keep the audience engaged.
- Lose the charts. If you must share financial information, post it online, hit the bottom line and sit down. The CFO is the only person interested in that stuff, so get it over with, quick!
- Use more music. Work with your audiovisual folks to create a meaningful soundtrack for the session. Think about genre and tempo to create the kind of mood that will get and keep your attendees focused.
- Keep it short. The days of the 60-minute keynote are over. Keep your speakers to no more than 45 minutes; 30 is even better. Or schedule two or three speakers for 20 minutes each. The pace will keep attendees from nodding off and will give you more opportunities to explore different themes and ideas.
- Interact. Technology gives us the ability to interact with the audience in new ways, so set up some live polling and ask your attendees questions about what’s important to them. Let them text questions to the organization’s leaders — and have the leaders answer them! Hold a town hall meeting in which the leaders face the audience directly, on their level. Stop hiding behind the lectern!
If you convince your attendees that they really are important to you by doing something new, they will reward you with their attention — and they’ll remember your message.