This is the first in a five-part series. It will continue with a look at breakouts, the expo hall, social events and the hallway. As always, PYM wants your feedback.
You walk into the ballroom and wait for your eyes to adjust as you slowly look for a seat. You want one that’s not too close to the front as to make you conspicuous, but not so far back that you look like you don’t care. It should be no farther than three seats from the aisle just in case you have to leave.
You find a seat to your liking and sit down. You pull out your smartphone to check email one last time before the 90-minute session — or so you think to yourself. You put the phone on vibrate, feeling good that you did it without having to be reminded.
You look around for people you know. Someone in the row in front of you is doing the same, and you make eye contact. You realize you met him somewhere, and polite conversation ensues. Eventually he turns back around, and you look to the stage. It’s moodily lit, so you can just make out the podium on the left. The company logo is projected on the back wall. Strategic uplighting picks out a couple of potted plants.
On each side of the stage, screens show a continuous loop of power point slides naming the event sponsors. You watch until the first comes back, then check your watch.
Finally, the lights in the room start to go down, and the lights onstage brighten. A voice announces the first speaker. You feel dread mixed with resolution — dread of the inevitable boredom as the parade of corporate leaders and event sponsors unfolds, and resolution to pay attention. That’s why you’re here, right? Eventually the keynote speaker takes the stage. The first few minutes are a breath of fresh air; the speaker is funny and insightful.
Then your pocket vibrates. You try to decide whether to see who’s calling or just ignore it. You have been waiting for a client to call back about a time-sensitive issue and worry it might be them. Deciding the client is more important, you take and your phone out. It’s not the anticipated call, but is someone you’ve been trying to reach for days. You answer, put the phone to your ear, duckwalk over the people in your row, and whisper “Hello.” You walk quickly to the back of the room and into the hallway. Your conversation takes two minutes, but you decide not to go back in — the session was almost over anyway, right?
Does this sound familiar? No need to lie, we’ve all done it, and we’ve all been bored and distracted during a general session. So why is it that when it’s our turn to plan one, we bore our audience with the same things that bored us now? Why don’t meeting organizers put themselves in their audiences’ place?
I have two theories. First, most organizations are so firmly entrenched in “how it has to be” that they can’t see any other way of doing things. Even groups that say they want to shake things up often back out when the reality of what that means becomes clear.
The second theory is that most organizations honestly don’t know how to engage their audience. They aren’t to blame. It takes expertise that usually can’t be found on staff – or even with event planning professionals. It’s an area that has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves.
There are a few simple tactics you can use. Expect to meet resistance from your stakeholders. If you can overcome it and create an exciting, engaging general session, you’ll be a hero — and your stakeholders will wonder what they were so worried about. It starts with changing your perspective. Put yourself in that ballroom chair and ask yourself these questions:
- What have other groups done that kept my attention?
- What would I do differently if I had the chance to change the general session I’m sitting in?
- How do I feel about the host organization when I’m the one that’s bored?
Now take the answers to those questions to your decision-makers and convince them to take a fresh look at how things are done. Here are a few suggestions:
- Invest in AV. Tech-savvy audiences have higher expectations of what a general session should look like. Impress them with a professional-looking show. Ask your AV provider what cool new toys they have. Use them to get your audience excited.
- Keep things moving. Don’t let corporate speakers/sponsors go on too long. Convince them that they’re not doing themselves any favors by boring the very people they’re trying to reach.
- Use prerecorded video instead of talking heads wherever possible.
- Make sure attendees participate. Have them stand up and greet the person next to them. Conduct live polling. Ask questions attendees have to answer by standing up or sitting down.
- Create a soundscape that guides the audience’s mood. Want attendees to wake up? Play upbeat music loudly. Want them to think and reflect? Play slower-tempo music at a lower volume. Use music during transitions between speakers and “chapters” of the session. It’ll create a sense of cohesion that will keep an audience’s attention.
If this interests you, read more meeting design articles from Amanda: