Does the following sound familiar?
Starting 9am you sit on your chair, listen to 90 minutes of keynote speeches, followed by a short break of 30 minutes of which you spend half of it for a cup of coffee and to find back your seat. Another 90 minutes of product presentation (of course the new version of xyz is faster, better and a must have) lead you into a 60 minutes lunch break – at last you find some time to speak to someone – ok speaking while you are eating is not everybody’s favorite (and skill), but hey, who cares about manners. You use another 15 minutes to do a few important phone calls and hurry back into your breakouts. Breakouts are great, because you get a chance to chose a new chair every 45 minutes and you get a chance to ask a question at the end of each breakout – in rare case the speaker is not overrunning his allocated time. When you get home to your business or organization the story you can tell your fellow business partners might be like the following: “In my opinion the second speaker was the best one because he was a funny guy. I still need to wait for the 500 slides to get posted so I can go through them again to share a summary, but I think the topic is important given the amount of clueless people (like me) that attended… just don’t ask me what to do about yet.”
The majority of corporate events unfortunately still work like that. Following the simple logic of “this what we always have done and we had the opportunity to spread our message to x00 people, of which we basically know nothing about… but they know now more about us”. This tenure is especially sad, if the relentless speakers on stage tell you to “transform”, “do things differently”, “change your mindset” – but applying them-self the same tools and skills as 20 years ago.
Individualization as a trend leads to active participation of attendees.
In this light, no wonder, that more and more events suffer from shrinking attendee numbers and few events starting to be well known to host more corporate or sponsor people than (potential) customers. Even in corporate internal events, leaders face more and more the question “how can I use the content for my work and how can I use the time spent at the event to achieve my objectives”, rather than “what will I get and see”. This new question shows the change in expectation of attendees – away from passive consumption to active participation. Attendees as individuals are used to acquire knowledge online. But when coming to physical events, they want to share their opinions as they do in social media or blogs. They expect individualized experiences rather than one-size-fits all keynotes. Such attendees perceive a diminished value of following just one self confident guy on stage, because they tend to be part of hundreds of self confident guys in the audience.
Are your corporate events really designed for your attendees or your speakers?
Is it possible for the individual, who is used to share his opinion, to leave an event satisfied, if there is hardly time left for a Q&A at the end of a speech? You can doubt. Do we now need to create an individualized event for each attendee, similar to individualized marketing? Not really. But what is clear, that fully orchestrated events with agendas to the minute – the pride of corporate event departments – have probably seen its best times already. The most important corporate content might not be the most valuable learning for most attendees. How would the speaker actually know. How much do speakers typically know about the needs and motivation of their audience? Do they really know their audience? Do they really care to start with?
Involving attendees in the agenda generates uncertainty and a loss of control.
Everyone would agree, that an event feedback like “I was part of something” creates a stronger bond than “I was there too”. To achieve that, the central objective of an event must be to involve attendees, rather than to inform them. It actually does not take too much, to let a 0815 event grow into an engaging experience which might even be life-changing or at least life-changing. More and more companies are moving away from budget intense large events, to series of organic, attendee shaped sessions. This enables the creation of relevancy and transfer of a message into the believe of attendees and distinguishes it significantly from the well known and annoying keynote format. For attendees, problem solving does not come from days long listening marathons. But interactivity does.
At start, it might be hard to organize events, where the audience decides intuitively which talks they wanna join, how long they wanna keep an engaging conversation going or they wanna continue an exciting workshop all day. It seems hard, because we have paid this amount of money for a international speaker and the catering team requires a fixed agenda. Product divisions have contributed to the event budget and they now request to get their fair share of audience and air time. But customer or employees are using the freedom to “vote with their feeds” already in the majority of their social and business life’s. Do we really think that engaged minds love to be boxed every 30 minutes?
Talking about the box. Or actually out of the box – what does it really mean? By telling our audience to “think out of the box”, do we really think they are comfortable and willing to leave their box just like that? An audience, who typically tries to find back their very same chair after a “networking break”? Instead of talking about “out of the box thinking”, creating this experience works actually pretty simple. Ever tried events in a surprising or disruptive environment or to switch the seating setup during a break? Or having attendees solve other peoples problems by collecting ideas, generating proposals from their non industry experience or challenging speaker bullets by adding their immediate reaction? Every tried? Why not?
Inclusion and emotional engagement.
Speakers, who want to know what their audience thinks, are open for a Q&A at the end of their speech. But are they really interested? Or are they just offering the audience an opportunity to help them shine even more? Very rarely, an attendee seizes the opportunity to come up with the statement, that they are looking for something different, or share the type of problem they have and are looking for help. It is always the same 5% of attendees to praise their own smartness by asking smart questions. The majority of the audience never speaks up. Which basically also means, they never started to internalize whether the said really was relevant for them and what they are going to do about it. Every good creative session starts with a few exercises to open minds (and hearts), drive inclusion to get everyone involved through simple things like post-its to collect everyone input, come up with their stories or even draw pictures or build small artefacts with Lego and the like. Whatever it takes to bring all attendees into an open, participative mode is an effort well spent. The challenge for the speaker is to let the lead go for a moment and switch to a moderator role to some extend. The beauty speakers might find in this approach is, that they actually get the chance to really care about their audience, learn something about their audience and tailor relevance of the subject for them.
The notion of “being part of something” also requires an emotional connect to what is happening. This can be as simple as a story with a surprise or a joint laugh and giving people time and room to bond to the experience. Teaching lessons on design thinking is one thing, but actually experience of the richness of 60 minutes ideation practicing can convert people into believers or not, but will always leave attendees with a strong experience, that is more than the pure information. This task of emotional connect does not necessary mean you need to limit yourself to small group exercises only. Experienced speakers can also take larger audience with them by start a small mental cinema in each and everyone’s brain. Powerful speakers use stories to make the point and might come to a joint lesson learned at the end – they typically don’t start with their mental model, but guide you to your own.
Courage to reduce the Message and create a continuous Involvement
Spending the big budget on thousands of contact to successfully convince only a few to participate in the message we want to bring across is simply a waste of money. An wisely spent event budget leaves everyone with the main message and offers an opportunity to go deep and meet peers. Events can be effective meeting platforms, but are very inefficient information tools. At the same time, the engaged audience which is leaving an corporate event is a big investment. Not maximizing this investment after the event is a failure of the event. Corporate event concepts therefor work for the full target group, not just the actual attendees, leveraging all touch-points from invitation, reminder, teaser to spread the message (and experience) and continue the experience after the show with results and more experience touch points (and not just sales offers). Corporate events are a part of the brand experience, which lives over the course of the year, and is not raising like a bird for one moment, just to disappear forever again the minute you leave the event venue.
A common mistake corporate events continue to celebrate is the breadth of messages and information (and PowerPoint) overload. Focusing on a few or only one key message, give attendees the opportunities to drill deeper, look at it from different perspectives and find the piece of the message that resonates for them is dramatically increasing the success rates of events. Modern marketing is working with defined personas and is mastering the messaging and communication means to those personas in a customer journey. Corporate events are much like a “customer journey on a turn-table”. Give the “personas” you expect at your event a picture to figure out the relevant messages, as much as you do it with digital marketing. Corporate events become in this context a form of content marketing with the opportunity to discuss with peers, experts and masters.
Moderation and Mastery
Keynote speakers and breakout speakers (even more) are typically introduced as “experts”. Experts know more of a given subject than others. They accumulated more knowledge and some of them more experience through practice. This accumulated knowledge is what they share. If you want, experts are an old-fashioned, physical “bot”. Information is their business, and not learning. Successful learning situations come frome engagement of the audience, inclusion of individuals – by physical participation or mental activity.
Many times, there is enough energy in the room, enough self confident individuals and even enough knowledge in the room that the audience could self contain the path of learning with some moderation, so the group is not losing direction or excitement. Good moderators can create a balance of engagement of attendees and moments of required expertise. They manage also pace and inclusion. Mastery on the other side can start to play, when examples are inspiring. Mastery addresses the reasons of doing things rather than the details of how to do it, for which we have the experts. It can come from true “masters”, leaders, inspiring personalities, or from peers with inspiring stories. In the peer context, mastery is coming from authenticity, specific context, and as such real. The combination of good moderation and mastery can create a relevant experience per se, but rarely they can be combined in the same individual or role in corporate events. But they most of the time have the power to create more relevancy for the audience than “experts” alone.
Don’t tell, but share
Making events attractive again means, capture core social trends of “contribution”, “participation” and “sharing opinions” and creating for them a stage and an pre- and post event experience, that allows attendees to make a simple but powerful message relevant for them.