Tag Archives: event

Conference design strategies that deliver a punch

The Engaging Events Series, #4

In my last post about Meeting Design, I talked about the two fundamental principles for enhancing the impact of any meeting: 

1)  Minimize The Presentation Time, and
2)  Ramp Up The Interactive Time. 

I also promised a sample list of techniques that I’ve seen used or experimented with, that ratchet up the ROI on the time invested by sticking to the guiding value of “Get on, get to the point, and get off!”.  The value of this approach is that attendees can spend less time passively “receiving” information and more time processing it and figuring out what to do with it. As you’re reading, think about other similar approaches you’ve witnessed, because you might be asked to share one yourself when this is over.  

  • TED Talks.  Let’s start with the most famous example of concentrated presentations in a group setting.  I’m told that when TED talks were originated, speakers were asked to expound on a subject of their choosing, with a limit of 6 minutes to get their point across.  The current formula allows for a relatively comfortable 18 minutes, but I’m sure a lot of speakers have been used to getting 45 minutes or more to address the same topic.  In any case, this requires the speaker to get very focused on the underlying message they want to convey and to deliver that message in a compelling manner.  Note that you don’t need the TED folks to come to town in order to use this technique—just find your own experts. (Or show a YouTube video of a TED Talk.)  And keep in mind that what will make a TED-style talk most impactful is if the presentation is followed by an interactive discussion, where audience members are given the opportunity to do their own talking!  That’s what will ensure a connection between the ideas being presented and actually learning and applying them after everyone has gone home.

  • Flash Point.  MPI created this approach for their conferences.  Similar to TED Talks, a series of industry experts get 15 minutes each to present on a relevant, thought-provoking topic, which again requires them to concentrate their message.  Flash Point sessions can last a few hours, with attendees filtering in and out according to their personal interests (and the quality of the performance, of course).

  • Pecha Kucha.  Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work, describes this technique as “haiku for presentations – twenty slides automatically advanced, each shown for twenty seconds, while the presenter shares his or her passion about a topic. Because each presentation lasts just 6 minutes and 40 seconds, presenters are challenged to be concise, targeted, and creative—and you can pack eight attendee presentations into an hour-long conference session.”   20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, then make room for the next topic.  That requires focus…generally a good thing!

  • Learning Lounges.  Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chain Consulting describes this PCMA initiative as “an adult learning playground with a blend of informal and formal learning.  It consists of a variety of 15-minute, interactive education sessions, live webcasting, and self-directed learning groups.  Learning Lounge features at the 2011 Convene Leadership event in Vegas included peer-to-peer discussions, six theaters offering continuous 15-minute TED style presentations, the Social Media Expert Bar, the Supplier Showdown, and the PCMA365 Livestreaming Studio.

  • MPI’s Solution Room.  Used at EMEC in Dusseldorf this year and on the program for MPI-WEC this month, The Solution Room is a 90-minute, attendee-led wrap-up session for enhancing reflection, learning and change action.  Using “unconference” techniques instead of presentations, speakers from previous concurrent sessions are used to facilitate the conversation and answer questions, while attendees help each other determine best practices for their own businesses. It combines self-reflection and coaching by both experts and colleagues sharing similar challenges.

  • Cafe Conversations.  A precursor of The Solution Room, I first saw this approach at MPI’s MeetDifferent in Houston a few years ago as a breakout session option.  A large whiteboard placed just outside of a large conference room listed the table numbers inside and attendees could write whatever topic or current issue they were interested in discussing next to a table number and then go sit down at that table.  As others arrived, they could scan the list of topics on the whiteboard and either join a table of interest, or add their own subject to the list and start their own table.   Before long, there were more than a dozen tables in action–some had such a large group that there were double rings of chairs around a banquet round;  at others only two or three people may have landed.  But in each case, everyone was talking about a topic they had elected to participate in.  And if they found that the discussion was not engaging enough, they had the option to simply stand up and move to another table with an interesting topic.

  • 1-Minute Sound Bites.  Another technique for applying and sharing what’s been learned is simply to  pause every so often (ideally, after every 7-10 minutes of new information presented) during a presentation to allow tables or small groups of participants to take just one minute to exchange ideas about what they found to be most valuable about the ideas just presented.  This is another example of Chunking material so that it will be absorbed, retained, and taken back to work!

  • Mind-Map Tablecloths.  A variation on the 1-Minute Sound Bite is to cover tables with paper tablecloths and provide markers for each table to capture group mind-maps that illustrate concepts or applications that the participants have been discussing.  Participants are given the opportunity to collaborate and literally create a picture of their most compelling ideas.

  • Key Takeaway Feedback Cards.   Before letting everyone scatter, as a presenter I sometimes will ask each attendee to fill out an index card (or it could be part of an evaluation form–as long as it’s not too long!) that will tell me one key takeaway that they will take back to work with them.  If there will be an opportunity for follow-up, I may also ask them to identify one question they still have, or something they would like to know more about now that the session is over. That not only gives me valuable information to work with in the future, but it also provides an opportunity for each person to review and summarize their own thoughts about how they might apply the ideas offered during the session when they get back to their workplace. When it comes down to it, that’s the whole point, right?

Have you seen or used other strategies to deliver a punch to your meetings or conferences?  Feel free to share them in a comment below.


The story of the little girl, a baseball and what really sticks

A long while back, I heard some guy tell this story on the radio. I never really caught his name or the reason he was telling the story, but it left a lasting impression on me. So in the ancient tradition of storytelling (including a little artistic license for each subsequent teller), I’m passing it on to you.

I’ve always had a love for baseball. So when my daughter was born, as some parents are known to do, I looked forward to the time when I could share that passion with her and–just maybe–inspire the same in her. From the time that she was quite young, we would pass many a summer Sunday afternoon snuggled up on the couch together eating popcorn and watching baseball games on television. As she grew a bit older, we added the ritual of going out in the backyard to play catch after the TV game had ended. So it should be no surprise that I looked forward to taking her to see a live, big-league game someday.

As it so happened, a new minor-league baseball team came to our town when my daughter was about seven years old, so we made big plans to go to our first real baseball game together. When the day finally came, it turned out to be perfect weather: clear blue skies, 75 degrees and a gentle breeze. We had great seats on the third baseline. The field was a vibrant green and perfectly groomed. I eagerly pointed out the position each player was playing and together we cheered each hit, diving catch and homerun. We shared hot dogs and soda and peanuts. We sang along while the organist played “Take me out to the ballgame”. And to top it off, our team won.

As we headed across the parking lot to our car after the game was over, an elderly gentleman approached us with a baseball in his hand and turned to my daughter. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I caught this foul ball today and I come to these games all of the time, so I already have a few. Would you like to have it?” With wide eyes, my daughter gratefully accepted the ball and we both thanked the gentleman as he turned to go. It was the ending to a perfect day.

Years later, when my daughter was home from college, we were reminiscing about things we had done when she was a kid. I recalled my fond memory of that first baseball game we attended together and, out of curiosity, asked her what she remembered about it. She immediately responded with, “I remember that old guy that gave me the baseball!” Not the game itself, not the shiny new ballpark, not the players or the hot dogs or the organ music, but some random guy we bumped into in the parking lot.

Which made me think: sometimes the most meaningful things about the events we go to end up being experiences that weren’t necessarily on the program—it’s the personal interactions we have with other people who are attending the same event. Many times those exchanges lead to unforeseen learning, opportunities and lasting connections—all unexpected benefits of just being in close proximity with people who may start out as strangers, but they share a common interest with us.

It occurs to me that this is certainly an under-valued aspect of live events. And as experience designers, it’s worth giving some though to how we can build events that will facilitate those connections that lead to unpredictable but memorable conversations–to increase the chances that each attendee will take a few new “baseballs” home with them when they leave. What’s your favorite story about how you’ve seen this happen?


Events 2.0: The 4 Secrets of Fully Engaging Your Attendees

Yes–I’m going to share some secrets with you!  So remember, this is all just between me and you and your colleagues, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends/fans, kids, neighbors and anyone else you feel like chatting up.  Of course then it won’t be much of a secret, but that’s okay with me.  The more, the merrier!

But let’s start with a question: What is it that makes great live events better than just getting the same content some other way?  Think of some examples–like the difference between a truly memorable dining experience and the thought of just having the meal delivered to your home or hotel room. Or watching a DVD of a music festival compared to actually being in the middle of it all.  Or reading the minutes of a business meeting vs. participating in it.  How about watching a well-produced YouTube video of a keynote speaker instead of being there?  (Hmm…I bet that last one was not so obvious. But you get my point.) Why do I suggest that the last example is the weakest?  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of dynamic and inspiring keynote speakers out there.  But the question is: what do you really get out of the experience of attending an event that can’t be substituted with some kind of copy? 

For some reason, this reminds me of that term “Web 2.0”.  Now, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated to this terminology yet, Web 2.0 refers to the second “version” of what we call the Internet.  If you’re old enough to remember as far back as the Clinton presidency (yes, that includes you, Millenials), Web 1.0 was pretty much a new form of one-way information distribution.  When you visited someone’s webpage, you could read whatever information they had prepared for you, sort of like an online brochure.  Heck—they even had photos and stuff.  But it was pretty much a static experience; you viewed it and moved on.  There is still tons of Web 1.0 content out there, and it’s not likely to go away. It’s flexible, convenient and it definitely serves a purpose.

Not too many years later, Web 2.0 took things to a different level: now, instead of being limited to whatever the webmaster of each site puts on display for you, much of what you see on the Internet is “user-generated” content—and the “users” are us.  Pretty big paradigm shift, actually.  Easiest example?  Facebook. Think about how much of what you see on Facebook has been created by Mark Zuckerberg and the massive staff down at FB Headquarters.  Other than the ads on the sidebar, the correct answer is “very little”.  It’s just a shell created in order to allow people to share their knowledge and creative ideas.  By definition, every social media tool does pretty much the same thing.

So what is Events 2.0?  Same idea, basically.  Any time you go to an event and just sit there and take it in, you’re in Event 1.0 mode. Nothing wrong with that necessarily; you can still enjoy and maybe learn a few things from it.  But take it up to V2.0 and now the participants are not only involved, they’re actually contributing much of the content.  And that’s engaging—just as much as going to that amazing restaurant or contributing your ideas and solutions at a business conference.  But like Facebook, someone has to design the structure of the event so that it will get people engaged in the first place. And that’s where the secrets come in!

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a sponsor trying to build relationships with your target clientele, or a corporate trainer bent on raising the skill level of your employees, or an activist trying to inspire people to your cause.  To fully-engage your audience, you’ll need to build these four components into the experience you provide:
   

  1. THE HOOK. To get people engaged, first you need something that initially attracts their attention and draws them in.  This doesn’t just distract them; it also gets them into a receptive state by shifting their attention, so they can leave behind whatever else they were focused on before.  A slightly goofy (but effective) version of this: Flash Mobs.  Take a look at the example below and see what I mean. Notice how the “attendees” respond towards the end.
     
  2. CONTENT RULES!  Of course, you need to present something that’s relevant or otherwise fascinating to this particular audience; otherwise, their attention will quickly move on.  Ideally you’ll have something that answers a question, need or opportunity they have or–even better–introduces them to one they didn’t know they had.  In any case, none of these secrets apply if you don’t have something that will be of significant value to your audience.  So plan on spending a big chunk of your time on this one. Otherwise, none of this matters.
     
  3. DESIGN FOR INTERACTION.  This is really the Events 2.0 part. Getting someone’s attention and delivering fresh content is just getting started: you also want to create an experience where everyone needs to participate on some level, whether it’s physically, intellectually, emotionally, or all three.  That’s the main thing that interactive events can provide that can’t be substituted by one-way communication.  Put people in a situation they’ve never been in before.  Provide the opportunity to experience and respond to something new and learn from not only the “expert” presenters, but from each other. This is the power of bringing people together. In the end, engaging experiences usually leave us changed in some way, but it doesn’t happen by itself–you need to create the context.  And remember that in many cases, your presenters will not have the skills and experience to create this, so you may have to help (or get help). 
     
  4. CLOSE THE DEAL.  Here’s the Big Finish: it’s not enough to get people thinking.  In order to convert the event experience into useful take-aways, it’s critical to build in time for participants to individually process, reflect on and plan how they might use these new ideas and experiences.  This is the real work, but it’s the part that will lead to concrete results.  People need some time to think on their own, but it can help to provide the opportunity for discussion, collaboration or even hands-on group activity. We know enough about how our brains function to expect that, without this step, most of what we’ve encountered during the event will dissipate fairly quickly.  This is also the time for committing people to action, to ensure that the event has a lasting impact.

If any of these steps is missing from the design of your experience, you’re probably stuck back in the time of Events 1.0.  And I would bet that your event is not getting the impact it could, or should. 

In future posts, I’ll be expanding and providing specific examples of how people are really applying these principles to take their events up a notch and you’ll have the opportunity to share your own stories and secrets.  For now, feel free to leave a comment about anything that this post brought to mind!


Breaking out of TV-Mode

The Engaging Events Series, Part 1

Here’s a simple question for you: why do people come to events? 
To help answer that question, I’m going to ask you another: Take a minute and think back.  What are your personal favorite events, out of all the ones you’ve ever been to?  Your answers might be different depending on the type of event—you might have a favorite social event, a performance of some sort, or maybe it’s the most memorable conference you’ve ever been to.  Or think about the best course you ever took in school (every class is an event, no?), one that you really got into and, probably, took the most from.  In all of these cases, what was it that made these events most memorable, even years later?


I’m going to take a guess: I bet it’s because you got deeply engaged in whatever activity was taking place and because of that, you threw yourself into it—using your brain, of course, but possibly also your emotions and maybe even your body, or all three at the same time.  And you took from it an experience that still comes to mind despite the time that has passed.

I’ve been a college professor for over twenty years now, and one of the things I dread most is a class (my audience, you might say) where the students go into what I call “TV-mode”.  TV-mode is when you sit on the couch with that glazed look on your face and the remote control in your hand, ready to jump to another channel if you’re not appropriately stimulated for a period of time.  TV-mode is when you have adopted the role of the watcher and expect someone else to do all of the work.  It’s the difference between participating and just showing up.  And it rarely results in much of lasting value.

So I’ve put a lot of thought and effort into designing experiences for my students where they can’t stay in TV-mode. For centuries, the traditional educational method has been what presenters like to call the “sage on the stage” approach—where the content expert lectures to the audience, who sit passively and listen, as if knowledge was something to be poured over their heads and simply absorbed.  It’s one-way communication and, although it may be entertaining and informative, it only rarely results in measurable change or action.  And in the age of YouTube and podcasts and Twitter and eBooks, it can make the event experience appear suspiciously unnecessary.  Instead, I’ve learned that the most effective way to use the time we have together is to avoid spending too much of my own time as the “sage on the stage” and play more of a role as the designer and facilitator of an experience created for them.

Lots of event professionals are experiencing great angst about the future of live events, particularly meetings and conferences.   Will people continue to invest lots of money and–perhaps even more valuable–their time in traveling and attending events, when they can get the same information by going online or ordering it from Amazon.com?  My answer is: yes, they absolutely will!  But only if you deliver an engaging experience that delivers value far beyond what they could just as easily read or watch on their TV, computer monitor or iPhone.  And that means an engaging experience, one that gets them actively involved.  The same principles hold true whether you are gathering face-to-face, or doing a teleconference or webinar.  You need to design ways to get people “out of their bubble”.   Remember when you were a kid and your mom or dad used to say, “Get off that couch, stop watching TV (or playing PlayStation, if you’re younger than a Boomer) and go outside to get some fresh air and exercise!”?   Well, this is the adult version of that.

Why is this important?  Because it is the key to maximizing the impact of your event and changing the way people will think, act or behave in the future.  And in the end, that’s why people come to events.

Up Next: Strategies for Engagement
As this blog series continues, I will be offering lots of examples of strategies event planners are using to engage their audiences, increasing the impact of their events and make a difference in people’s lives and their communities. 

In the meantime, I want to return to my original question: what is the most impactful event you’ve ever been to, and what do you think made it that way?


6 Event Power Tools for building positive change

What’s in your toolbox when you’re planning or executing an event?  It doesn’t matter what kind of event—it could be a conference, music festival, product launch, sporting event, trade show, or celebration.  As the builder of the event, you’ve got valuable resources at your disposal that can be used as effective tools for enhancing the overall impact of your event.  I call these Power Tools because, well, they give you the power to make a far bigger difference than what you could ever hope to accomplish on your own.  Here is a set of six power tools you have available for your use in the process of planning and executing any event:

PLACE – the site you select can have a significant effect on the surrounding area.  After Katrina, many planners considered holding events in New Orleans as a way to bring more economic activity back to the city.  Far-away destinations have become less attractive because of the significant carbon footprint from participants traveling to get there.  And wherever an event is held, there are people or organizations nearby that could be offered assistance or support. 

PEOPLE – events bring together LOTS of people: participants, volunteer or paid staff, vendors and service providers, exhibitors, sponsors, performers…and each one of them has the potential to contribute.  Within each of these groups, you will find people with specific experience and expertise that can be shared: helping to build something, teach or advise, or solve problems.  Your board of directors, hotel or food & beverage staff, contractors—they can all be invited to channel their talents and ideas to assist a disadvantaged population or provide a benefit to the community in some way.  You’re bringing them together; now make the most of it!

PROGRAM  – as you design the entire experience for participants, weave in opportunities to educate, inspire to action, or create a physical change that leaves a site or organization in a better place. Connect a cause with an audience by giving them the stage for at least a few minutes or, better yet, involving them in an interactive activity.  And while you’re at it, offer all participants the opportunity to contribute time, money or ideas to a cause during the course of the event.

PRACTICES – certainly group events are excellent opportunities to model and employ sustainable business practices.  Mandate recycling, composting, bulk water stations, printing stations…all measures that will reduce your lasting footprint.  Buy local.  Offer healthy menu selections.  Wherever it makes sense, convert printed materials to electronic. Specify your expectations in your RFPs to influence venues, vendors and service providers to meet your standards.  If they want your business, they will deliver.  Want some great practical examples? Check out this MPI Sustainability Report.

POSSESSIONS –
this one is about “stuff”, and events have lots of it! It’s just a matter of getting things organized.   The traditional fundraising approach would be to simply make a direct contribution of a portion of revenues from the event.  If you’re a vendor or exhibitor, you might consider donating a percentage of your sales: that benefits the company by promoting sales and also the consumers, who get to contribute to a cause “for free”.  Venues and service providers can donate space or services at no or discounted charge.  Targeted populations can be granted free or reduced-price admission.   Participants can be encouraged to donate money or unused possessions (discarded cell phones, used clothing) to the cause. 

PROMOTION – most events employ a number of promotional messages during the process of building attendance and communicating information people will need in order to participate.  In your messages, provide causes or non-profit organizations with the same kind of exposure that you would for any paid sponsor.  Whether it’s media ads, printed programs, social media campaigns, radio interviews, whatever…each message offers you the opportunity to work towards positive change by increasing awareness and concern for social causes, supporting behavior change campaigns, or inspiring others to action. And while you’re doing this, you’ll be making people feel even better about your event and the people behind it.

Of course, you always need to keep your focus on accomplishing the original objectives for each of the stakeholders, or the event won’t be a success.  But skillfully used, these power tools can get big jobs done.  How have you seen these tools used to build positive change through events?  And do you have any others in your own toolbox?

Toolbox for Change


If it feels good, do it!

The other day, my friend Steve Densham told me something that really stuck with me. He said that when you break it down, us humans are only motivated by two things: avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. In other words, on some level everything we do is either to avoid getting hurt or to make us feel good.  If you start there and look deep enough, you can explain just about any behavior.  So when it comes to changing the way people think or behave, this becomes pretty darn important. 

It’s human nature to attach ourselves to people, organizations and experiences that make us feel good.  We enjoy doing work or play that makes us feel good.  We prefer to do business with people and companies we respect and feel good about.  We like working for organizations we can feel proud of.  More and more, people are investing in companies that feel good to support.  We tend to spend our free time with friends and lovers who make us feel good.  And if at some point it starts to not feel good anymore, we tend to drift away.  Find another job…try a different restaurant or bar…switch girlfriends or boyfriends.  Simple stuff, really.  So if you want people to buy into something you’re doing–whether it’s selling them a product or experience, recruiting them to a cause, attracting them to apply for a job with you, whatever–you need to make them feel good about it.  If you do, they’ll want to join up. 

This becomes really important when you’re putting together an event.  Because however you measure it, one of the benchmarks for the success of any event is whether people feel like it was a worthwhile way to spend their time or money when it’s over, whether they were attending or hosting or performing or sponsoring.  Any time you can incorporate a greater objective into your planning process and ultimately into the event experience, you are adding value for all of the participants and, very often, the community as well.  And that’s likely to make them feel good.What have you done or seen that made you feel really good about an event you’ve participated in or helped produce, or just heard about?  What are some really good examples of events that have drawn people into something bigger than just the immediate agenda?


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