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How Not to Use a Great Speaker

December 31, 2008

As a speaker at many conferences, I view the chance to listen to other great speakers as one of the benefits of the job. I recognize that my message on innovative thinking is functional and informative. I make people think. My goal is to make people say, “I never thought of that before!” At the other end of the scale are motivational speakers. Their goal is often to make people feel something. They want to touch the hearts of attendees in some way.

Here is a story of a great speaker with a great message that was ruined for a group of us by poor conference design.

The motivational speaker was inspiring. He was a former professional football player who suffered a major brain injury in a terrible traffic accident. From a dynamic, larger-than-life, well-known personality, he had to start life again. He had little or no memory of his wife, his family, or his sporting achievement. Nor could he remember his speeches. He needed a deck of cue cards to remind of him of what to say next yet this did not stop his message being very memorable.

He opened the conference and ended at the right moment. People applauded. People left, perhaps a bit weepy.

A group of us sat as people left because we left that his message deserved more reflection. We discussed this question: What moved you the most about his talk? The result was a meaningful conversation and allowed us to revisit his stories and insights. This discussion allowed each of us to create our own connection to his message. Here lies the dilemma: We were late for the next session despite getting this value from his talk.

How many great inspiring speakers fail to connect with an audience as people have no time to reflect and to create their own meaning? Why not build in an extra 20 to 30 minutes to get the extra value from your investment in your high profile speakers? Have your emcee start a conversation at your tables based on this question:

  • Which of the speaker’s main messages was the most meaningful to you?
  • Discuss this in groups and share insights.

You can take this one step further by getting teams or groups to define questions that they would like to ask the speaker. Despite the brain injury inhibiting his ability to remember a presentation, his ability to answer questions in a meaningful way was inspiring. Too bad the conference designers were unable to let the whole audience benefit from the lessons he learned in life that brought him to that conference room. 

Design your major motivation keynote presentation to include 20 to 30 minutes for table or small group discussions on the key themes of the presentation. This will make the keynote more meaningful to your audience.

Who Said Conferences are About Learning?

December 29, 2008

Ten years ago MPI completed a study for making meetings more effective and concluded with: “Meeting planners can play an instrumental role in addressing areas that need to be improved by increasing their knowledge of how to institute change within an organization and the proper role of education.”

The research found a tremendous gap between what meeting planners think is important about a conference and what management thinks is important. The key meeting success factors of senior managers were:

  1. Clear sense of organizational priorities
  2. Concrete action plans
  3. Improved interaction
  4. Important messages are remembered
  5. Greater productivity from learning
  6. Improved motivation and inspiration
  7. Greater commitment to the organization

It is very clear that managers who pay for the bills are looking for a bottom line return to the organization.

Change takes much more than learning and I often wonder if this is a core reason why we struggle with issues such as measuring the return on conference investments. Management is looking for change and yet all they see is learning. If this study was completed in 2008, would the results be any different? I doubt it. I have spoken at numerous conferences to realize that far too few attempt to go beyond the traditional ‘speaker as expert speaks at the audience’ model.  

The challenge for meeting designers is to dig into the corporate or association issues to define what can be influenced, changed, promoted, or advanced to benefit participants. This can reflect personal or business development issues. Some events focus on bringing company values to life while others are intended to prompt sales people to sell more through new approaches.

Perhaps the place to start the planning for your next association or corporate conference is with the research. Use these findings to brainstorm how you can use the conference to create results in more effective ways. For example:

  • What are the organizational priorities that participants will need to have a clear grasp of?
  • What could participants focus on to create concrete action plans during the event?
  • Improved interaction begins with networking objectives: who needs to meet who and why?
  • What are the important messages that should be remembered?
  • What specific areas need greater productivity from learning that is possible at the conference?
  • Why is there a need for improved motivation and inspiration?
  • What stops people from having a greater commitment to the organization?

The answers to these questions will lead to new insights for the design of the event. They will help you answer--why is our next conference important?

Custom Projects, Interstitials, & Award Shows

December 11, 2008

A successful corporate entertainment event is a party, a dinner, a Broadway show and a sales presentation all at once. As I’ve written earlier, these diverse environments require management of audience dynamics to get the best return on your investment. I’ve shared some tips, which I’ve learned from some of the best meeting planners in the business and as the producer of The Water Coolers, that direct the audience on how to act and react using the elements in the room, and in the event itself. Here are some closing thoughts. 

Working With Your Entertainment
Part of what we offer is our expertise in how our material works to build a satisfying show and this should be true of any high-end act. Our writers, professionals in comedy and musical comedy, know how to build a set that is finely calibrated…creating a mood, knowing when to have a solo and when to have a medley, building a laugh, calling back to previous moments. Our most successful partnerings are with meeting planners who tell us about their goals, audience, and organization and then trust us to structure our show’s high points and low points, pace and mood. Of course when we write material specifically for a client, we rely heavily on her input and approval because we simply don’t have the knowledge she does, so in that case, the client has to give final sign off on everything related to her organization or industry. 

Interstitial Performances and Award Shows
Entertainment that breaks in periodically during the awards ceremonies or educational programming can keep the audience energized and focused on the content—as long as the audience knows who those people singing and dancing on the stage are.  The way to do that is a short opening performance of about 20 minutes.  After we’ve been “introduced,” the segments can be shorter, because the audience already knows who we are and all the segments will get a better response.

Awards programs have a very specific business objective: to motivate future employee performance. I know, as former management consultant, that you accomplish this through recognition and reward. You want high achievers to feel valued and special. From my perspective as a producer, I’ve noted that 20 awards or fewer, with three-to-six highlighted as special awards, seems to serve that goal best. Upwards of 20 individual awards and each person seems less special, which undercuts the business objective. 

Among the techniques we’ve used with meeting planners to recognize individual achievement, the strongest have been in awards ceremonies for which we wrote original songs about the winners. After one event, an audience member came up to me and told me he was committed to exceeding his sales goals specifically so he could have a song written about him—he even told me what song he wanted.  Now that’s incentive.

Get People to Their Seats & Ready to Laugh

December 10, 2008

As I noted earlier, the atmosphere of a corporate entertainment event could combine a party, a dinner, a Broadway show, and a sales presentation…a very confusing collection of environments that must be managed successfully to get the best return on investment in corporate entertainment at an event. The secret, which I’ve learned from some of the best meeting planners in the business and as the producer of The Water Coolers, is to provide the audience with cues on how to act and to react. Earlier, I wrote about how a room’s infrastructure can help—or hinder—the audience dynamic in corporate entertainment. Now we’ll look at the actual event.  

Getting Started
At most meetings, people are seeing colleagues they haven’t seen all year. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it’s a great get-together…and it makes it impossible for the show to start on time.  It’s not enough to have an announcement that the show is about to start. You’re just announcing that the show hasn’t started yet so you can still socialize! It takes a variety of cues in different mediums, for people to stop conversations and take their seats. Borrow some from the theatre and use chimes or tones at first, then dim the lights gradually, but not too gradually. These are instinctive, visceral cues that help the audience understand that it’s time to sit. Just in case, though, The Water Coolers have a song called “Gotta Take a Seat Now” to help people get the message.

Have a Pre-Show Show
In sports, there’s a “pre-game show.” In the musical theatre, there’s an overture. In concerts, there’s an opening act. The best planners we’ve worked with have an agenda item before the show or first speaker—perhaps a short video or a short spot by an entertainer—to make sure that everyone is seated and in a receptive mood. It is not a good idea to send the CEO out first thing when the audience is cold and not really paying attention. Even Jerry Seinfeld uses a warm up act. 

And Now, the Big Finish
When the CEO or final speaker finishes his remarks, the audience will assume the evening is over. It’s tempting for the last speaker to say thanks and goodnight even though we haven’t performed the finale. The planners we’ve worked with coach the last speaker to prepare the audience by saying, “The Water Coolers will be back to close things but before they do….” Just to make sure, at the close of remarks, the last speaker can say, “And now, here are The Water Coolers” and the music comes up.

Tomorrow: Final thoughts on custom material, how to best use interstitials, and keeping award shows valuable.

Supporting Your Entertainment

December 09, 2008

You may not expect it, but the room setup and the timetable for the event play a huge role in whether your entertainment is a show-stopping hit or a complete failure. It’s crucial for planners to consider how the flow of the evening will support the entertainment in order to pull off a successful event.

Intimate is Beautiful…And Funnier
There’s a reason why comedy clubs are so small and it has nothing to do with the cost of real estate. Comedy is an intimate experience and laughter is contagious. Tables set closely together and close to the stage encourage the feeling of connectedness and foster contagious laughter. Tables far apart and set back from the stage kill it. Our actors are trained to wait for the laughter to build, to let it roll out across the audience to the rear of the space, so the space in the room is an important part of the dynamic. The kiss of death is a buffet or a dance floor in front of the stage. The laughter dies before it reaches the audience. We’ve turned down business that requires us to perform with a big space between us and the crowd. We’d be wasting the event planner’s money. Whether it’s an audience of 2000 or 200, great comedy is close.

Food and Beverage Service
This might seem unrelated, but the quality of the banquet service is key. To start, make sure you have an appropriate number of servers and that everyone is served their food at the same time. One of our most challenging performances took place at an event where there weren’t enough servers. The result was that half the room was served their meal while the other half waited. And waited. And went to the still-open bar. The show in the audience was competing with the one on the stage—one annoyed guest threw a piece of cheesecake at a waiter. Then, coordinate closely with the banquet captain so there isn’t too much going on at once. If the audience is being served while the entertainment or speaker is on, the audience isn’t clear on what you want them to do: Is it time to eat? Is it time to watch/listen?  

Setting the Stage
Lighting is a key element in giving the audience cues on how to react and to create a sense of occasion for the performance. The best strategy is to keep the house lights up and the stage lights dim until about half the audience is seated and dim the house lights and turn up the stage lights. It prepares the audience and focuses their attention on the stage. Keeping the house lights on during a performance confuses the audience, interferes with their focus on the stage and discourages the sense of intimacy that enhances a performance.  

Tomorrow: How to successfully move people to their seats and get the entertainment going.

Entertainment 101

December 08, 2008

As the producer of the Water Coolers, we’ve done hundreds of shows in theatres, and at conventions and corporate meetings. Our singing comedy group uses original songs and song parodies about what people talk about around the water cooler—from the last few episodes of “American Idol” to the hassles of business travel or office technology.

We’ve performed indoors, outdoors, and in all types of venues, working toward all types of planner goals. Our staff includes Broadway talent, professional composers, and professional comedy writers, including a creator of Tony n Tina’s wedding—but we have writers who keep their day jobs, too. Since our founding in 2001, we’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best event producers in the business, and they’ve taught me that the most important factor in getting top ROI with corporate entertainment is this:  Manage the audience dynamics.

The best planners I’ve worked with understand that the audience has a different personality than one attending a training session. The atmosphere in the room could combine a party, a dinner, a Broadway show, and a sales presentation. Because of all these different atmospheres, the key is to provide the audience with many cues on how to act and to react, and to recognize that everything in the room plays a part in managing the audience dynamic. Ignore that reality and the money you’re spending on entertainment won’t go as far. It’s a good policy to ask your entertainment provider what room set up supports them.  If they don’t know, I’d consider that a red flag.

This week, we will look at how to make the most of your event entertainment. Tomorrow: How to ensure your room setup and timetable help make the entertainment a big hit.

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