We specialise in creating Memorable Meetings, and as a result, we’ve been involved in the design and delivery of thousands of events throughout our history. Most of the events we get involved in are for the private or corporate sector…and we’re used to tackling many complexities, challenges and pitfalls these bring in order to create a good event experience.
Recently, we’ve also attended a number of industry events for a variety of groups and organisations and have been a little bit surprised that we’ve found the exact same issues there, too. Surely, you’d expect things to be a bit more…polished?
Well, even the groups who you’d expect to be pushing a more interactive, exciting conference agenda, setup and format, really aren’t. The experience is largely the same. We see the same old issues cropping up time and time again, wherever we are, whichever event, whichever audience. We call it “Same-Old Syndrome”
Symptoms of this include, but are not limited to:
- Same old structure: you know the drill…arrive, get your badge, grab a coffee and a biscuit; awkwardly greet other attendees or attempt to network; sit down and listen to endless presentations; guest speaker parades for a while; panel debates; wander round trade stands; leave with a handful of pamphlets
- Soulless venues: usually corporate, stale or lifeless buildings and old conference centres; often in rooms with little or no natural light; air conditioning and heating optional
- Bored people: the energy in the room plummets; people on their phones; fidgeting and distractions; awkward coughing; people leaving early; no meaningful conversation
- Terrible refreshments: grey tea and coffee in stainless steel jugs refilled throughout the day; never quite hot enough; always bitter; only drunk for an energy boost or as a distraction; sad biscuits or pastries
- Endless PowerPoint presentations: slide decks galore; full of bullet points; presenters using slides as speaker notes; no interaction; goes on too long
- Panel discussions and debates: usually unfair; sometimes very heavily weighted; gender bias; can involve “mansplaining”; easily derailed and easily dominated by the loudest voice; badly facilitated (if at all); mostly not particularly useful
- Lack of facilitation: little consideration of audience experience; often self-guided rather than structured; emcee and/or host more like a quiz show than a conference; audience interaction feels forced and/or shallow
- Overegged networking: dedicated “networking” time in the agenda; full of forced fun; lack of true conversation; icebreakers usually include at least one of: “tell me something nobody knows about you” or “tell me a fun fact about you”
- No dialogue: very passive experience; presented to and talked to without ever getting to interact; Q&A sessions sometimes shoehorned in; networking forced; social media can take precedence over in-the-moment interaction and conversation; lack of reflection time
- Trade stands or expos: endless pop-up banners; business card prize jars; egotistical selling; giveaways galore; leaflets, handouts, papers everywhere that just get thrown away
- Egotistical guest speakers: who sometimes want their own agenda; can be ruled by ego and levels of sponsorship; can sell instead of imparting insight and learning; are the customers of the conference organisers; don’t often focus on audience needs
- No focus on the experience: little consideration of the audience’s needs and wants; no consideration of mindset or emotion; lack of objectives; unclear takeaways or key learning; no wow factor
Do you recognise anything on the list? I know I do. Set yourself a task: think of the last conference or event you attended. If we use the above bullet points as a checklist, how many could you tick off as having seen at that conference or event?
1-4, maybe that’s not too bad. 5-7, things are starting to look a little…samey. 8 and above? You’re in full-on “Same-Old Syndrome”.
We probably all know what this looks and feels like, because the likelihood is that we’ve all attended something that ticks at least a couple of these boxes. But is everyone really that happy with turning up at the same old conferences, hearing the same old things, getting the same old freebies and cold coffee and going home?
We know what the bog-standard conference feels like, what the coffee tastes of, how uncomfortable the chairs are, how anything is more interesting than somebody who’s been presenting slides for 45 minutes…yet we still attend them. Time after time. And not only do we still attend these sorts of events…even worse: WE CREATE THEM.
This brings us to one question:
Well, people are scared. There’s the status quo, already established, whether you like it or not. Whether you can see it, feel it, it’s there. There’s a routine, a set of unwritten rules (who knows how they even came to be in the first place), that dictate “how things are meant to be” when designing or organising an event.
Venue- check! Date- check! Delegate package- check! Save the date- check! Invite- check! Speaker- check!
There’s a fairly well-known saying for this: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. (The phrase came into being as IBM was known as a safe, reliable choice for many companies: you weren’t going out on a limb or risking your job if that’s what you chose. No risks taken there.)
Well, the saying is true in the conference arena too. People organising events or conferences usually do have something on the line- their reputation, their confidence, their relationships within the organisation- sometimes their job. It’s no easy feat, either, and the pressures can be great. So why would you NOT “choose IBM” if it’s the easiest and safest option presented to you?
We know that conferences and events can be boring, dull and downright demoralising. But why would you want to be the person to mess it up, by trying something different?
We help organisations to do business differently. As an external party, it’s easier for us to come in with the ideas, themes, red threads and experiential expertise that is more likely to make a meeting memorable. But we know that that’s not for everyone, and that something so “different” sometimes scares people away.
We get it. We don’t all have the confidence, buy-in and, quite honestly, “balls”, to try something different. We’re not suggesting a complete overhaul of the conference status quo (not to start with, anyway!) We’re also not asking you to “buy anything other than IBM”. You don’t have to do anything fancy. You don’t even have to spend a lot of money. But what you can do is start to make a few small changes that will catapult your events miles ahead of anyone else’s.
So, what can you do to ditch the same-old, same-old, and raise the bar for your next event or conference?
Here’s a couple of tips:
Find an engaging space
Find a venue for your event that feels a little bit different- conference and events venues don’t have to be dull. Choose a quirky building, innovative space or just somewhere a bit “different” (converted church, factory, racetrack?) Even if you go with something a bit more “typical”, like a conference centre or meeting space, make sure it sets the right tone for the event. Go for somewhere light, bright and airy- there’s nothing worse than an event room with little natural light, or even no windows! Websites like Engaging Spaces focus specifically on fulfilling this need.
Get the facilities right
Check the heating and/or air con to make sure your guests won’t freeze or boil to death (yes, room temperature really is a common complaint!), and make sure all the facilities you need can be provided. There are few things more embarrassing than an AV setup that glitches or goes wrong, so sort out your requirements with the venue in advance. Events spaces can usually provide extra equipment such as stationery if necessary, so have a chat with the team about what you might need. Most importantly…refreshments. We’re not kidding- this can make or break events. Conferences where the lunch ran out, the coffee was cold and the biscuits lacking usually get feedback focusing on those specific things, rather than the event itself. Stock up on breakfasts, lunches and snacks, and don’t forget tea and coffee!
Check out our Memorable Meetings video on Refreshments for a few hints and tips.
Limit your PowerPoints
We often encounter conferences and events, across many industries, which are an endless tirade of slide decks. It’s tempting to do, and very common, but it’s also incredibly lazy and not very engaging. Nobody wants to listen to somebody speak to a set of slides for 45 minutes…and nobody ever wants to listen to 3 people doing the same.
So…cull your PowerPoint. We’ve designed and facilitated some events where the organisers had implemented a complete PowerPoint BAN, where presenters weren’t allowed to even touch the software. We’re not suggesting you go that far but imposing a limit might be a good idea. For your audience’s sake. Don’t subject them to it.
Here’s a rule for any presenters: the slide deck is for your audience, not for you. No using it as an aide memoire, no using it as your speaker notes. Limit the words on screen and use as many visuals and emotion-provoking statements or images as possible. You want people to connect with your topic, not switch off.
This article sets out more information on avoiding the dreaded “Death by PowerPoint”.
Talk like TED
If culling PowerPoint isn’t your bag, there is another way of making presentations and content more engaging. Set your speakers a challenge: talk about only 3 key points. If you say more than 3 things, you’ve said nothing, so stick to 3, and people are more likely to remember.
Another thing to try is the TED talk format, which has become famous around the world for its focus on clarity and brevity from all of its speakers. Talks are between 5 and 18 minutes long, and must have a clear, focused topic for discussion. This means that messages are shorter and more streamlined, there’s no 45-minute presentations with endless slide decks, and the key takeaways are punchy and hard-hitting. There’s nothing else to be with only 17 minutes to cover your content. Try it if you think your presenters need a time limit.
Hire the right host
Sure, emcees and conference hosts can be useful, and lots of people use them, but sometimes you just need that little bit more than somebody announcing the next speaker and cracking a few jokes. Consider hiring an event facilitator to help focus on the experience of the day- it will make a big difference to expecting one of your leaders or team to step up. Facilitators can not only host, but they can also help structure the day, guiding sessions and people as necessary. They’re especially great with group working and smaller sessions, where they can help deconstruct topics discussed, guide and encourage conversation, and get to the outcomes you’re looking for.
Shake up your panels
It seems like the obvious, but please ensure diversity and inclusion is present in your panel discussions. We understand that the people you’d like to include might not always be available, or that some industries might be predisposed to a certain demographic, but it’s always disheartening to watch a panel discussion that’s actually a “Manel”- with nobody else on it but middle-aged white men in dark grey suits. Try where you can to be as relentlessly inclusive as possible.
On this topic, facilitated panels are also a very good idea- it’s incredibly common for unmoderated panel discussions to descend into people talking over each other, or just one person who talks on and on and on whilst not giving their fellow panellists a chance to speak. This isn’t nice for the panel or for the audience, so if you have a facilitator, use them to guide conversation and ensure good representation, taking questions from the audience and responding in the moment to everything that takes place.
Make it interactive
Now, by “interactive”, we’re not just talking about Q&A sessions. They can actually prove to be not very interactive at all- especially when there is nothing but silence following the dreaded: “any questions?”
Of course, Q&A sessions are a good start, but there are other interventions to consider that will make the day two-way and interactive. For example: breakout sessions after presentations, where people can either chat about what they have heard, ask the relevant questions; or a fun exercise which puts the content on its feet and gets people to think about it in greater detail.
Our favourite model for this is Context, Experience, Reflection. Whatever is to be conveyed is established by setting up the context and why it is important; the context is then brought to life by an exercise that provides a parallel experience; these two factors are then combined in a period of reflection where the group reach their own conclusions and decide on the actions that should be taken.
By following this model, your audience won’t be a passive one- they’ll be actively involved, engaged, and will feel a part of what’s going on.
Network with purpose
We’re not against networking- far from it. We’re just against the typical, stale networking that sees people awkwardly shuffling around a room telling other people how bad their journey was, or what they had for breakfast. There are far better ways of networking that will create greater connection between people.
It doesn’t matter if the attendees are strangers, if they know each other a bit, or are people who work with each other every day. We like to start with “hello.” So, start with that, and then move on to something with a bit more purpose. For a content-based suggestion, give them a subject from the day– no details, just the general topic– and in small groups of 3, 4 or 5, come up with a few areas, or questions that they would like to have answered. Or, for something a bit different, try an exercise that builds connection via finding commonality, and telling stories. Much more fun.
And if it’s more traditional networking you’re after, try something akin to speed meetings, where people are greeted with a card and given the challenge of finding a certain number of facts about those around them in the allotted time.
…Just don’t get us started on “ice breakers”.
Allow people to breathe
Take a look at your agenda, and allocate some time that isn’t a session, but isn’t a coffee break. It’s free time, for people to digest, reflect and discuss everything they have seen and heard. In this time, encourage people to do anything they want…apart from check their emails (though to be honest, if they do check their emails, at least they aren’t doing it in a session).
Consider it reflection time. Not enough events have it, and it’s like a breath of fresh air, especially if the day is content or presentation-heavy.
And, if you’re feeling brave…
Consider the overall event experience
Take a look at all the elements of your event- ticketing/invites, registration and arrival, venue, refreshments, content or presentations, speakers, panels…and ask yourself one thing: would I be happy attending this conference? If the answer is no, you should probably reconsider a few things. Return to the list, and pick something to focus on. Consider your audience. After all, your answer to the question: “is this the same-old, same-old?” should be…no.
Of course, we can’t expect that you’ll go storming into your next design meeting with your own set of conference rules and a revolutionary new way of thinking.
So, you know what? Start small. Pick something- one thing– from the list and focus on it next time you have to plan a conference, event, or even meeting. Don’t completely ignore the other elements, by any means, but make that one thing your priority. It will raise the bar just that little bit higher…and next time, pick something else to work on. Try things out, experiment, and raise the bar every time. We promise it will make a difference.
Maybe the next step is buying something other than IBM. In which case…give us a call.
If you’d like to learn more about planning memorable meetings, our PIE (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional) model sets out the steps you need to consider. For PIE videos, and our Memorable Meetings e-book, please click here.
For more information around focusing on the Event Experience, what it entails, and how we can help you, check out our handy guide.