Using the element of surprise in leadership conferences.

Using the element of surprise in leadership conferences.

After a much appreciated surprise party, Alan considers how surprises in business are often considered to be a bad thing but if used well, they can be an effective weapon against dullness and predictability.

To celebrate a significant birthday, I was the unsuspecting and somewhat bewildered subject of a surprise party.  A carefully selected group of family and friends were secretly drawn together to spring the ‘surprise!’  

Due to the secret-agent like skills of my wife, I had absolutely no idea it was about to happen. Not a clue.  The whole evening for me, was a most wonderful, heart-warming and life-affirming experience.  However, I recognize that some people would rather walk over hot coals than be the recipient of such a surprise.

So what about in business – are surprises always unwelcome?

The golden rule does seem to be ‘no surprises!’ 

The most obvious example is costs.  We have been both the guilty party and the victim of serious discrepancies between the quoted estimate and the reality.  Costs can and will change during the life-cycle of a project, but whatever else you do, especially where budget is definitive and tight, always communicate with the interested parties regularly and never put off a difficult conversation because you think it might be easier later.  It won’t.  It never is.  It is always harder.

Here’s some more examples of unwelcome surprises in business we can think of:

  • People. Changing personnel, at short notice, away from a known and trusted individual.  Unforeseen circumstances can occur, but if you know there is a potential clash looming, be upfront about it and NEVER make something up – you’ll get found out.
  • Capability.  It really isn’t worth saying “Of course we can do that”, when you really can’t.  When you subsequently fail to deliver, you lose all credibility and destroy trust. 
  • Deadlines.  If you’re going to be three weeks late delivering the project, don’t wait until the day before delivery.
  • Mistakes/ Serious issues.  Share them when they happen.  Avoid hearing the phrase “Why wasn’t I told earlier?”

So, what about welcome surprises, can there be such a thing?  Bearing in mind I like them, here’s what I would advocate.  

1. The regular meeting.  

We all know what to expect from the weekly check-in, the finance call, the team brief, the steering group etc.  The next time you attend one, which has become a little stale and uninspiring, be the one to spring a surprise.  Book a harp-player, have someone under 10 make the presentation, hold the meeting at the ice-rink. 

Now, bear in mind that these are the ideas that popped into my head, but please use ones that pop into yours and always be conscious of the context.  If the meeting is business critical and a decision has to be reached that secures the future of the company, then …it’s not the time to be dressed as Marie-Antoinette. But if it’s a regular meeting that needs pepping up, well, go on then….pep it up.

2. The annual conference. 

Shift the thinking and include a surprise.  Again, this might be as simple as replacing a coffee break with vodka jellies (sorry, it’s what popped into my head), but if you are involved in the planning and it looks like conference 101, do everyone a favour and put something unexpected in there.  It is possible to ring the changes, have fun and delight people without offending anyone. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the many airplane safety announcements on You-Tube.  

The information is still presented, but the audience is engaged, enthused and more than anything, delighted with their surprise. 

Looking to make an impact at your employee or leadership conference?

How to use the element of surprise effectively 

You will always be faced with detractors when you suggest something different, mostly through a fear of possible embarrassment.  But remember this:

  1. Why should predictable and serious have a monopoly on content creation?  Dull is dull and should be avoided.
  2. You will never change anything if you always play it safe and toe the line.  Whilst never being crass or insensitive, just take a risk and plan something surprising.
I’m delighted to say that for an upcoming conference, we are about to discuss the possibility of delivering some surprises. I do hope that we’ll be able to reproduce the fantastic feeling that I experienced for all the delegates.
I’ll let you know.

    Want to signal a shift or make an impact at your next event? Drop us a line on or call us on +44 (0) 1926 311347 and we can bring your ideas to life! 

    Creating a ‘Learning to Learn’ mindset

    Creating a ‘Learning to Learn’ mindset

    Recently, the monsters returned to Kyiv to work with one of our absolute favourite companies – The One Philosophy Group.  We were invited again, both as expert speakers and as facilitators to the The Employer Leadership Summit. It’s a fabulous event and has the latest thinking from HR and L&D from around the globe. The theme was ‘learning to learn’ with a specific focus on developing a learning mindset.
    At this event, we introduced our latest business venture,  The Alternative Business School .  We were delighted not only that the delegates voted it unanimously as a great way to bring learning to life, but also that several of the latest online learning start-ups had similar themes.

    It’s clear that the next generation of employees want to learn and develop at work and developing a learning mindset is key to that.

    How can you use visuals to help people learn?

    ‘Learning to Learn’ and its importance in the future of work

    Since we also know that many future roles haven’t been invented yet, the best preparation is to focus on learning to learn – the theme of the conference.

    Whilst it is commendable to follow a traditional business school route to leadership, it’s becoming clear that this model won’t necessarily be fit for the future.  The School, University, MBA, executive linear journey isn’t where the new entrepreneurs are springing from. Many have neither the patience nor the funding to take this path and instead try their ideas, fail fast, learn and go again.

    It is unlikely that fixed curriculums are likely to contain all the answers needed in such a fast-paced world. So instead, they recruit their friends and like-minded individuals and build the working life they want. Encouragingly, they want their work to have purpose and to be enjoyable.

    This is so heartening for us, considering our purpose of ‘banishing corporate dullness’.  It also means the disruptor and start-ups are not only looking to develop a learning mindset, but have fun doing it.

    Humour was referenced many times during the conference as a key business skill for the future. 

    Reflection time and how it cements learning messages


    What did we learn that’s worth sharing?  It’s something we’ve known for a long time but it was reinforced by the other experts involved in this event.  We often cite the Kolb learning model, which we simplify as Context, Experience, Reflection.  Conference agendas are so often packed full and this was no exception.

    Time was hard to manage and when the clock begins to put pressure on the speakers, it’s always the reflection time that suffers.  Yet ahead of the conference, we had all agreed that reflection time was critical.

    For the insights to stick, you need time to consider what they mean for you, individually. 

    A neuro-scientist at the conference confirmed that you really can’t ‘unlearn’ anything; what you have is hard-wired, but you can keep your brain plastic by learning more, providing you take the time afterwards to reflect and create new neural pathways.

    Tips to make learning messages stick


    It seems to us, there are two critical parts to doing this and worth remembering if you are planning conferences, courses, training or indeed any kind of learning event:

    • Place reflection time in the agenda and not just once at the end of the day, but often, after every hour or so of content being delivered by whatever method.  Protect it fiercely.
    • Make sure there is shared discussion of the topics, so that what has been considered and reflected upon can then be tested with a peer group.  Speaking about your learning and insights to others, is both a helpful filter and a proven method of establishing the new pathway.

    Looking for more tips on how to bring messages to life and signal a shift in your organisation? 


    Want to tap into our creative expertise to bring your learning to life? Drop us a line on or call us on +44 (0) 1926 311347

    Photo credit: Evgeniia Komartsova. Employer Leadership Summit 2018

    Why stories are critical in animations

    Why stories are critical in animations

    Have you seen The Incredibles? Or Toy Story? Or Disney’s Little Mermaid? They’re gorgeous aren’t they? They have incredible animation and the universal nature of the themes are just captivating. But you know what? They would be nothing without the story. Sure, the songs are nice and the characters are really appealing, but the thing that certainly separates Disney/Pixar from many other animation houses and films is their obsession with story.  

    The business world can learn a lot from these experts when it comes to conveying messages with impact and connection. 


    Using a strong story as the backbone to an animation.  


    Wouldn’t it be great if the stories we heard as adults in boardrooms and offices, we spend so much of our time in, had the same joy, detail, creativity and appeal as Paddington, The Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland? 

    So why did the passing of information become so, well, dull? When did we replace the story of a journey ahead with an excel spreadsheet? Or tales of success with a generic email? Perhaps the digital age has a part to play here, in anonymising the human and the emotion behind story. But that shouldn’t mean that we should do without it.  

    “Stories are data with soul”

    Brené Brown

    This is one of our favourite quotes. So when we are creating an animation, we hold story at the very centre. The aim of our animations is always to inform, often to connect to the audience on an emotive level and to encourage understanding.

    And like all the best stories we make our animations to be shared. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to us to hook the key messages to a story or a metaphor that people can understand, recognise and get behind. The trick is finding that story that will work for you and your ultimate goal. And that is the tricky part, but it doesn’t have to be.   


    Story Types to use in animations


    We first begin by helping you to identify what kind of story are you trying to tell. There are only 7 basic plots, according to Christopher Booker in his book Why we tell stories.   

    1. Overcoming the monster 
    2. Rags to riches
    3. The quest
    4. Voyage and return 
    5. Rebirth
    6. Comedy 
    7. Tragedy 

    Interested in more detail on the story types you can use?

    Most of us in the world of work would only really be focused on telling stories 1- 5 to our workforce. If you are looking to tell 6 or 7, well, perhaps you are more suited to a career at the RSC…  

    Once you have identified what kind of story it is you are trying to tell, we stand a much better chance of being able to create an animation that will have the desired impact and make a richer, more personal connection with its viewer.

    So next time you are asked to consider the narrative or you want people to really ‘get’ the message you are trying to convey, don’t respond with an email or an excel spreadsheet. Think what it would look like as a story, as an animation.

    Want some help bringing your message to life? Drop Danielle a line on or call the Monster team on +44 (0) 1926 311347

    Why use visuals rather than text in communications

    Why use visuals rather than text in communications

    People are reading a lot less. 

    It is slightly contradictory that the topic of this article is how visuals are often better than text at communicating information, and yet here we are, wading through some text together… And I say we, because we have entered into a strange contract – me as the writer with something to say, you as the recipient, trying to make sense of what the message is. It’s hard to replace text when you want to communicate details, but if you want to grab the attention of your audience, give them a feel for what the information is, rapidly convey a concept or idea, or just communicate in a different way, there’s nothing like a visual image. 


    Research shows that people are reading a lot less, for many reasons.  

    Information overload is all around us – at work and at home. When was the last time you read every single line of Apple’s privacy T’s and C’s? Or read the instruction manual on a new gadget fully before you used it? Even this article, two paragraphs in, will have been too much for some people and they will have stopped reading and moved on. (If you are one of them, it’s probably too late to say goodbye, but we hope you come back soon…) We are all busy people, and the countless apps and programmes and systems and processes that are meant to make things easier can just add their own noise. We have stuff to be doing and if we need to know something, we will spend as short a time as possible finding it out. So, if you need to communicate something, it needs to stand out from the rest of the clutter of daily life.  


    Studies have shown that we only retain around 20% of things we read. 

    That means that for every five paragraphs you write, only one will be remembered… that is, if the recipient has time to read it in the first place… So, as we reach paragraph number three, the irony meter goes off the scale… but for those of you who do like to read, thanks for making it this far! 

     37% of the population are visual learners and visuals can be processed at 60,000 times faster than text. Here’s an example. If you look at a picture of a ham and mushroom pizza, you get what it is immediately. If you got a list of words describing the pizza, it would take you a bit longer to work out what was being talked about. And yet, often the default attitude in business is to tell you about the thin slices of Parma ham and the type of mushrooms used…  

    Visuals are also great at getting both parts of the human brain to work together


    They encourage collaboration between the logical and more cognitive left side of the brain, with the more creative and intuitive right-hand side. But enough describing pizzas. Look at the picture. 

    Just don’t think about how much time you would have saved if you’d looked at it first…

    If you want to tap into our visual storytelling skills then the best person to contact is our resident visual creator Alana. Contact her on or by calling the office on +44(0)1926 311347 and asking to speak to the Award Winning Visual Creator. 

    Do you need some tips on how to make a dry topic interesting?

    Emcee (MC) vs Facilitator vs Guest Speaker vs Event Experience

    Emcee (MC) vs Facilitator vs Guest Speaker vs Event Experience

    How can you decide which skill set will bring the most to your next internal conference or event…and what’s the difference, anyway? Find out everything you need to know about the different hosting approaches here.  

    We have been in the conference and events business for a long time. We’ve been lucky enough to fly all over the world with large, blue chip companies and so we have seen and been a part of every type of event possible. We have also seen all the variations of running such events, and the pros and cons of each of them.  

    In this article we want to share this knowledge and insight with you, so you can make an informed choice about what will best help you achieve your objectives. 

    Broadly, hosting options come in four forms: 

    • Emcee 
    • Facilitator 
    • Guest Speaker (not really a ‘host’ but worth understanding where this fits) 
    • Event Experience Lead 

    Now, we know that you might well be thinking: ‘We’ve done this so many times, we know what format works’. …Well yes, that is most likely true. You may well have a format works in so much that it isn’t bad. But do you really want to be striving for ‘not bad’ 

    Here is our first tip for making your conference or meeting feel different to the norm: 

    Only use professionals that treat the audience as the customer. This might seem obvious, but the way that most events are set up means the commercial transaction is with the CEO, the budget holder or the organising committee. These groups then become the customer, not the end user, which in this context is the audience.  

    Think about the last speaker or Emcee you saw at an event – how much time did they spend having coffee or building a relationship with the delegates either before or after their slot? How much time, in comparison, did they spend impressing the person that holds the budget? Or the CEO?  

    The commercial transaction confuses this point, so it’s worthwhile keeping that in mind when you are deciding who to bring in to help you.  

    Let’s take each hosting option in turn and help unpick the options open to you as an event organiser.      

    Emcee – Master of Ceremonies 

    A newsreader is probably the best analogy to use for an Emcee.  

    This is a default option for many events, especially those centred around multiple guest speakers or individual presentations. An Emcee provides a structure, acting as a ‘host’ to ensure the whole meeting comes together and that there is a common reference point.  

    A good Emcee will have the right balance of professional and humour…but without the cheese. In our experience this balance can be very difficult to find.  

    It may be decided that a leader will Emcee the event. This has obvious budget benefits, but also having a leader obviously in charge of proceedings can demonstrate a clear message of leadership by putting them front and centre.  

    There are downsides though. Housekeeping aspects, such as where the toilets are and timings of coffee breaks etc. need to be communicated by someone, so if there is no external party then it will most likely fall to this person. If that is a leader, their ‘status’ could be seemingly diminished. Unless of course, you have a leader who is skilled in presenting with humility and humour, whilst keeping up their status…and if you have that, using this person for this role is probably a very good option!  

    Key activities you would expect every Emcee to carry out on the day: 

    • Introductions and initial housekeeping 
    • Setting the overall tone, objectives and agenda for the event 
    • Provide context and introductions to each speaker/presentation  
    • Link all the sessions together and extract the main points as the day progresses 
    • Host panel discussions and Q&A 
    • Keep and eye on time and the agenda and keeping the whole event on track. 

    You will know if you have hired a good Emcee if they are: 

    • Able to work without reading straight from a script  
    • Able to act ‘in the moment’. Without this skill it will come across as formulaic and lacking in emotion. 
    • Have a good sense of humour and not be ‘quiz show’ like (quiz show MC’s are more common than any of us would like!)  

    What an Emcee typically does not do: 

    • Provide content introductions or presentations – this would typically be left to the content experts 
    • Run activities such as ice breakers or team activities 
    • Provide challenge or provoke thinking.  



    In a conference context, think of a facilitator as a TV news reporter out in the field: taking care of specific sessions and making their individual ‘slot’ engaging, content-rich and useful.  

    A facilitator is often used in internal content-based sessions or workshops where robust conversations and specific outputs are required. However, this skill set is increasingly being applied to larger conferences and events, as people require more focus on developing outputs and increasing level of skill development as well as listening to speakers/networking etc.  

    A facilitator’s job is to co-ordinate the group, but in a way that harnesses the collective energy and knowledge to achieve a desired outcome. A facilitator will often issue instructions for an exercise, provide prompting thoughts and challenge for the group to consider, and generally help to guide the group to a conclusion or output of some kind…all the while ensuring everyone is able to participate and contribute.  

    Key activities you would expect every facilitator to do:  

    • Look after specific sections of the event, i.e. a team building session, a brainstorming activity or a working session 
    • Understand how their sessions will work in terms of logistics, materials and providing clear instructions 
    • In advance of the event, design formats for specific elements which are engaging and outcome-focused 
    • Run those sessions with confidence and a level of authority (having the presence and impact required to control a large group of people is critical!)  

    You will know if you have hired a good facilitator at a conference or event if: 

    • They are able to instruct large groups of people effectively to complete activities or tasks 
    • They fully understand how different sessions will run and how the session will lead the group to an outcome 
    • They are able to challenge and question the group(s) in order to ensure that the conversation is of high quality and considers a variety of perspectives or inputs 
    • They do all of this in a way which is high energy and ensures momentum 
    • They can provide and run elements such as ice breakers or energisers  
    • They spend time understanding your business and what you are trying to achieve 
    • They design activities, exercises and formats that will help you to achieve your objectives 
    • They consider subtle elements such as the knowledge people have (or haven’t) got when they arrive, energy levels and how to best deal with dissenting voices 
    • They are skilled in getting people to participate and avoid free-riding 

    A facilitator wouldn’t typically: 

    • Be confident in ‘hosting’ large scale events  
    • Introduce speakers or provide an Emcee service (see above) 
    • Be equipped to design evening/networking elements of the event.  


    Guest Speaker 

    A good analogy for a guest speaker is the ‘expert’ that are invited on to news show as a guest.  

    Although not strictly a ‘hosting’ option, guest speakers are a regular feature in many conferences and so it would be amiss to not explore the value that they provide.  

    Inviting an external party to share their experience, their knowledge or their story is a popular way of cementing key messages or providing expertise from outside the organisation. Often large companies can spend a lot of their time looking inward, so a strong guest speaker is an excellent way of understanding expertise from the outside world, providing new and innovative thinking related to the objectives of the event.  

    Motivational speakers are frequently used, but in our experience, they can often be used as a default setting. Venue booked – check! Name Badges send to print – check! Motivational speaker booked – check! Used in the right context with a relevant and a well-presented message and story, they can be very powerful; out of context or poorly executed, they are an expensive way for people to spend time checking emails.  

    Key activities you would expect every guest speaker to do: 

    • Be happy to send you videos of them speaking and references for people that have heard them speak. Think carefully about booking someone who can’t or won’t do both of these things 
    • Have a powerful message which has been well practised, and is told in a compelling way 
    • Know their material and be clear on their technical requirements (microphones, videos etc) 
    • Understand the context in which they are going to be speaking, and be willing and able to adjust their message accordingly 
    • Have excellent impact and presence – it seems obvious, but unfortunately anyone can call themselves a ‘speaker’. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are any good at it 

    A good guest speaker will: 

    • Be available for even a short time, ideally after their slot, to have further conversations with delegates 
    • Be curious and interested in the context of the event and the background of the company – show genuine interest in how their message is going to help the audience 
    • Have good audience connection and warmth. Anyone who comes across in the planning stages as aloof is most likely missing this element 

    A guest speaker wouldn’t typically: 

    • Be around for the whole event 
    • Be involved or present in other sessions  
    • Interact directly with the audience apart from maybe asking for a show of hands.  


    Event Experience 

    An event experience lead is like a strong TV presenter – the glue that holds all the parts together, willing to challenge but can also entertain and keep peoples interest.  

    This is essentially an Emcee, a facilitator and presenter all rolled into one. This role considers the whole experience from the audience perspective and brings all the pieces together into one coherent, engaging ‘programme’  

    This role will work with you to weave together all of the various elements into an overall thread, working through the overall flow, the emotional journey of the delegates and weaving interventions throughout to keep the messages clear and the energy high.  

    This is suitable for events where you want the lines between stage and audience to blur, and not so suitable where a more formal, structured approach is desired.  

    Key activities you would expect Event Experience to do: 

    • Be focused on the audience at all times and how this event is going to help them learn, be inspired or create a momentum towards individuals taking action.  
    • Review your overall agenda and help identify the ‘red thread’ that ties it all together 
    • Input into the individual sessions to ensure the links to your red thread are clear and consistent 
    • Help ensure content is presented in an effective way – coaching and rehearsing with less experience speakers or suggested different formats to mix it up 
    • Liaise with the AV team to ensure logistics don’t get in the way of seamless execution 
    • Create non-content interventions such as energisers, ice breakers or networking sessions to act as the glue through the event 

    A good event experience lead would: 

    • Provide high-energy Emcee as well as serious, thoughtful facilitation  
    • Act ‘in the moment’, ensuring that key messages are not missed  
    • Able to provide witty, funny and spontaneous reaction or playback of the event – creating a shared, memorable experience for employees 
    • Have the detailed business knowledge to challenge and provoke thought, helping to keep conversations away from corporate speak 

    Event Experience Lead wouldn’t typically get involved in: 

    • Arranging AV and room bookings 
    • Deciding the detailed content and messages 
    • Designing content sessions or producing presentations (though they might advise or provide ideas on the format and how to make them more engaging) 


    Each event will have different objectives and requirements, but the likelihood is, if you’re reading this article it is because you want to do something different. If that is the case then come and talk to us about our experiences providing event experience expertise to conferences all over the world.  Get in touch via email on or call the office on +44(0)1926 311347

     If you are looking for idea or tips to create your own memorable meeting, then download a copy of our e-book here which explains our PIE (Physical Intellectual and Emotional) Memorable Meeting framework.