Thoughts on re-engaging conference audiences

Audiences demand more from company events today, largely because of the modern, fast-paced, interactive and dynamic world in which we live. Conferencing seems largely to be stuck in an industrial revolution era time-warp of darkened rooms, rows of chairs and merciless nonstop barrages of largely incomprehensible data which is dumped (at great expense) on the heads of the delegates.

Some thoughts from a professional conference speaker – a veteran of over
2 500 events around the world to date – who believes it essential that we better engage today’s largely disengaged, disinterested and disillusioned conference audiences, who are fed up because they’ve ‘seen it all before’. We need through new approaches to create better value, messaging and delivery if we want to properly justify the costs of eventing, through proper dialogue and stimulation from the outset.

It’s essential that we banish the typical ‘conference-in-a-box’ traditional event forever and in order to achieve any measurable success in the conferencing world today we need to apply proper attention to three key areas of the conference planning process namely pre, during and post-conference activities.

Pre Conference – Everyone needs to inspired don’t they?

Conceptualised theming is a good place to begin – and it’s essential today. A company conference must be seen to look like an important event or even a brand from the get-go. This requires the careful development, creation and use of a proper theme, a logo and style. Business relevant and meaningful positionings will help generate and convey the importance, as well as a sense of value and meaning. Working with your marketing department and/or advertising agency to create a ‘branded’ event should be standard procedure.

Careful agenda planning, structure, management & timing is equally crucial in order to achieve maximum engagement & results. Regular or typical conferencing usually calls for specific slots, built around traditional tea breaks and meals. Dare to break the mould here. Think creatively. As much valuable time at conferencing is spent on networking as well as in sessions as we know, plan appropriate times for this in the agenda. Consider stretching tea or coffee breaks away from the typical and standard 20 minutes… and even shortening speaker keynotes. Whilst the industry standard for speaker keynotes is 45 minute slots; do you have the courage to break these down and make them either 30 or even 20 minute sessions? Even MTV has shortened its typical old-style 30 minute programmes to just on 20 minute minute sessions – attention spans are shortening!

Speaker flow, continuity & relevance are of paramount importance so look to build this appropriately into the agenda. Simplistically it makes sense to start with the conference ‘owner’ or business leader providing the opening, but then look to see how all the following presenter/speakers will fit into a proper and structured flowing agenda which will best benefit the theme, style, business and audience members.

Sponsor beneficiation is also of major importance, be they internal ‘company’ departmental sponsors or outside suppliers/channel partners.  Sponsors, who can really help with bringing overall costs to company of conferences down through their participation, surely deserve more than mere banners and a mention at the welcome and close of an event?  Build in ways for them to be able to get maximum value for their budgetary contributions. Showcases or even panel discussions (if run by professional moderators) can be of really good value here. It really makes sense to embed the sponsor’s messaging and involvement through planned relevance and value, wherever possible.

Dynamic social media use is a must. Closed social media groups dedicated to dialogue & messaging should be standard in conferencing today. A dedicated app (budget permitting) can even be used to help register, guide, engage and track the event overall.  Apps, and there are many that exist off the shelf – just requiring company and brand personalisation – can really help to create and generate unified audience engagement – as well as providing tracking and measuring abilities.

Video teasers are also a very cool way in this regard to create audience pre-conference excitement & interest. Look to send out video teasers from your speakers or even the CEO – either through traditional internal methods such as email or via an app. If you have the budget bring in a professional videographer; if not – use your smartphone – but make sure it looks professional when you shoot (think logo, theme, colour and conference identity included).

During Conference – Everyone needs to be involved

Venue management is essential to allow the proper flow, format & structure to the event. As you’ve probably gathered I have a strong phobia about the cinema style chairs lined up ‘in-a-box’ room set facing the stage; it’s all dull and all too expected. Be bold and consider different seating styles, or even a stage in the round!  Think comfortable and different seating… Consider screen sizes and resolution of images too. Bigger is always better – think of your own large flat screen at home!

Corporate theatre is what you should be looking to create here: maximising the involvement & engagement of everyone present at the conference or event.

Delegate participation and team thinking – not team building is key. Team building on the other hand seems to be largely out of favour today, in its old fashioned sense of getting delegates out of the venue and building rafts, or pursuing meaningless treasure quests. (Audiences groan internally when they even hear the phrase ‘team-building’).

Could you perhaps follow a presentation with an audience intervention instead of merely offering up a laundry list of presentations, one after the other, after the other?  The audience is gathered for a common purpose, surely therefore it would be a very good thing to check their ‘read’ or understanding and involvement in the messaging being delivered, as it happens?  (For example, each of my own presentations on stage has a separate follow-on ‘intervention’ module where, working with an audience, I can reinforce the messaging from the presentation by getting them involved in role-play or discussion around the subject they’ve just seen and listened to.

If you neither have the ability not time to go this far, even a simple questionnaire could be used as an information and feedback gathering device – but not the old standard ‘eval form’ at the end of the day (where people today just normally tick the boxes to go along with the process and invalidate the real purpose behind this concept) – but rather one that actually asks for and obtains real data on what the audience thinks and feels as it happens?

Genuine and relevant audience Interventions can help create a true learning environment and generate cool information, when handled in an appropriate manner.

Post Conference – Everyone needs to be collaborating

All too often when the last banners from the event have been lowered and bagged and the last bar bill has been added up – just as the delegates head back to home or the office – the event is deemed done and dusted. Everyone wants to move on to whatever comes next, and soon afterwards (other than a final budget/cost review) the whole thing is forgotten about and people move on…

It’s here that I believe many of us are missing out on further capitalisation of the theme, identity, messaging and even outcomes. Why not keep your event alive for a while post-event?  Using videos or other updates with the delegates to share summary content for maximum reinforcement? What about (internal or external) speaker continuity where there is a perfect opportunity to continuously update or even showcase the value of what each key presenter had delivered in their messaging?

Post-event is also a great time to harness feedback and check if the messaging was on point, relevant and meaningful. It’s a perfect way under the conference theme to update key information – allowing for theme longevity and continuance.

Isn’t it shame to think most people just let all this go?

I firmly believe we should be looking to create, add and expect value and meaning from conferences and events in business. I, like many people, would feel much more fulfilled from attending events that were geared to engage rather than disengage.  I just hope this has made you think a little more about running and planning better business conferences? I’d love to hear your views and your comments as to what else we could all be doing to deliver better events.

Michael Jackson has established a position as a top level, globally sought after conference speaker on the subject of change in business. Having already addressed almost 3 000 conferences across thirty eight countries, he now presents globally at around 180 conferences a year. His website at is packed with 30 second videos & overview documents to help both clients choose an appropriate keynote and delegates get even more out of his presentations. He is launching a new book entitled Build a Better Conference in early 2017.

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