No event organiser actively sets out to bore their delegates to tears. Indeed, every event organiser I know works incredibly hard to research the right topics and speakers for their event, ones that will engage and inspire their audience. For a while, it even became trendy for the big media beasts to rename their CMOs as “Chief Customer Experience Officers” (which is fodder for a whole other rant). Delegates paying hundreds of dollars (often thousands) to attend an event aren’t really looking for an opportunity to catch up on their sleep or emails. And yet…
So often the temptation to check emails or Twitter does seem to get the better of them; heads do nod. I have even seen drool. That is not a good look, for the delegate or the event.
Since the 80s, producers have churned out events with the standard mix of keynote, panel, workshop, out-of-the-box speaker and a fireside chat, which too often fails to challenge the speaker or hook the delegates. Frankly, it is more than a little lazy. We have to introduce formats that excite and engage our audiences.
It is really quite straightforward. We just need to do three things:
1. Put as much production effort into the presentation type mix as the speaker line-up
2. Match the speakers to the right format (there are some industry legends who are wonderful in an unplugged environment and shockingly dull giving a keynote)
3. Prepare the presentation content and the speakers before the event (not as they go on stage).
Some of it is as simple as signposting to the speaker and the audience that the content will be at another level. Don’t have yet another Keynote, have a State of the Nation Address or a Last Lecture on Earth.
By all means have one fireside chat; then add An Audience With or My Next Guest Needs No Introduction where the producer does more of the heavy lifting adding in photographs, videos and guest appearances, surprising and delighting the speaker as well as the delegates.
TV and radio provide lots of fabulous inspiration. Don’t have yet another panel, have Question Time, or Consultant Challenge, or Just a Minute, or Have I Got [Sector] News for You. All of these require that producers or editors or eager interns prepare content.
When the conference industry really took off, it was all about finding subject matter experts to speak. Nobody worried too much about whether they were good at presenting as long as they knew their stuff. Slightly shambolic scrawled slides shown on the overhead projector were just fine. Somehow that amateur hour or, if we are being kinder, laissez faire, approach to the presentations themselves has lasted.
Producers leave the responsibility for the actual content and format of the presentation to the speakers; who think you are lucky that they turn up and give their stock presentation, or one that they prepared in the back of the cab, you are glad that they do. There are half hearted attempts to get the presentations sent in ahead of time and to do tech run throughs but only in the most egregious examples of sales pitches do producers push back.
It has become the norm for a speaker to hand their slides over to the AV team on site, yet a speaker who hasn’t finished them days in advance is likely to be overly reliant on reading them, and the delegates will read ahead and revert to their emails or on-line shopping. I know of someone at a recent association event who bought a whole new wedding guest outfit during a particularly uninspiring session.
The only concession to high quality presentations has been to add an Out of the Box speaker whose polished presentation can be relied on to create pre break buzz.
Yet there is no reason why every presentation shouldn’t be insightful and inspiring. TED talks have after all spawned a whole industry by being rigorous about the exact type and delivery of presentation.
By asking speakers to present on a certain topic using a certainly methodology, we can dramatically improve the quality of the presentations.
Don’t ask your best-in-class practitioners to send you their slides, ask them to send you their Takahashi, Lessig or Kawaski slides. To make it more likely that they will adhere to the relevant methodology rules, template the slides and send them to your speakers ahead of time.
Understanding the audience make up and customising speeches to their needs is critical. Briefing speakers and setting expectations should not be an afterthought or a nice to have.
I have seen a renowned financial journalist, paid to speak, use slides that had a 10 year old copyright on them. He was brilliant and erudite and all round stunning in the Q&A; but his keynote was such a staggering mess, as he explained in a rather curmudgeonly fashion, what the rest of the graph now looked like or how the company lauded on the slide no longer existed, that it was genuinely painful to watch. At the other end of the spectrum, a Managing Partner from a large consulting firm at someone else’s corporate event spent a full hour learning about the language of the company, the strategy and the current challenges and wove them all so seamlessly into his presentation that it received a standing ovation.
It is easy to tell the difference between a panel that has met for the first time on stage or where the chair has read their bios as she is walking onto the stage, and the one that had a full meet and brief before the session so the Chair knows where the interesting points of tension and debate are. Preparation pays off.
Most conferences haven’t changed their core presentation types since the 80s. I think it is about time we were a little kinder to our audiences don’t you? Maybe you could commit to having a minimum of 6 different formats a day? There are 50 session ideas attached which are not your traditional keynote or panel. That gives you and your faculty plenty of options. I urge you to give it a go. Your NPS results will thank you.