Meeting design is evolving. Here are 5 simple steps that event managers can incorporate to their design process to help shift the focus and the power of your meeting away from the stage and towards the participants.
The traditional conference model puts all of the attention on a stage where speakers, key stakeholders, and sponsors control the information statically given to the audience. This creates a one-way information dump instead of an exchange of knowledge and ideas. We know as event professionals that this methodology is changing in favour of more interactive and collaborative formats, but how does this shift actually work in application?
Know your Audience
The first step to an interactive event experience is making your specific audience feel important and included in story and the program. Begin in the marketing phase by setting up a ‘we’ mentality that aligns with your group’s specific wants and needs. Each person at your event will have a unique perspective, and the sum of their collective knowledge will always be greater than one talking head on a stage; so giving them a platform that aligns with their needs and wants will give you the ultimate bump in engagement.
How do you determine your audience’s desires? Take into consideration your stakeholder’s main objectives first and then… simply ask. Well before designing your program, put out surveys, polls, and/or questionnaires that take into account the important facets of the meeting - what type of venue works best? Where? What content do you want to covered? What do you absolutely not want to see/do/experience? Putting the power in the hands of your participants should begin (to a point) before the event does.
Inform and Listen
There are plenty of unique educational formats to consider to amp up engagement, but what works across pretty much every type of event is to use your emcee and your speakers to let everyone know what expectations and opportunities they will have during the course of the program. This could mean simply being up front and announcing that audience input is valued and will be taken into account in the form of open discussions, polling/survey technology, or smaller workshops for example. It could also mean creating touch points that allow for debriefing and tweaking of your program to adapt to the feedback you are getting throughout on social media or within your event app. Whatever your methodology, create a platform that allows you to have simultaneous structure and flexibility: like an improv comedy show where the games are pre-selected but the content (jokes!) is made up on the spot.
Demand More of Your Participants
If the audience is truly more important than the person on a stage at any given time, then they should be held accountable for meeting the objectives of the program. This could be as simple as showing up to each session (perhaps with RFID tracking to rule out cheating), or as complex as completing a series of tasks throughout the program through your event app or even writing a test at the end of the program for a certification. If you want to ignite change amongst the culture of your participants and the event itself, try building in small rewards for completion of these objectives. Something as simple as free sponsor swag or a gift card can bring out people’s competitive nature.
In an ideal world, your participants will retain so much and be so transformed by their experience that they could one day be leading the sessions they attended. As event professionals, managing participants expectations and making them accountable should be part of our service to our clients. Looking after their needs and wants over the figureheads and speakers on the stage isn’t enough on it’s own - we must be able to measure tangible results that focus entirely on their transformative experience.
Curate an Experience
Create something that your participants can truly experience with all of their senses instead of statically watching or passively listening to someone else talk about their own experiences. After all, in the words of Maya Angelou, people will forget what you say and what you do, but they will never forget how you make them feel. Big brands pull stunts all the time in the name of ‘experiential marketing’ to get people to remember their product, so why can’t you do the same at your conference?
Take the #TimsDark experiment for example. Canadian coffee company Tim Hortons literally blacked out an entire store in the name of promoting their dark roast blend to the masses.
If you were planning a conference or meeting all about coffee, why not include a great sponsorship activation like this one, or even incorporate it into your education? It creates wow-factor, prompts retention, and gets important messages across in thought-provoking ways. As with any creative activation, just remember to make sure that it aligns with your brand messaging so as not to create confusion among participants.
Extend the Conversation
Don’t let your event live in a vacuum. Make your participant’s ideas and contributions valid by continuing the discussion via social media platforms, forums, live hangouts, or more informal meet-ups that spawned out of the main program. You can also utilize your speakers to create post-event videos that reiterate key messaging from their sessions, spark application ideas, and even tease out the next event. If you really want to make sure the conversation continues - try gamifying it by holding a contest. Ask participants to send in stories of how they applied what they learned at the event and then give away a prize that aligns with the content of the meeting. For example, if your conference was for health and wellness, give away a membership to a gym or a new pair of runners.
The primary reason behind every single meeting is to exchange ideas and information. A static talking head delivering information to a passive audience is not an exchange, and it puts no demand or ownership on the participants. With a few small steps and some trial and error, you can deliver and event that will leave your participants transformed… with only themselves to thank.