Break the Meeting Mold: How to Keep Speakers on Track, Energize Attendees, and More

Many meetings face the same old problems. But inventive planners and new technologies are creating innovative solutions. Here are ideas for keeping attendees energized and on task.

By Lisa Cericola April 29, 2010, 8:45 AM EDT

Meeting fare from Sentry Centers

Photo: Marina Senra for BizBash

Beat the Afternoon Blahs
To boost attendees’ energy during meeting breaks, Sentry Center, a new New York-based conference center with eight meeting rooms, a rooftop terrace, four executive dining and function spaces, and an in-house kitchen, offers a mix of house-made sweet and savory snacks, including mini burgers, fried granola balls, yogurt and berry parfaits, crudités, and chocolate-dipped marshmallows.
“During our training sessions we like to have quiz games after lunch that double as networking and teambuilding. We usually try to mimic game shows like Family Feud or Wheel of Fortune by using whiteboards or index cards, or by having attendees make buzzing noises. To raise the stakes, we have offered a prize of one extra paid personal day to the M.V.P. of the winning team or lunch in the executive dining room with a department head for the entire winning team. I find it to be a very successful way to recap earlier lessons, informally assess knowledge gained by attendees, and energize people in the afternoon.”
Clifton Pierre, corporate coordinator, financial services firm, New York

Connect People Before an Event
Social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook can help attendees see who will be at an event and get conversations started before they even get there. Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant, co-owners of Socialfish, a Washington-based consulting firm specializing in social media strategies for associations, offer tips on how to integrate social media into event registration. 

1. Go where your attendees are already gathering. Well before the meeting begins, find out what tools they are already using, whether it’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social space online. On the registration form, ask them to name the sites they use and include their usernames.

2. Communicate what you’re doing and why. Once you’ve decided the right sites to focus on, tell attendees early and often about what you’ve set up and why. For example, if you have a LinkedIn group, a Facebook event page, and a Twitter account and hash tag for the meeting, add prominent links to each on the meeting Web site. Put the links in your registration confirmation emails. Invite the most connected, motivated attendees to be the champions for your social media efforts and ask them to spread the word.  

3. Prepare your speakers. Make sure they know what you’re doing, especially if you have an active Twitter hash tag. Some speakers may be social media savvy and able to help people connect and market the event to their fans. For the rest of your speakers, offer to walk them through your social media efforts, and provide a Twitter monitor to keep track of the hash tag during their session, in case of questions or feedback. 

4. Consider going private. Companies such as Groupsite and the Social Collective set up private social networks, which offer a more branded, custom environment. Creating any private social network—one that people actually use—is hard work, but it may enhance connections, especially when the attendees need to discuss topics they wouldn’t feel comfortable posting on a public site or that the host company doesn’t want leaked.

Gifts That Won’t Get Left at the Hotel
“For some conferences I hired a photographer for the entire trip to capture photos of the guests, which relieved them of having to remember their cameras. At the end, we sent them a CD with the images. Another time, the photographer pulled about 20 photos of each guest and we put them in digital frames that played a slide show when they got back to their hotel rooms. It was very personal and memorable.”
Dawn Cooper, corporate events manager, Toshiba America Medical Systems, Chicago

“We usually try to shoot for two or three gifts with the same cost and allow our guests to choose which one they want. We’ve offered things like Bose stereo systems, blenders, a whiskey and vodka set. When they get back to their rooms, there is a sheet of paper with photos of the items, and attendees can check off what they would like and where they would like it shipped.”
Tracy Wallach, senior meetings and special event planner, Southeast Toyota Distributors L.L.C., Deerfield Beach, Florida  

“Many speakers travel a lot, so we’ve given them business travel kits that include a wireless mouse, flash drive, and extension cord. We’ve also done shoe bags, as well as travel alarms. However, I prefer gifts that keep on giving. I’ve had a tree planted in a speaker’s name. We are all becoming so much more environmentally astute that no one finds fault with this, and I’ve received great feedback.”
Annette M. Suriani, director of meetings, Meetings Management Group, McLean, Virginia

Let Attendees Set the Agenda
Content-heavy meetings and conferences, by nature, are passive experiences. But some audience members might want to do more than sit quietly and take notes. At “unconferences,” attendees lead and go to sessions around a theme or purpose. There is no set agenda; participants create a schedule together on the day of the event.

“Lots of people are freaked out by the word unconference, but people are already doing the same thing online,” says San Francisco-based unconference designer and facilitator Kaliya Hamlin. “On blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, no one from a committee is telling people what to speak about or when. Unconferences bring what is online into the face-to-face world.” Here are a few things for planners to keep in mind. 

1. Believe in the wisdom of the attendee. Although some planners may be wary of inexperienced people taking the stage, Hoffman says the format often uncovers up-and-coming talent. “Just because someone doesn’t have a New York Times bestselling book doesn’t mean they don’t have something to contribute,” she says. “We’ve learned that a CV is not always the best starting point for value.”  

2. Prepare attendees in advance. Although agendas are not preset, hosts should give people a sense of what to expect. When planning the Conscience Un-Conference, a one-day gathering on social media co-hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Amelia Wong, production coordinator for the museum, put critical information on a blog for participants. She recommends explaining how the format will work, what attendees can expect, and what is expected of them. “Have an online space where participants can fill out profiles and encourage them to browse these before the unconference,” Wong says.  

3. Emphasize interactions over presentations. “Unconferences are about talking to people rather than at them. Instead of ‘Here’s another PowerPoint,’ we try to emphasize conversations,” says Whitney Hoffman, owner of Philadelphia-based Hoffman Digital Media and director of operations for the PodCamp Foundation’s digital media unconferences. Small roundtable discussions are a popular format. “We gave people the chance to give five-minute project demos—lightning talks—during lunch, which kept that hour lively and prevented grandstanding during sessions,” Wong says. To encourage networking in between sessions, Hoffman creates spaces where people can congregate. “I usually rent an extra room that can serve as a lounge where people can have a cup of coffee and continue a discussion.”  

4. Don’t overlap preprogrammed and open sessions. Some planners may want to ease into unconferences by including an open block of time within a scheduled meeting. If you do decide to do this, Hamlin warns against “parallel tracking,” or scheduling programmed sessions at the same time as open sessions. “It fails every time,” she says. “It can be hard for people who are used to traditional events to take the leap into unconferences, but when you do it, do it all the way.” She suggests having scheduled morning sessions, followed by an open afternoon session where participants can decide the agenda.  

5. The “law of two feet” rules. If a presenter disappoints, attendees are free to walk out of sessions. Ideally, there should be multiple seminars going on at one time so people can move around until they find something useful. “If you are not learning or contributing, it is your responsibility to respectfully find some place that you are. Follow your own passion at an unconference,” Hamlin says.

Prevent People From Skipping the After-Party

“By holding the cocktail hour in the same space as the conference, we don’t have to worry about finding another venue, and it enables us to sell additional sponsorships. We transform a breakfast or lunch area into a cocktail space with dim lighting, a DJ, lounge seating, and signature drinks. We try to make the atmosphere loungey so people can spend an hour relaxing and talking about what they learned while unwinding with a drink. You will always get people who bolt the second a meeting ends, but there’s not much you can do. Other people will think, ‘I’m tired, but I could use a beer and I’m here already, so why not?’” 
Lauren Minardo, conference director, Advertising Age, New York

Make Virtual Meeting-Goers Feel Included
Sure, hosting meetings via a Web-based platform instead of in a hotel can save attendees travel time and money, but staring at a computer screen can also make them feel disconnected. Joerg Rathenberg, senior director of marketing for Unisfair, says virtual meeting platforms should make attendees feel like they are there in person, with the ability to collect contact information from other attendees, respond to questions via chat and polls, and interact with each other in other ways. “The environment should encourage them to explore, learn, and connect,” he says. “Attendees should not be jumping from one pop-up window to the next. Chat, polls, messages, and other components should all be part of the same platform, not a mash-up of different providers.”

To improve individual sessions, Paula DeFeo, senior vice president and managing director of logistics for Jack Morton Worldwide, suggests training speakers, presenters, and moderators to acknowledge the camera and address virtual attendees as if they were in the room. “We ask that questions are always repeated, that board work is in real time on the remote students’ screen, and that they are called on to participate,” DeFeo says.

She also recommends adding extra virtual sessions in addition to the keynote and main sessions. “A live chat with a panel of executives or other experts creates takeaway value for the audience and emphasizes the idea of your live and virtual events being almost interchangeable.” To hold everyone’s attention and avoid confusion, Rathenberg says shorter 15-minute sessions are better than 90-minute presentations.

Virtual meeting attendees like swag, too. Rathenberg suggests sending welcome kits with T-shirts or other branded items, or providing a catered lunch in a central location.

Boost Networking Time
Part of the value of face-to-face meetings is getting people into the same space to meet and interact. To keep attendees from using breaks just to check their email, Four Seasons Hotels in Chicago and Las Vegas offer “BlackBerry breaks.” During the 30-minute recess, attendees leave their PDAs at a charging station provided by the hotel and spend time talking over a menu inspired by the berry itself—items include ginger duck breast with blackberry compote served in chilled cucumber cups, blackberry citrus smoothies, and blackberry strudel.

Keep Speakers on Track
As a way to encourage conversation, more meeting planners are inviting attendees to use social media to comment about meetings as they take place, so they can share ideas and let organizers know what’s not working. For example, attendees using Twitter are invited to tweet comments about a session as it happens by using a preset hash tag for the event. The hash tag unites all of the comments in one place so attendees can follow along on laptops or phones. Planners can even project these live social media streams—called back channels—on a screen behind presenters.

Although back channels can open a floodgate of snarky comments and off-topic chatter, they have positive benefits as well. Josh Jones-Dilworth, founder of Austin, Texas-based public relations and marketing firm Jones-Dilworth, handles PR for the South by Southwest Interactive Conference’s Accelerator event, where attendees actively contribute to a back channel during sessions. “The value is primarily peer-to-peer communication, not just a moderator or speaker controlling a one-way conversation. The audience can interact with each other,” he says.

This can be a little scary for planners, but it can help, too. “The real benefit of these things—which few people talk about because it’s still kind of new—is the benefit to the organizers and speakers. Such streams create a real-time focus group for the talks and panels. It’s an easy way for audience members to ask questions, but more important, it is a great way for speakers to adapt on the fly,” Jones-Dilworth says. “More and more we’re seeing speakers, both solo and on panels, monitoring these streams during their talks as a way of gauging reactions, and steering the conversations and content in a direction that reflects the will of the audience.” 

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