I don’t like to figure out movies while I watch them. Not only does it bother me when other people ruin it for me, but I hate when I discover the plot too soon.
There’s something about that revelation at the end of a tangled spider’s web when I discover the creator knew what he was doing from the beginning but made me think he was winging it the whole time.
What impresses me is the strategy it takes to pull off these wow moments. The Pixar Theory suggests each movie exists in the same universe and that the geniuses behind the company are even more innovative than each movie suggests on its own. TV shows take us on 10-season journeys only to realize that hints along the way make the ending possible. Creativity explodes when boundaries, structure and planning are developed—sometimes decades in advance.
Yogi Berra says it best: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Improvisation is necessary along the way, but the key to blowing attendees’ minds is determining your end result and then figuring out how to get there, even if it is along the way.
Take your attendees on a similar journey and impress them with the result by aligning every decision with your desired outcome.
Should you spend money on a prominent speaker? If the ultimate goal is attendance, sure; but if your goal is to deliver content that leads to change, maybe the expert without the name recognition better serves your purpose.
What color should your napkins be? If using your organization’s resources most effectively is a desired outcome, go with white, but if every touch point means driving home a brand emotion to your attendees, custom napkins might be worth the price.
How do you ensure every detail and fork in the road accounts for your desired outcome? Do you remind your team, leaders and vendors of your purpose regularly?
We’ve all experienced the six degrees of separation in work and in our personal lives. We’ve seen jobs offered, deals made and business exchanged because of connections. Who you (may) know is the basis of LinkedIn and most social media. In conference and event world, we pride ourselves on the necessity of networking. After all, it’s all about who you know, right (or hopefully, who you meet at a conference)?
Or is it? A connection might get you a phone call answered or a meeting arranged. But what happens next comes down to relationship and results.
I thought public relations epitomized the who-you-know philosophy, but I’ve quickly realized sealing the deal goes far beyond an initial connection. You can make something happen on a cold call, but if you haven’t established a relationship with that reporter, client or business partner, it will be short-lived. The same is true to get attendees to return, maintain great service at convention centers or nab the best speakers at your event.
It’s actually all about how you treat those you know:
1. Be authentic. When the focus is what we can get from someone, the relationship will always be transactional. Never walk into a business meeting again. View appointments as an opportunity to get to know someone—whether it’s helpful for business or not—and both your perspective and his receptiveness may change.
2. Over deliver. The bottom line is still the bottom line. Relationship or not, if you don’t exceed expectations and deliver results, you’re just friends in the end (hopefully, if you started with step No. 1).
3. Be honest. Be upfront about expectations and disappointments. Respond quickly when things don’t work out and a real relationship can withstand good and bad times in business.
How have personal relationships within your industry been beneficial to you? What rules do you live by to keep them from becoming transactional?
Whether it’s talking to our phones or to our glasses, new technology always seems a little odd at first. As a kid, I’d have thought we would look like the Jetsons if you told me vacuums and cars would drive themselves in my future. Every social media rollout or new gadget that can really be called innovative has push back from the public, adapts and becomes rapidly accepted before we know it.
Meetings technology expert and educator Jim Spellos reminded me of that this week as we discussed how Google Glass is going to revolutionize the meetings industry during an interview for upcoming issues of our magazines. His response? It’s not. “Glass might not be a huge success,” Spellos says. “But whatever its successor is, is going to get a lot of benefits from what Google Glass experiences—good and bad.”
Entrepreneurs constantly say if you want to come up with the next big idea, you have to be willing to fail first. We don’t all have the luxury of a billion dollar company like Google backing our cutting-edge ideas, but creating a culture of experimentation at your events is key to moving forward.
Conferences that stay ahead of the game have:
- Attendees who expect change. Conferences that push the envelope have attendees who are willing and excited to be along for the ride. Changes can—and should—come in small doses, but prepare your attendees ahead of time. Would your attendees be disappointed if everything was exactly the same as last year?
- Organizers who listen. There’s no push forward if planners don’t listen, respond and adapt to the push back. If attendees are part of the process and see progress as a result of their feedback, they will support a culture of innovation.
- Buy-in from senior leadership. Experimenting without support only results in pressure to get it right the first time. If you have to get it right the first time, you’ll never try anything new.
- Strategic minds around the table. Never change for the sake of change. Innovative thinkers see the need, possibility and solution behind every idea they implement. Surround yourself with a team of people willing to step out on a limb that’s connected to a solid tree.
Spellos says the rate of change is only getting faster: “We’re not even ready for the onslaught that’s going to happen. There’s going to be push back, but there will be a lot of push forward, too. If people thought the speed of change was fast the last couple years, just wait.”
Are you ready? What experiments are you going to conduct at your events this year?
There’s a commonality between planning a group trip abroad and a conference. You start by selecting a location and hotels, then attract and register attendees, determine programming, deliver information and get participants there. Throw in a foreign culture, a desire to transform attendees’ perspectives and a lot of rice, and you’ve got CIY’s Engage: The World.
If those demands aren’t enough, add the fact that the locations the organization takes trips—Cambodia, Zambia, India and more—put participants (typically aged 18-24) face-to-face with some of the most difficult circumstances on earth from dire poverty to human trafficking and bonded labor. In August, I helped Tommy Nobis, a regular attendee of our Rejuvenate Marketplace, lead one of these trips. I, along with 14 fellow Americans and a nursing student from Japan, experienced the joys and sorrows of the kingdom of Cambodia.
The similarities of being an on-site planner at a conference and being in-country for a mission trip quickly separated when we arrived. Being in a foreign country with, well, a bunch of foreigners who all have different food preferences, emotional capacities and energy levels, creates one set of challenges. Another challenge was the weightiness of conveying an alternative perspective to attendees about service trips while serving the local organizations and people in the best possible way.
The key mission of these trips is “do no harm.” Like any good physician, the goal of the trip is to help, but CIY’s higher priority is actually not to leave the community in worse condition. That might sound obvious, but North American groups have been known to plow through Third-World countries with good intentions that cause more harm than good if not carefully thought out. We learned what it meant to experience a culture, develop relationships with people doing incredible work before we arrived and who will continue long after we left, and how to encourage people without doing anything for them.
I’ve always been in awe of the organizational skills of event professionals, but helping lead this trip gave me a new appreciation for the responsibility so many carry. Your reach is wide. From the impact felt by the city in which you meet—whether you do any community service or not—to the effect education and programming has on attendees, your work extends beyond keeping things on schedule and ensuring the AV works.
Statistics prove the economic impact of meetings. Your impact also is felt by attendees who leave an event with a new perspective, a new idea to implement at work or an inspiring message to spread.
What experiences have helped you realize the significance of your role?
While at the beach this weekend enjoying the gorgeous Gulf Coast with its pristine, blue-green water and white sand, I couldn’t help making an analogy to meetings. The weather was perfect and umbrellas were lined up for miles with families soaking it all in.
Our section of beach, however, had a dune lake that took up a portion of the beach. Cars were allowed to drive almost to the shore, and vehicles with the right permits and 4-wheel drive parked surrounding the dune lake with tailgates. A large majority of the beach’s patrons actually faced the stagnant (brown) lake where so many children played they had to navigate around one another.
Granted, this dune lake was safe. It was probably warmer and more comfortable than the still early-summer temperature of the ocean. Parents didn’t have to keep as close an eye on the baby-pool depth the kids played in or worry about the under-tow of a body of water with no outlet.
All my friends and I wanted to do was scream with arms raised, “Turn around! The glorious, blue ocean is right behind you!”
The ocean might be big and unknown. It might be new and require more attention, but settling for the safety of complacency might be keeping you from experiencing the excitement and triumph that comes from trying something different. If you have ever used the phrase, “We’ve always done it like this” or “My attendees don’t like change,” you might be wading in a brown dune lake.
Turn around, take a look at the horizon and think about the possibilities for your event. Even a toe in the crystal-clear water is better than being waist-deep in a murky dune lake.
How do you keep your event fresh?
There are pros and cons to corporate social responsibility. Donations to a local organization after a conference can boost employee morale and stir some marketing buzz in the host city while contributing to the local community. However, I’m knee deep in personal reading material about the negative consequences charity and service trips can have.
For a long time, I didn’t care why ABC Fortune 500 company gave. It still was going to a good cause. It didn’t matter if the leaders’ intentions were purely promotional because the local shelter needed the money. I’m beginning to realize it’s not that black and white.
This is on my mind because I’m also in the middle of writing about one of the best CSR projects I’ve seen in a while. Crowdsourcing allows attendees to choose a personal cause for the group to help rather than the typical impersonal giant check presented to a local children’s hospital (more on that in the next Collaborate magazine).
The event professional’s role in choosing CSR programs requires research just as a consultant has to learn a company culture before he can offer advice or a speaker should learn the audience’s goals and objectives before waxing poetic on how individuals should work differently. Any time a group or individual comes from the outside to stir change, whether it’s community service or another effort, understanding the needs, assets and work already in place is key to achieving the desired outcomes.
Here are some questions to ask before stamping your organizations’ name on a project:
1. Does the organization you are helping have good processes already in place that your corporate culture should not override?
2. What can your attendees learn from the people who you are helping?
3. What are the long-term benefits for your group and the organization you are helping?
Rather than offer more advice on this complicated subject, I’d like to hear your opinions and experience. Tell me what you think on Twitter @jenng_, or if it takes more than 140 characters, put them in the comments below.
This week, I interviewed 16-year-old Delaney Melaven, who planned a 5K race to raise $2,000 to plant a church in India.
Before attending Christ in Youth’s Move conference in the summer of 2011, she’d never run a 5K. She’d not given much thought to India, and the ninth-grader probably hadn’t seen $2,000 at one time. At Move, she watched “Love Costs Everything,” a film about the persecuted church around the world, and responded to a speaker’s challenge to come down front and pick up an unlit match representing a desire to shine a light in the world—not yet knowing how she would. She returned home and came up with the idea, hosted a screening of the film to drum up registrations and held the Ignite India 5K for 65 runners that spring.
This is what events do. Whether it’s a worship service or an employee education seminar, a setting outside attendees’ day-to-day routine with targeted speakers and media affects participants. More than stir emotions, events create action—if done right.
“Being at a conference calls you to action a little more because you’re surrounded by so many more things that tug at your heart,” the up-and-coming event professional says. “I could have brushed it off at home.” (Read: Look out for Delaney Melaven from a Class of 2019 meeting and hospitality program.)
You have a captive audience at a live event. You can waste that opportunity with a lecturer who drives attendees to their smartphones or you can leverage it for whatever purpose you choose.
Here’s how you get attendees to respond with action
1. Create the environment. Watching a video at home (or a webinar at work) can pique attention or strike up a desire to act. But the speakers, camaraderie and surrounding message of an event increase participation.
2. Provide a call to action. Make your attendees pick up a match. Specific steps they can take right then—no matter how small—prevent the distractions of life outside the convention hall from erasing good intentions.
3. Leverage accountability. Make the initial response public—a tweet, a sign-up sheet or a challenge to tell a teammate their goal. Whether internal or external, the pressure to follow through will be higher.
How do you get attendees to light their matches?
I don’t need to finish that phrase. You’re probably already filling in the blank with your own negative scenarios. When planners assume, wires get crossed. Things fall through the cracks. We can all relate to the feeling when something doesn’t turn out like we thought it would. When you’re consumed by the events industry, it’s hard to remember that everyone in your industry or circle is not really everyone.
When you are surrounded by your team, it’s easy to assume:
- Everyone has heard of your event. It’s hard to believe, but there are people who don’t know what the “Harlem Shake” is, let alone know about your event.
- Everyone loves your event. It’s hard not to think your event is great. It’s a collection of your ideas.
- Everyone who likes your event will come. They may have told you in person how great your event is, liked you on Facebook or tweeted about you, but factors including time and money can still keep your most loyal fans away. Every choice someone makes to attend means they are sacrificing something else.
How do you avoid this black hole of insular thinking? First, as I mentioned last month, open your planning committee to people outside your team or company. Also, stay on top of feedback. What actually worked? Don’t solely let the people who had the nerve to approach you (and likely had the strongest feelings) dictate your sentiment toward aspects of your event. Use post-con data, attendance numbers and history to help you make concrete decisions about future events. Reach people not on your current lists using social media that targets your subject area through topical hashtags, forums and blogs. Attend events that are completely different from yours in content, layout and audience. You can discover methods, formats or speakers no one in your industry is using. And before I sound too cynical, use the people who do know about, love and attend your event. After all, you don’t want to lose the ones you have.
How do you keep yourself from becoming too insular?