Making The Most Of Your Meeting: Back To Basics, The Real Basics

People walking through a tradeshow

From the August 2015 edition of IFA's Franchising World magazine

Events are all blossoming today with every company, brand, association, and media property vying for eyeballs, customer and clients. It’s a crowded and competitive marketplace. Other channels of distribution are also proliferating and encroaching on the historical core of the event value proposition; content, commerce and community. The increase in mobile and digital has contributed to decrease in attention spans, and more demand for on-demand.    

There are key factors that are driving the success of the best in class events today in spite of these developments. Most of them reflect not the bells and whistles associated with technology and social platforms. It’s time to refocus on human elements in planning and execution and people back at the core.

The “Where Were You When it Happened?” Factor
One key to designing and executing an effective live event starts with the end in mind. What will “they” (attendees) say, do, think and feel differently at the end of an event as opposed to when they entered? Results-oriented design is critical and reveals the true power of “live.” Think about what people watch live every year. Perhaps they attend a concert, gather friends and family for the Super Bowl, cheer at a child’s soccer games. Then consider this; what makes those experiences ones that could not have the same power if they were watched on a delay. It’s the “I was there when it happened” factor. Always start here. 

Also, the pursuit of extending the impact of the event beyond the few days is a hot topic. Event organizers can take control themselves; tap into the collective wisdom of their attendees for future content that they can disseminate. Don’t leave this just to attendees. This also creates an important differentiator between the live experience and a virtual one. One can harness these insights as a “listener” and assign staff to remove the headset or radio and mingle with attendees. Walking an event as a first-timer, without the preconceived notions of how and where things are supposed to happen reveals new ideas and insights.

TED-“itis” and Techniques to Uncover the USP
Every great event has a unique selling proposition, a “USP”. It is a vibe that represents the core of the effort. Verbalizing and visualizing this feeling is the sole competitive advantage of any great meeting. The best in the business know how to bottle it and build on it. Great events borrow and scale best practices all the time, but are not trying to be something they are not.

TED, for example, is about rehearsal and control, and innovative ideas. It’s deliberate, sophisticated and streamlined. This plays out through the registration process, main stages, common areas and entertainment. But that is what TED does, uniquely. Don’t try to out-TED, TED.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is successful not just due to its scope, but because it has stayed true to its music festival roots, even in exponential growth. It has not lost sight of its USP. The event layers content, film, music, a trade show, activations, displays, and more, letting attendees discover new ideas for themselves.  Attendees revel in the chaos and crowds. SXSW has long lines, people sit on the floor in sessions, and the conference pass doesn’t include a single meal. SXSW also has minimal production and AV. Is that right for every meeting? No. But it’s core of the brand of SXSW.

At Davos, the esteemed yearly gathering in Switzerland, it’s all about who’s there and where they are. A January 22, 2015 Harvard Business Review article by Greg McKeown titled “99% of Networking is a Waste of Time” features an interview with Rick Stromback, a venture capitalist known as “Mr. Davos.”  Stromback shares this insight, 99% of Davos is information or experience you can get elsewhere, on your own timeframe and in a more comfortable manner.” McKeown also shares Stromback’s views on effective networking (hint, it’s authentic and informal), how it is okay to take a break every day and recharge, so that one can be there when it matters. In other words, it’s the people and not the things.

Great events also need a strategy for the “meeting outside the meeting” Business happens and relationships are often built not in the formal sessions or functions, but rather in the lobby, in a hallway or often in a bar. Attendees often gather in an authentic way elsewhere and ironically, this creates more value for them than many of the tightly scripted big budget sessions to which event planners dedicate so much time. Organizations are quick to fret that these non-official events detract from the main meeting, taking away revenue and control. Curiosity rather than resistance goes a long way in understanding this dynamic and leveraging it for the benefit of the event host.

Another strategy is to address a liability that may reveal a USP. The legendary Avis slogan, “We Try Harder” that ran for 50 years did just this. The history of the campaign was outlined in AdAge by Rupal Parekh in August 2012. The research DDB did with company management revealed this brand promise as a way to govern behavior, as well as to position Avis vis a vis its main competitor. Event organizers could consider statements that guarantee a vision such as “We are low tech” or “You won’t find big name speakers here.” This type of counter-intuitive thinking can yield innovative results.

The “Tables and Spreadsheets” Trap
Best in class events create a vision for success that engages all stakeholders, a picture in the mind that is relevant and relatable. Simple techniques using an online application such as Pinterest, or a traditional flip-chart to build a mood board can all galvanize a team to a shared picture. Likewise, it is worth considering diagrams that are not traditionally used in the event space to generate ideas such as Venn diagrams, X-Y axes, 2x2 matrices and others. A metaphor of a puzzle can be effective. Successful events start with the picture on the top of the box, and then pull together the pieces inside to create the image.  Unfortunately, spreadsheets and tables force a chronological and siloed process that is inputs driven and not outcome focused.

 “Storytelling” is a big buzz phrase these days in the event space. It’s another framework to use for meetings. Think about who the protagonist would be, or how does the event build tension and then reveal  a solution. The esteemed writer, Kurt Vonnegut, put forth a series of visualizations in his Master’s thesis that captured the essence of the most common story arcs. This is a terrific brainstorming resource to use to re-imagine a live event. They’re worth a quick search. Much of the other writings on this topic over-complicate the effort.

And finally, the budget. Just one note, budgets always reflect history which creates an unintentional bias and crutch for decisions around events. Building budgets after creating a strategic framework allows event organizers to invest in what matters and stay true to their purpose. A great exercise to use is figuring out how to do something for less. Creativity, after all, is free. Getting the most out of a live event is exhilarating, and the result has the power to change lives. It’s time for everyone to take a fresh look at how the traditional model needs updating. The great paradox is that the simpler the design is, the bigger impact the event will have.

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