The Challenge of Change
Sometimes change happens so fast we don’t recognize it. We don’t think twice about instinctively touching icons on our smartphones until we find ourselves trying to do it on our laptops. The same thing has happened with meetings. While we debate whether attendees are ready for social media messages or real time exchanges with speakers, these practices have crept in to our events with or without our invitation. The scope of meetings has grown, even when the attendee list or timeline is shorter. Tim Sanders, a “people-centric” business expert, says, “The only reason to have an event is to change the world.” Think about it. Hasn’t that idea edged into our subconscious and the language of meetings, much like the slide into touch screen technology?
We’ve shifted from talking about logistics to meetings architecture or design. We are now confident that meetings make a difference, to local and global economies, to workers and executives. We promise innovation. We seek influencers or cultural architects rather than simply speakers. We talk about engagement through social media, immersive learning, creative experiences and authenticity.
Still, the heavy lifting, the difficult aspect of change, smacks most of us in the face every time we begin the planning steps that lead to the next meeting: the will to make a conscious effort to implement change and then follow through on its execution. Plans and resources (education, equipment, training, testing, time, etc.) are necessary for deployment, but the first step before anything happens is acceptance—acceptance that we need to push or prepare for change.
Inside and outside the industry, there are creative pioneers who urge us to embrace social media, look for inspiration from the culture at large, think about content delivery as performance art and get more visual with presentation. Scott Klososky asks us to think how Cirque de Soliel would deliver a business talk; to think about how they changed the delivery of a circus. “We need the same change in the experience of content delivery at events,” he says. Jeff Hurt wants us to start planning for screens and stop planning for platforms. “It’s time for you to adopt this 21st century technology and prepare for screening,” he preaches. “We are fast becoming people of the screen.”
Our industry has its rebels. Joan Eisenstodt, a well-respected educator and consultant, has long challenged meeting planners and facility managers to consider the different learning styles, needs and safety of attendees when designing room spaces. She finds most meetings boring and is not shy about calling out colleagues to join her efforts to shake up the status quo. Then there’s Keith Johnston who aggressively delivers sharp criticism and insightful ideas.
Most industry thought leaders point to TED and other social and information exchange conferences as evidence that people are the greatest event resource—not the over-the-top ballroom, the top chef menu, the big-name speaker or the most popular seminar presenters. We need to enlist our attendees as partners and participants by tapping into their ideas, enthusiasm, experience, networking contacts, problem-solving skills, money and muscle.
Below, those pioneers mentioned above and others with relevant expertise open up about what changes they think are essential now. We asked them to answer a simple question: What one thing would you change about meetings? Their answers should inspire you.
Rebel and Pioneer
Meetings are not inventive. In most cases, they look, feel and are delivered as they always have been. I, for one, get bored at most meetings. Given the opportunity to change anything now and for the future, I’d wave my magic wand and:
Make it all more visual—art on walls, sculpture in hallways, places to create art for the spontaneity of creating and using the right side of our brains. Why are meeting spaces so boring? Invest in community and have community artists. Even have items for sale for people who want a bit of the local flavor.
Add water and light in places that allow participants to relax. This means redesign of the traditional buildings we use for hotels. Use music, appropriate and thoughtful, designed to stimulate thinking and relaxation.
Play: It’s the ability to use different parts of our bodies and brains, and to incorporate creativity differently into what we do. If a game of golf at a meeting is OK, then different play can be and it can be created to accommodate all.
Create seating that’s not too low or too high and in places convenient for conversations that bubble up when people gather.
Encourage intentionally created community and spontaneously created community encouraged by the venue and organizers, who may be the community themselves. We’ve seen it happen with Tweetups. We’ll see it continue to happen and we’ll broaden the access to anyone without prejudice or membership.
Provide more resources outside the usual—that is, access to different thinking and the people who do it. This is an easy one. In every venue and virtually, there are people who are subject experts or subject-knowledgeable who want to share ideas.
Include reflection time without overcrowded agendas. No one needs that “one more” session or speaker no matter who they are. Having time to reflect, alone or with others, allows us to regroup after filling our heads.
Offer experiences as part of the meeting that are designed to fill our heads differently. For example, I’d like to have an art tour at the D.C. convention center or at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia if I’m in those buildings for other purposes.
And for a start—because my magic wand is not that powerful—I’d immediately add audience-centric room sets a la Paul Radde. Why, after all these years, are we still seated in the same bad chairs in the same straight rows at the same draped tables? Let’s move stuff around and open it up. Let’s have spaces that allow participants to move and flex and write and talk and listen and learn. I’d add awareness about those who attend meetings and their needs, and not because it’s PC, but because it is empathetic and appropriate. We’re all different and we learn from each other. If we feel—if we are—included, we can fully participate and everyone gains. I’d add comfort, defined however each of us wants to define it. My comfort includes availability of appropriate seating, foods and beverages available throughout the day, adequate restrooms that are near the space used, lighting that allows me to see, sound that allows me to hear, and signs and badges that are the right size to read.
What would I kick to the curb and flush down the toilet? I have to be honest, there are so many things I would change it took me the better part of a week to come up with an answer, but I looked into the abyss and came up with one thing that we all suffer from in the meetings industry. The one thing that holds us back as a community. The one thing we must change. Fear. As an industry, we need to abandon our fear of anything and everything.
Fear is paralyzing. Fear is overwhelming and fear has brought down civilizations and I fear (pun intended) that fear is slowly eating away at our industry and making our skills and services nothing more than a commodity that can be done by a trained monkey or an online meeting planning program. Our services used to be special; our services used to be desired and considered essential. However, through our fear of losing that position, we have painted ourselves into a corner.
Our fear takes many shapes. We are afraid of budgets. We are afraid of what the boss thinks. We are afraid of the attendee reaction and we are afraid of our own shadows. Because of this, we are producing meetings that are the same year after year after year because we will only do what has worked in the past. We will only do what is the tried and true. We will no longer take risks and make stakeholders and attendees understand why our talents are necessary.
There is no desire to shake things up because we make a mistake, choose something that one person does not like or have a session that is a bomb. The heavens will tumble if we have one attendee who is unhappy; we fail to realize that is actually what we need to be doing.
Instead of recognizing that it is fear holding us back as an industry, we make excuses. We cannot try Pecha Kucha for our session because our speakers are not prepared for that. We cannot engage through social media—our attendees are not ready for that. We cannot have sponsored lanyards; it would upset the other sponsors. We cannot go from four days to three because it has always been four and it would confuse the attendees. These are all excuses that I hear from the meetings and events community everyday. The true reason is fear—fear of change. Meeting and event planners need to abandon fear and let go. We, as an industry, need to take the time to learn and grow and not make excuses. Stop being afraid to fail.
I was thrilled to hear Bill Buxton of Microsoft talking about ideas and innovation on NPR’s morning show. It reinforced my own experience with ideas, creativity and problem solving. And it reminded me of a phrase I use during my keynote presentations: “Date, but don’t marry your ideas.”
In the interview, Buxton talked about ideas, lots of them—how we tend to get attached to one idea and pursue it even when it might not be the best idea. Part of the creative process is coming up with lots of ideas, turning them over, sharing them, discarding them and coming up with more ideas.
As a professional songwriter, I’m used to trying out new ideas almost every day. I’ve learned that some ideas turn out to be terrific and grow into real things, like hit songs. I’ve also learned some ideas are not so great, and it’s best to get rid of them and move on to the next brainstorming session.
The term “strategic event marketer” is common in the events industry, yet some planners remain hesitant to embrace a strategic event planning process. Acting as a strategist does not require one to understand or recite the corporate go-to-market plans or financial earnings. Rather, it is about understanding the event objectives and developing innovative tactics to create memorable attendee experiences.
If there is one thing I could change within the events industry, I would challenge all planners to become strategists and focus their attention on the attendee engagement versus merely logistics.
Storytelling is the concept of developing an event around one common message, a storyline, and ensuring every element supporting the event connects the dots back to the main storyline. Whether you are planning a conference, product launch or board-of-director’s luncheon, the gathering should tell a story. When the attendees can recite the storyline upon the leaving the gathering, you know you have successfully relayed your strategic message. The key to storytelling is being consistent in the delivery. When executed effectively, the storyline should become intuitively obvious and, to double the punch, the attendees should feel inspired by the message.
Storytelling creates a huge opportunity for event strategists to cultivate longevity in the conference objectives and messaging. While the story is unveiled at the event, it can act as the foundation for post-event communications throughout the year.
In addition to storytelling, planners can also act as strategists by leveraging technology throughout their events. The event technology landscape is vast and the options, features and usage can be overwhelming. However, as planners we cannot allow ourselves to become paralyzed by the immensity of it, but rather see it as an opportunity to customize our specific event. When evaluating how and what technology to incorporate into an event, the handy storytelling strategy can act as a useful tool. Determine how the technology can help tell your story and connect the dots back to one common event message.
A good event strategist is the heartbeat of a memorable event, and every planning decision should be leveraged to inspire attendees and further the conference story. We need to challenge ourselves daily to act as strategists and implement new conference planning technologies.
Social. It’s a word that strikes fear in some and excites others. Today it seems that everything is social. From social media to social networking to social technology to social business, the trend is all things social. It’s the new black. So what is the social conference?
Does it mean adding more social media efforts to our event marketing? Is it allowing people to use social networks to communicate with speakers during the event? Is it integrating face-to-face audiences with live streaming remote audiences?
For me, one of the most critical things a conference organizer can do to appeal to our increasingly sophisticated audience is to design experiences that are more engaging, participatory and social. People are not coming to your conference for the content. They can get that online. They are coming for the conference experience. So make it social and less independent.
Humans are essentially social beings. Our meetings and events are complex social experiences. And our conference experiences have the power to alter our attendees’ minds. When we require our attendees to sit passively and quietly in rows with little or no social interaction, we work against the brain’s natural social systems. We rob attendees of the chance to engage, interact and learn. We create social isolation in the midst of a crowd. In short, we are treating our attendees like robots trying to download data from the speaker into their hard drives: the brain. We think that if our attendees hear the information, they automatically learn it.
In traditional conferences, an expert stands at the front of the room and lectures to an audience that sits passively listening. It’s a one-way monologue. Research is clear that this conventional conference design is directly opposed to how our brains learn. Conference organizers need to work hard at making a shift from long-established one-way, vertical presentations to more multi-directional education experiences.
Our traditional vertical, one-directional conference experience from the speaker to the audience needs to shift. We need to create multi-directional, horizontal experiences where attendees are invited to talk to each other, talk about the content, talk with the speaker and engage in active learning with one other. This means fewer speaker monologues and more attendee dialogues.
In short, we need more structured and facilitated conversations to create a compelling, irresistible social conference experience that continues to attract today’s sophisticated audiences.
The primary reason most people attend conferences is the educational content. So why is it so many sessions are disappointing? Why are the most fundamental aspects of content development so hard when the premise is so simple? The answer is easy: Too much focus is placed on the subject matter and basic principles of engagement are forgotten.
You need to create a buzz; the content needs to be in line with the buzz. The delivery needs to be engaging and interactive. The presenter needs to tell a story that connects emotionally. The material needs to be user-friendly and distributed online for various audiences.
Keeping content engaging can be difficult since the demographics of an audience can be so diverse, ranging from Baby Boomers to Gen-Xers to Millennials. Keeping the content delivery conducive to the make-up of the audience is important. Today’s presenter must engage the audience by making the session interactive, either by soliciting participation or by breaking the audience into groups to discuss the content.
The format is crucial as well. Too many presenters still make the mistake of using PowerPoint as the crux of their presentations, reading directly off the slides rather than using them as a guide. Weaving storytelling into the presentation engages the audience on an emotional and personal level. People remember good stories, especially when compelling and thought-provoking.
Conference materials should be accessible in a format that is user-friendly. If the conference content is placed online in different formats and levels of detail, it will appeal to at least three different audiences: Participants who attended the conference; prospective attendees; and sponsors who can associate their brand with a site that reaches a wider audience over a period of several weeks or months.
Since many organizations are cutting back on the number of people sent to a conference, it is crucial to ensure the content is on point. Attendees and their decision makers are demanding a higher, more tangible return on their investment. The goal is for the attendee to bring back information that can be shared with the rest of the team.
Way Outside Any Box
Sid Lee, a creative services firm based in Montreal, has a knack for making the best of physical spaces, among other things. Its free-form, free-spirited headquarters office is an incubator for creative ideas and features an open plan that can be reconfigured every few months. Lots of blackboard space encourages doodling.
Founded in 1993, the agency has offices in Amsterdam, Paris, Toronto and Austin, Texas, and employs 450 workers from backgrounds as diverse as architecture, industrial design, interactive design, graphic arts and video production. The company has an international reputation for creating and communicating brand experiences—developing products, services and spaces, and marketing them through advertising, experiential marketing, branded content and interactive communications. It’s almost easier to say what the company doesn’t do than what it does do.
Their fanzine “Fleeting Seating,” subtitled the “Slightly Uncomfortable Chair Collection,” is a design project and solution for more efficient meetings. It is half a joke, half serious, says Louis-Thomas Pelletier, co-creative director for Sid Lee. “It’s an artistic statement,” he explains. “We’re advertising that there are too many meetings and they’re too long. People want to move around, stand up, walk.”
When asked about how the project’s message might carry over to meetings, Pelletier offers his views on space and how we use it. “What I believe is that we need three sorts of spaces. First, a personal bubble where we can work on our computer, write, not be disturbed, put our stuff. It doesn’t have to be big. Second, we need places to meet. As much as I like to avoid meetings, they’re a necessary evil. They need to be flexible. They’re often too small or too big. Third, we need an inspiring environment—something wide open, not decorated with stuff. We need to put what we do on the walls…creative stuff.
“I’ve been to an unconference, which encouraged people to go from one event to another. It’s a step in the right direction, but so improvised it’s hard to know what the conferences are about. I don’t want to offend anyone but I think they need to be shorter, more prepared and have more focus.”
He’s got a point, literally and philosophically.
“The Challenge of Change” is the first story in our Rethinking Meetings series. In future issues, we’ll explore change as it affects the design of conference centers and hotels; seating and setups; meeting programs and production; career planning and education; and every other aspect of what we do in connection with meetings. We invite you to think about how you can use these ideas, discuss them with your teams and organizations, and share your insights with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.