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July 28, 2009

Jez Paxman:Businesses are losing a powerful channel… when they need it most

The strategic director of Live Union picks up on Paul Cowan of FITCHLive’s recent opinion piece on engaging audiences, suggesting most internal events fall down on their content, and are therefore not fulfilling their full potential to excite, communicate and motivate.

The live events sector is booming. That’s not a sentence you’ve read recently on EVENTS:review.

From public art to theatre bookings, festivals and reformatted TV shows like Britain’s Got Talent Live, never before have consumers expressed such a strong desire for what Simon Jenkin’s refers to as ‘the magnetism of human congregation’.

Sociologists and cleverer people than me can tell you why this is, but what I do know is that this explosion in ‘live’ isn’t reflected in the world of corporate communications.

At a time when businesses are going through seismic changes, they’ve chosen to cut what is supposed to be the most powerful way of communicating with employees – face-to-face. The fact is that, more than ever before, internal events are being forced to demonstrate their value, and for many companies the figures don’t add up.

The proof is in the content
The reason for this is found in one simple little word: content.

All too often the focus in organising internal events is on venue finding, catering, staging and peripherals like the dreaded corporate gift, and not on the reason for holding the event – communicating information in the most compelling way possible.

Paul Cowan of FITCHLive recently wrote a great piece on EVENTS:review outlining the disconnect that has occurred between corporate communicators and their audience, and suggesting some innovative solutions.

Engaging corporates
In the non-corporate world, conferences, talks, lectures and readings are more popular than ever, and new spoken word formats and organisations are popping up all the time.

Speaking tours have become a vital income stream for authors and journalists, and tickets to the TED talks are changing hands for tens of thousands of pounds on eBay.

So, building on Paul’s article, what else can we learn from the success of these events? How can we reframe live internal communications to engage audiences who, as consumers, are showing such hunger for face-to-face experiences?

These ideas won’t be right for all businesses and some are deliberately provocative.

Limit spaces
Often employees are forced to turn up to internal conferences, or at least it will reflect badly on them if they don’t show their face. This, of course, is a pretty poor mindset for your audience to have. Why not focus resources on creating a smaller event with content so compelling that people are desperate to be there?

Clothing brand Howies runs an annual customer event on a farm in the Welsh hills called the Do Lectures. Last year, tickets were allocated to the people who wrote the most compelling letter as to why they deserved to be there. Imagine if you could achieve this with your staff!

Challenge people to demonstrate why they should be one of the lucky ones to be invited, and use digital channels to communicate the event to people who can’t be there on the day.

Fling out the frills
In today’s marketplace employees don’t want to see money being wasted on unnecessary extras. Events need to be pragmatic, with resources focused on creating the best possible content. So ditch the goody bags and focus on developing a compelling narrative capable of achieving lasting change.

Live Union recently created 8x8 London, an event designed to engage an audience of young designers with the Quark desktop publishing software brand. The format saw eight well-known designers given just eight minutes each to communicate their inspiration. By focusing resources on creating an innovative format and finding the best possible speakers, rather than worrying about a flash set, we were able to craft an event that resonated across the design community.

Learn from Steve Jobs
Apple’s founder understands the power of a live event, his keynote addresses attract global audiences. What Jobs is brilliant at is focusing on what the audience need to hear, not on what he wants to say. He isn’t a naturally gifted orator. The secret of his success is in hard work and extensive rehearsal.

The truth is that, all too often, internal events don’t deliver because the senior executives presenting don’t put in the necessary effort.

There’s a great book called The Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel. It tells you all you need to know about creating persuasive presentations. It uses examples as wide ranging as OJ Simpson’s defence, Britain’s winning Olympic bid and Winston Churchill’s Fight them on the Beaches speech. If you’re giving someone the stage, you should also give them a copy of this book.

Given my role within Live Union, it might seem obvious that I’d focus on the content and format of events, but I strongly believe that businesses are losing a powerful channel – for all the wrong reasons – at a time when employees need it most.

By drawing on wider influences and concentrating firmly on the content we can reframe internal events to meet the huge challenges of today’s business environment.

Jez Paxman is strategic director at experiential marketing agency Live Union

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