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April 16, 2008
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CONFERENCES 1:Maximising engagement




Whether you’re presenting your new corporate vision and values to your workforce, talking on behalf of your company at a key industry seminar programme or revealing your latest product information to your distributors or a targeted group of key customers, if you fail to engage your audience effectively you are not maximising the potential of your conference. This, of course, will not only hit the return on investment of your spend on the event, but also weaken the initial aim of holding it in the first place. Even worse, it could harm your corporate image either internally or externally.

“If you fail to engage your audience, you may as well have not invited them and delivered your dazzling message to an empty conference hall,” says Benjamin Hunt, business development director at live marketing agency Archer Young. “This may result in some really cool echo acoustics, but it won't do your career – or your company – any good. A conference is your opportunity to communicate face-to-face with your audience. You have just a few hours to tell them your ideas, report your progress, sell to them, ask their opinions and agree a way forward. You may not have another chance like this for a whole year, so it is essential to get it right.”

So what factors decide the on the level of engagement necessary and what are the best techniques?

“Much will depend on what the conference message is,” Hunt replies. “What do you hope to achieve by holding this event in the first place? If you're using the event in order to get input from your audience, then a straightforward technique like prompting them to think about the issues for discussion ahead of the event will be very effective.”

A different approach
Why not start by thinking about the overall style and layout of the conference and designing it to suit the message and content?

“Set the room up so that it encourages dialogue between speakers and delegates as much as possible,” says Pat Crimp, head of events, sponsorship and business tourism at Visit Wales. “Some conference organisers set up a ‘meet the speaker area’ at break times where audience members get the opportunity to ask questions on a one-to-one level or as part of a smaller group.”

Meanwhile, Alex Webb, specialist events director at experiential marketing agency RPM, reckons the days of theatre-style auditoriums for conferences are numbered. “Something as simple as seating encourages more involvement,” he says. “Even spending extended time in one room can be trying. A solution is to break delegates into smaller rooms or make ensure the content being delivered is compelling to watch.”

Pump up the presentation

But, of course, the real key to a delivering a memorable event is the actual presentation.

“Move beyond bullet points and one-way communication,” says Alex Goudge, marketing manager of Hitachi Interactive Solutions. “Engage the audience by asking for their input, use imagery – both static and moving – use sound and colour. If you were presenting to a group of teenagers in a school, you wouldn’t expect them to sit for an hour reading bullet points – they would get bored and start misbehaving. While businesspeople are far more polite, the rules of engagement are similar – stimulate their senses and they will listen to what you have to say and be more willing to contribute themselves.”

And just as Webb consigned theatre-style auditoriums to the dustbin, Nigel Scott, creative director of live marketing agency Out of the Blue does the same to Powerpoint.

“The biggest worry about any conference is death by Powerpoint,” he says. “Any good conference will do its utmost to avoid this at all costs. Yes, presenters need a basic visual guide for their presentation but this need not always be a powerpoint document.”

Scott suggests numerous ways in which this can be achieved, such as:
• Animation (cartoons or flash)
• Actors
• Video mood reel
• Performance artists
• Interactive key pads
• Breakout sessions
• Q&A sessions

“But beware,” he warns, “it is also easy to over-entertain and lose the message.”

So, basically, don’t overdo it. “Your communication should be tailored to your audience. How old are they? What is the culture of the group? What are their expectations of the event and how do you want them to feel afterwards?” says Archer Young’s Hunt.

Make your conference as interesting, exciting, interactive and entertaining as possible so as to enrapture your audience. As with all live marketing, the aim should be to create an experience. But make sure the techniques you use are appropriate for your delegates and enhance your message rather than overpower it.

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