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June 3, 2007

CONFERENCES 2: Technology's power to engage

These days, more than ever, it’s vital to get the most out of any event you hold – and a conference is no exception. Your conference has been a success when the message you aim to deliver has been embraced by your delegates, be they employees, partners or potential customers. To do this, they need to be effectively engaged and many of the techniques for doing this rely heavily on technology.

“Technology can help to engage the audience by adding value and variation to your presentation,” says Alex Goudge, marketing manager of Hitachi Interactive Solutions. “Without technology, you are reliant on an audience listening to the presenter’s voice or reading what he/she writes on a flip chart. This is fine if it’s Bill Clinton or Michael Palin speaking, but not so easy if it’s a business executive, unknown to most of the audience.”

Before and during
Technology can be just as important in the run up to a conference as it can be during the event itself.

“Pre-event communication technology and on-site show production technologies give the event designer greater scope than ever before to engage an audience and deliver a strong message,” says Benjamin Hunt, business development director at live marketing agency Archer Young. “From animated html emails and sms text teasers beforehand, through to wireless key pads for voting and projection technology to immerse and amaze, the conference toolbox is fit to burst.”

Alex Webb, specialist events director at experiential marketing agency RPM, agrees, saying: “Technology can liven up content, particularly on screen. The Spider screen, for example, being used now is a vision-mixers dream! It allows the content to work a lot harder for you and, therefore, keep attention on the key messages being delivered. It can be used for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-style voting, which not only increases audience interaction, but also allows for immediate results on stage.”

Put on a display
Hitachi’s Goudge is particularly keen to signal the movement of the whiteboard from classroom to conference. “The ideal presentation uses technology as a tool to help deliver the information and encourage interactivity rather than relying on it,” he says. “Presenting on interactive whiteboards allows the presenter to pull in imagery and graphs to illustrate points.”

Hitachi also has software called Plug and Present, which lets you edit and add to a presentation while engaging with the audience.

“You can highlight particular points with an electronic pen,” explains Goudge. “This means you get all the benefits you would have from writing on a flip chart, but with the advantage of using high-quality imagery. Any additions from brainstorming sessions can be saved and sent to delegates afterwards. Interactive whiteboards allow much higher quality imagery to be used, including film clips. We’ve noticed that in a lot of industries – engineering and motoring for example – the whiteboards are a godsend. They allow you to present very complex information – for example car designs – and spotlight particular areas of the graphics for discussion. There’s no way you can do this with Powerpoint.”

Don’t overflex your muscles
Of course, with great power comes responsibility, as Spider-man was told, and showing off your technological might too much can damage your conference.

“It’s rather like driving a Porsche,” suggests Goudge. “The quality of the experience is far higher than using a paper flip chart (the equivalent to driving a rusty old banger). But you mustn’t become preoccupied with the vehicles gadgets or drive too fast, otherwise delegates will become disengaged and disinterested. Always be in charge of the technology rather than letting it control where your presentation goes.”

It won’t make up for poor content, either. “If the end goal is unclear or your message is without substance then any amount of expensive razzle-dazzle will be seen as just smoke and mirrors,” says Archer Young’s Hunt.

RPM’s Webb comes up with a good rule of thumb to make sure technology doesn’t blind delegates to the key message of a conference.

“Ultimately, a conference is about people talking to people,” he says. “There is always the threat of using technology to the point where it hinders communication, diluting key messages by lack of the actual human experience. A good way to safeguard against this is to ensure the audience is interacting with the technology rather than being ‘spoken to’ by it. Adopt an experiential methodology, with audience engagement always the overarching objective.”

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