Lights! Camera! Conference!

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This articles originally appeared 

in Virgin Australia Voyager. 

 

 

Conferencing: a curtain-raiser

Organising a work conference is a bit like putting on a musical. Here’s how you can pull it off, just like they do on the West End. Break a leg.

WORDS NICHOLA CLARK ILLUSTRATIONS ADAM JAMES TURNBALL

conf1We have all been to a ‘Fawlty Towers’ conference at least once in our lives. We have stood lost, hanging onto a soggy sandwich and a creosote coffee with a smeared name tag worn vulnerably upon our chest. All the while, squirm-inducing comedic mishaps unfold around us. Like sheep blindfolded on an obstacle course, we have stumbled through the proceedings and witnessed unfunny speakers fumble incoherently through tangled webs of Powerpoint presentations.

But conferences, with their dramatic large settings and generous budgets, can come together like a West End musical when expertly orchestrated. Like a theatrical production, with the right combination of director (CEO or stakeholder), producer (strategist), casting (speakers), and behind-the-scenes and front-of-house support (professional conference organiser, or PCO), it can work. With expert, methodical planning, the hundreds of components of a conference can move together in beautiful, mechanical harmony. The director’s or CEO’s vision can be brought to life and translated to the audience (delegates) in a more powerful and effective way than any other medium.

Like a theatre production, each conference is utterly unique in its purpose, message, desired outcomes and audience. It may be industry or trade-led; a business or corporate conference; a political meeting of minds; or one of the most exciting gatherings in the world, such as TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences – the phenomenon that has gen Yers fighting in the office over tickets and makes Pink’s concerts look drab in comparison.

But if you’re choosing to produce your own business or corporate conference – whether you’re launching a new state-of-the-art product to clients, briefing staff at the annual sales conference or inviting the medical world to your pharmaceutical company’s doorstep to help combat heart disease – no matter how different they are in purpose, they all have something in common. Events tend to be very expensive, require an enormous amount of effort to coordinate, are very time-consuming for executives and staff, and everyone needs to get it right.

Here are some thoughts and guidance from some of the ‘hall of fame’ players who make it their business to make your conference a success.

 

THE CEO OR STAKEHOLDER (THEATRICAL DIRECTOR)

conf2The CEO or stakeholder, like the director of a West End musical, creates the vision. Their experience, charisma and message should shape the whole production. The main stakeholder, whether it’s the CEO, chairman or committee, has a role that is paramount to the success of the conference. Tony Bonney, managing director of Sydney-based events company Podium, says the CEO needs to work out and clearly define the purpose and desired outcome of the conference. They also need to get personally involved. “Seventy to 80 per cent of a business’s culture stems from leadership, so the leader needs to be personally involved and conscious of their impact on the event,” Bonney says.
“It’s like building a house to an architect’s plans,” he adds. “It guides you in making the lots of small decisions along the way to realise the vision. With a conference you need a tightly defined purpose and outcome to guide you, as a lot of small decisions cumulatively made in the wrong way can take you somewhere you don’t want to be.”

Each CEO or stakeholder is going to see their role differently during the conference and it will vary according to the company and what it wants to get out of the conference. But Bonney says to remember that: “The CEO is your big gun and you really need to work out the appropriate times to fire it.” Doggedly using the CEO in the traditional positions of opening and closing the conference, he warns, may not always be the best time. “Sometimes the biggest impact moments come from the least expected person telling the most extraordinary story. It’s the strategist’s role to help the CEO find these other voices and balance them with theirs.”

After the event it’s important for the CEO to continue to make sure the purpose and desired outcomes of the conference are developed into a program and carried through. “Ongoing engagement is key,” says Bonney. “It is pointless for everyone to come back to the office post-event and feel fantastic for a week and then forget about it. The strategist needs to support the CEO in enabling the ideas of the conference and the outcomes the CEO wished to create; linking this event to the next in a measurable way and extending the value of the activity along with it.”

THE STRATEGIST (PRODUCER OR ASSISTANT DIRECTOR)

conf3Like The producer or assistant director in a musical production, the strategist is the CEO’s (or stakeholder’s) right-hand person. The strategist needs to completely understand what the CEO wants to say through the conference in terms of the purpose, message and outcome required, and then enable that vision to become a reality – before, during and after the event.

According to Bonney, one of the key objectives as a strategist is to work with the CEO to learn about the true character of the business. “You want to establish what the company is really strong at and what the motivations are for the employees or customers for being engaged with the business – why they want to be there and why they want to participate. You then make the conference play to those strengths.”

Like inviting someone to your house for dinner, you want attendees to feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed while still naturally expressing who you are. If the feeling of engagement at an event is as natural as possible then better trust and a better relationship can be built, and the communication process if free to work.

From the outset, the strategist needs to be thinking about how to apply the business’s natural character and the CEO’s vision through the delegate’s experience, from the invitation through to the departure from the event. This includes how each person’s needs are considered at the conference as well as how the delegates are connected to each other. “The strategist needs to think about the cumulative impact of the communication at every touch point to work out whether they are actually achieving the purpose or not, or even harming it through a particular decision or action. Every step needs to be considered.”

THE PROFESSIONAL CONFERENCE ORGANISER (FRONT-OF-HOUSE AND BEHIND-THE-SCENES CREW)

conf4With nerves of steel and a never-say-die attitude, the professional conference organiser (PCO) needs to be the ultimate planner and multi-tasker. They have the most direct contact with the delegates and are responsible for the extremely taxing logistical delivery of the event – the culmination of thousands of small decisions.

In a musical production, the PCO would be both front of house and behind the scenes. They would be busy promoting and selling tickets; waiting with a smile to greet the theatregoers; and frantically managing stage direction behind the scenes.

Kate Smith, MD of Waldron Smith Management, explains that the main role of the PCO is to work alongside the client contributing conference-management expertise and skills to successfully achieve their objectives. “This encompasses all elements of the event,” she says. “Overall project management, marketing, communications, financial management, venue and logistics, sourcing and delivering sponsorship and exhibition, social events, entertainment, travel and accommodation.”

To achieve a seamless event, Smith says, “You need absolute attention to detail, considering all the ‘what ifs?’, You also need to bring quality suppliers to the table who understand the nature of the client’s needs and manage this team to achieve the outcomes.”

Every element needs to be planned, organised and perfectly executed down to the absolute minute detail. For instance, catering plays a very important role in a successful conference and is one element that is carefully considered by PCOs. Julie Little of Fresh Catering makes sure the objective of the PCO and the style of meeting is incorporated into the choice of menu. She believes delicious food can make all the difference between a good conference and a great one.

It is this kind of detail and empathy for the delegates’ needs that Bonney says separates a good PCO from an exceptional one. “A PCO needs to be not only logistically excellent, but have a natural empathy for the personal experience of the delegate. It’s not just about being on time and efficient, but having the awareness to build in contingency that allows a delegate to be considered as an individual with their own needs. Time to rest. Time to think. Time to be alone. These are all just as important as the buses being on time.”

THE SPEAKER (LEADING MAN OR LADY)

conf5A leading man or woman has the ability to win over or lose an audience within minutes. But at a conference, the speaker’s profession is not usually being a speaker. American author and speaker Scott Berkun tells it straight: “Most speakers are awful.” Mind-numbing, unfunny, PowerPoint-delirious and not targeting the audience are just some of the pitfalls of the common public speaker that make the audience look for the exit.

“The most important thing a speaker needs to know is why the audience is there,” Berkun adds. “Most speakers worry too much about being funny or inspiring, but you can’t achieve those things in the abstract. Good speakers think carefully about what tasks the audience ate struggling to overcome, or problems they can’t solve. If a speaker addresses what is on the audience’s mind, and gives honest and useful answers to the four or five questions the audience came with, they’ll be loved.”

To make it memorable, Andrew Klein, presentation skills trainer and speaker, and director of Spike Presentations, says make it anecdotal. “Tell stories, don’t spit our facts. The worst conference presentations involve the presenter boring their audience with countless facts,” he says.

To make your presentation memorable, presentation-organising company Duarte suggests creating a Something They’ll Always Remember (STAR) moment: “Your objective as a speaker is to have people recall and spread your idea. By attaching your idea to an unforgettable moment, they will buzz about it afterward. To create a STAR moment you could tell an emotive anecdote, share startling statistics, display an evocative visual, create a memorable dramatisation or craft repeatable sound bites. There are great examples from TED talks: in 2009 Bill Gates gave a talk about malaria and released mosquitoes into the audience as he did so. In 2010 chef Jamie Oliver dumped a wheelbarrow full of sugar cubes out on the stage to show how much sugar a child consumes in one year by drinking chocolate milk.

As well as avoiding an overdose of PowerPoint, Klein emphasises the importance of keeping it simple. “So many conference presentations bombard their audience with so much information that the audience is left wondering ‘what is the key message?’” he says. “Decide on your one overarching message and then three or so key messages. Ensure all other facts, figures and examples are connected to those key messages and repeat them several times throughout.”

As Bruno Giussani, TED’s European director and curator of the TEDGlobal conference, concludes: “Have a compelling, fresh, insightful, strong story. Be willing to share it with passion and generosity, without a hidden agenda, making yourself a bit vulnerable. And accept that sometimes talk is only a few minutes, rather than a 50-minute lecture – a shorter talk is not a lesser talk.”

ATTENDEES (AUDIENCE)

conf6In the same way every theatregoer is unique, every conference attendee has their own personal agenda. Your boss is also going to have expectations of you, so make sure that is communicated before you leave for the event.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all for how to get the best out of a conference, Jim Bob Howard, author of Conventional Wisdom: The Attendee’s Guide to Making the Most of Trade Shows, Conferences and Conventions, says it usually boils down to four key objectives: meeting people, getting business, learning something new and experiencing somewhere new. “Take advantage of the social offerings and make it easy to stay in touch,” Howard says. “Business cards are important, but there are some great mobile apps out there, which will help you exchange information via a digital handshake.” Twitter makes exchanging information and continuing conversations very easy, so display your Twitter handle prominently.

For most conference attendees, Howard says, business development is not the top priority. “Have an elevator pitch ready to share is the need arises,” Howard says. “But try to only share it when people ask. You’re building relationships, not shooting game.”

Learning something new, Howard believes, is usually the main stated reason for attending conventions, whether it’s improving a part of your daily how-to, complying with changing regulations, or implementing an innovative product. “Check the sessions before travelling so you can make a schedule of the ones you don’t want to miss,” he says. “Enter those sessions into your phone and set alerts (on vibrate) to remind you when to head to the next one.”

But be careful not to overextend yourself, take regular breaks and make the most of meeting people. An easy trick to starting conversations, Berkun suggests, is opening with a questions such as “What’s the best talk you’ve seen so far?’, which usually lets you reciprocate, forcing you to review what you’ve learned and what you remember. You can watch lectures online and read blogs, but what you can’t get elsewhere are new friends and colleagues. You can’t work on finding those if you’re sitting on your butt every waking minute listening to lectures,” he laughs. “If you’re bored in a session, it’s usually okay to leave and find another one, or even better, talk to the people who are bored too and are out in the hallway.”

Finally, if you’re lucky enough to be in a new city, don’t forget to explore. Says Howard: “Whether it’s taking in a show, enjoying natural beauty, or simply trying a local cuisine, make time to enjoy your destination.”


© Andrew Klein 2014