Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hello? McFly? Your Meeting Should NOT Be A Time Machine

My butt was in a chair in a hotel ball room waiting for the program to begin.  I was questioning why I woke up early to attend.  The agenda was 7:00 AM registration followed by 7:30 welcome and sponsor recognition.  The speaker would go from 7:40 until 8:30, and then the race to get out of the parking garage would begin.  The vibe of the room was stale.  Some might argue the early hour was the cause for the "blah" feeling, but it was more than the need for coffee.

As soon as people arrived they were ushered into a room and immediately sat at tables.  There was not really any networking taking place, even though it was on the schedule.  It was dull, and there had been no thought by the hosts to do anything to encourage an atmosphere for connections.  The room was awkward.  The two men next to me, who worked for the same bank, never spoke to anyone but each other.  I tried once to engage them, but they were talking intently about something or other.

Once the program started the host spent too much time praising the sponsors and making them stand.  The two bank employees to my right did not even smile when they did a half stand and wave.  Why had their company spent money to sponsor?   These two gentlemen had no clue.  Well, their name was said from the stage, but I am not sure most people could remember who the sponsors were.

Another sponsor was allowed to come to the microphone to say a few words.  She went on for ten minutes reading prepared and boring remarks (AKA: a commercial for her organization that resonated with nobody) while the MC stood about three feet away unable to make it stop.

Then the speaker was introduced.  She started with a canned joke followed by 15 minutes about herself, her career, and all the famous people she has met.  It must be nice to have shared the stage with Colin Powell, but I am pretty sure that his bio does not mention her when he speaks!

She later remarked using 1/3 of her time to tell her personal story was building "rapport", but it was really a one-woman show.  She had the stage presence to do Broadway, and told jokes like a comedian, but her style was very much like Zig Ziglar circa 1991.  While it is not a good idea to move straight to the content, she was very "old-school" in her presentation style (this has nothing to do with age, as Brian Tracy is in his 70s and is a perfect example of engaging "with" an audience, not speaking "to" an audience).

The whole program was a time warp.  The stage set up with the risers, podium and flags could have been at any meeting in the last 100 years.  There were stacks of brochures from the sponsors on every chair.  The hotel served a plated breakfast of bacon, sausage, eggs and hash-browned potatoes (oh yes, I saw the horror in the servers eye when I asked for a vegan option).  There was no part of the experience that would could not have been delivered in 1984 (except for the part about putting your cell phones away.  FYI- my belief is that if a speaker cannot keep the audience engaged, then people should be free to text and tweet all day long).

The speaker's twenty-one nuggets of information were useful, but by the time she hit number sixteen I just wanted them all to be over.  She had a flip chart with her name written in black Marks-a-Lot on the stage, but other than reminding the audience of her name for an hour, it brought no value (actually I was glad she did not start flipping paper pages!).  Even her topic had not been updated to address the changes in technology.  Her message held strong, but it appeared she had never attempted to incorporate all the tools we use in today's business world.

All this being said, the audience liked her a lot. They laughed at her jokes, seemed to understand the meat in the message, and nobody could miss her strong energy levels.  However it is my belief that she allowed her "Shtick" to dominate over content.  I write a lot about the need for style and experience for a speaker (not just content), but there must be balance.  She had both, but I do not recall her message because of her comedy club routine is all I remember.

Organizing a meeting is like art and architecture.  The appreciation one has for the event is subjective and over time the popular styles change.  Where one person sees a great work of art or a beautiful building, somebody else sees an eye sore.  This does not mean that yesterday's styles are bad, or cannot be used and enjoyed in the modern world.  It is just that if someone builds an Art Deco building in 2011 they need to acknowledge the  retro style.... and include modern amenities.

Closing with an old canned joke was what put it over the top for me.  I felt like when she hit the punch-line there was going to be a drumroll/rimshot and a voice proclaiming "Ba-Da-Bing... She is here all week!".

I know, I know.  I am too critical. If the audience liked the event, then that should be enough (and people did seem happy).  Or is it?  In a world with so many choices on where to invest our time, meetings that just stepped out of Dr. Emmett Brown's DeLorean cannot compete.

The best meeting planners are asking "why?" to everything they do with their meetings.  They are also asking "why not?" to every new idea.  These people are challenging all who fear change.  Simply doing things "same old/same old" is no longer acceptable.  Rethinking how to engage an audience long before the keynote speaker takes the stage is paramount to success.  Where you place the stage matters.  The food served has an impact.  Who introduces the speaker and what is said sets the tone.  Good technical scores are not enough.  What is the overall vibe?  It is hard to pin down, as most people say "wow" after a speech, even if they mean "it was okay" (as a speaker I am cautious of believing too much of what I hear about my own program!).  The post event survey can never tell the whole story.

Some who have seen me speak do not enjoy my style either, so I know that one who lives in a glass house should not throw rocks (note, I did not name the speaker or the organization that hosted the event, as there is no benefit to anyone to add that piece of information or attack anyone personally).  I mentioned before that a speaker is like an artist or architect, and thus we cannot blame the ills of a meeting of the style of the speaker.  But all of us in and around the Meetings Industry should always be reviewing, questioning and brainstorming how to shake things up (in a good way).  I try to review more than just the superficial parts of meetings, and seek out the ones where I can really have an experience that lasts past the parking lot exit gates.

The more people who ask "why" and why not" to the status quo of meetings, the more exciting changes will occur.  Organizers, vendors, speakers, and attendees are all on the same side and should regularly and openly discuss what is working and not working in the world of events.

Have A Great Day.

thom singer


Retirepreneur said...

You had me at McFly!

I tend to scan the first 1-2 paragraphs of blog posts and if I'm not intrigued, I bail. You had me nodding in agreement from start to finish.

Agree with you that we need to have more WHY & WHY NOT conversations - event organizers, vendors, speakers, attendees, etc.

Unfortunately, in today's world, this kind of dialogue tends to go to extremes -- either bashing or polite silence. Here's to more candid and constructive conversations that help us create something better.

Adrian Segar said...

Thom, a great post about an experience that is unfortunately all too common.

I think we need to rethink the whole idea of filling our meetings with "presenters". I run workshops on participation techniques you can use to improve learning, increase connections, and transform conference sessions, but I am still contacted all the time by organizers looking for a "presentation" from me.

Although we've known for a long time that people learn much better when they're participating in their learning rather than sitting and listening, we still drop back to the default mode of hiring speakers to provide old-style broadcast learning.

Not only is it hard to get people to even consider more effective ways to use conference session time, most people don't know how to create these kind of learning environments. Once they're exposed to them, the majority of participants see the value, but progress in changing our culture of traditional conference format remains slow

I, and a growing number of others, continue to work to make this change of perspective more popular.