Who’s minding the guests?

Painting of a mid-19th-century orater addressing a large crowd

George Caleb Bingham, “Stump Speaking, or, the County Canvass,” 1853-54

I recently attended a commercial luncheon event. It was an opportunity to learn more about the company and some of their key technology partners. Overall the event was informative and ran on time, but it didn’t always feel that way because there was no one specifically focused on keeping things on track and keeping the guests engaged. When there was a hiccup in the proceedings it was obvious, and you could see the audience disconnect and have to reconnect once problems were solved.

It didn’t have to be that way. A few things would have made all the difference. Here are a few things you can do to help avoid this for your next commercial event or meeting:

Line up your resources. Have a plan B.

The first issue was that there was no power for the projector. An extension cable was missing, which delayed the presenter’s ability to get his laptop configured in time. I had an extension cord in my truck because I always carry one for this sort of situation. However, there can always be gaps in the proceedings when something unexpected happens. It’s good to have some optional things that you can do while people deal with an issue and make a decision. Maybe you spend some time interacting with the audience, getting more information about them and their goals. Maybe you take this time to pass out some information rather than having it picked up on the table in the back. Perhaps you tell a story about something relevant to the event.

This preparation my never be used, but having it in your pocket means that lulls can be turned into productive time with your audience.

Give the audience a liaison

When it was time to begin a representative from the company thanked us for being there and introduced the first speaker. Then he went to the back of the room and did not say another word until the end. This left the presenter to keep the attention of the audience. When he was struggling with getting his screen to come up on the projector it just left dead time. Ideally, the one who made the opening statements would stay available and step in at any sign of trouble, covering the time with relevant audience interaction.

In this case the presenters were left on their own. They were all pros and it worked OK, but it would have been much more effective if someone was at the ready to keep from having any dead time. The audience wants a single focal point, a host, to be their liaison with everything that happens.

Energy and flow

Something that many people don’t consider in such events is managing the flow of energy. In theatrical presentations there is a flow between high energy points, exciting moments that stick in the mind, and lower energy moments, valleys in the action that give the mind a chance to process the details.

Different presentations may require the audience to be in a different mode to get the most from them. Should the audience be energetic and excited, ready to applaud this amazing demo? Should the they be more contemplative and thinking deeply about their own environment and problems so they can ask relevant questions? The MC for the event can help guide this energy and prepare the audience perfectly for what they are about to experience. Your sign that this is not happening is that stony silence when it’s time for questions. The audience is not really engaged. They are passively witnessing.

Proper management of this energy has people engaged and participating. There should be applause for speakers. There should be engagement with members of the audience to let them know this is not a spectator sport. The results will be a more dynamic audience who responds to the speakers.

Will there be food?

Food is a draw. This event offered a free lunch, which is very enticing! Make sure, though, that the food is part of the plan. Have a streamlined ordering system that makes it easy for participants to order their food. A sheet, numbered with their seat, where they can check off choices can makes this process very easy. Don’t forget to include all the choices. Is there a choice of beans? salad dressings? Have them all on there so that people who don’t have special needs can just check off the sheet and set it aside.

Plan a moment to get the orders in. Let people know exactly when to expect their food. The anticipation of food combined with  uncertainty can be very distracting.  Make food a natural part of the proceedings and not an interruption.

Also, bear in mind that directly after eating the mind can be a little sluggish while the body is engaged in digestion. This is a good time to show a demo or something that is interesting but does not require deep thought or participation. Give them a few minutes to settle before brining the energy and the interaction back up.

Final thoughts

I recognize that doing events like this can be very challenging. I’ve spent years as an entertainer, corporate presenter and trainer. There are always new challenges with different venues, different combinations of presenters and different technology requirements. (There was a time when no one would expect to have Internet access to do their demo.) Here are the steps I use to help insure success:

  1. Have clear goals for your event and make sure that every activity points toward those goals
  2. Know what will happen and arrange things with a solid agenda, considering the different levels of energy and interaction required for each element
  3. Have optional, goal-oriented activities that you can bring up in case of any gaps in the proceedings
  4. Have one person focused on making sure things are on track who is ready to step in and interact with the audience when required

Please feel free to reach out to me with thoughts and questions about making your event more engaging through my contact form.

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