by Shawna Suckow, CMP
Does it feel sometimes like we all have Attention Deficit Disorder? It’s so difficult to stay focused on just one task at a time. We’re a multi-tasking culture these days and it shows in our conversations, our daily work routines and our relationships.
At home, the ‘Second Screen Phenomenon’ means that while watching TV, many of us also have a second screen in hand - an iPhone, a tablet, a laptop - to keep us feeling completely engaged. This means that over 600 channels of TV aren’t engaging enough for us? Really? We need a second device to hold our attention - sad but true.
Technology has changed us, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Regardless, we’re different today than we were five or 10 years ago - our culture has undoubtedly shifted and one-thing-at-a-time doesn’t cut it anymore. Is it any wonder, then, that traditional talking-head meetings don’t cut it anymore, either?
The one-speaker-at-a-time lineup of back-to-back talking heads is just not going to engage today’s audiences of multi-tasking, second-screen fanatics. As planners, we have to do better. We have to push the tired, outdated meeting formats to the side and look at our meetings as stages to entertain and engage multi-taskers. It’s the only way to keep participants engaged, off their devices and receiving enough value from their attendance to justify returning again next year.
I’ll give an example of a mind-numbing conference I used to plan every year. The first day was composed of a general session with theater-style seating and endless company updates, one right after the other. First the CEO, then the COO, then the CFO, then the head of marketing, etc., etc. ad nauseam (from the Latin, meaning “to the point of nausea” - how fitting!). To make matters worse, the audience was 80% salespeople - Type A, outgoing personalities who really wanted to be out in the hallways making deals, not trapped in the world’s most boring opening session while their eyes rolled back into their heads.
What would I do differently today? Well, for starters, I would have the courage to stand up to the C-Suite and let them know that they’re killing engagement. I’d ask them to revisit their goals and objectives. They invested over a million dollars each year into this conference, yet their ROI was lackluster, and their salespeople only returned year after year for the networking. If their mission was to fire up their sales force, then they certainly weren’t achieving it with content like the hour-long update from the company CFO (a terrible speaker to boot) complete with his myriad charts and graphs. Why not relegate him to a breakout session for the 10 or 12 people out of 1,200 who really wanted that sort of information delivered to them at their annual conference (instead of reading it in the annual report)? The general session from the head of marketing wasn’t any better, discussing all the newest brochures and the latest logo usage requirements! She would have been much more effective in a webinar, or a breakout as well.
Today, I would really throw some new things into the mix and shake up that boring old conference! I would have a really engaging opening speaker for no more than an hour and then turn the salespeople loose with some free time for networking, followed by lively deal-making sessions until lunchtime. The afternoon would be filled with hands-on labs showcasing new technology to make their jobs easier and robust Un-Conferencing exercises where everyone would be up and moving around, interacting and finding solutions to their immediate challenges.
Then there was the terrible awards banquet I used to plan every year. The banquet always had around 300 people in attendance, with about 30 award winners in total. That means 10% of the audience was really excited about being there and the other 90% were probably dreading it because they knew what they were in for. Don’t get me wrong, there was a nice dinner, maybe a band or a comedian, but then the mind-numbing awards portion would begin. It was a litany of tales of great achievements, one after the other, after the other.
What would I do differently today, if planning that awards banquet? For starters, I’d take some cues from awards shows like the Oscars. I’d break up the evening into segments: present a few awards, followed by some entertainment, followed by more awards, and then a different type of entertainment. Several different acts in one evening would break up the monotony. If you think of today’s most popular TV shows like NBC’s “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon,” everything is broken into segments. Jimmy Fallon doesn’t have all the speakers at the beginning, followed by all the funny segments in the middle and all the music at the end; rather, everything is broken up into easily digestible morsels for the mind - perfectly suited to today’s shortened attention spans.
Sometimes it’s tough to shake up an old, established show. Innovation’s worst enemy is the phrase, “We’ve always done it that way.” When I hear that today, I just want to cringe! Just because it’s always been done a certain way doesn’t give you permission to bore people to death every year from here to eternity!
My advice to my younger self: speak up, take the risk or you will never know what could have been. If your higher-ups don’t want to listen, and aren’t willing to experiment with new formats, maybe it’s time to find a company that’s less stifling to your creativity. After all, do you really want to be a ‘bagels and buses’ expert for the rest of your life, simply coordinating all the logistics? Or do you want to infuse your meetings with life and turn your participants into raving fans who light up social media with their experiences?
What’s your advice to your younger self? What’s your advice to yourself now? Contact Shawna at firstname.lastname@example.org or Midwest Meetings at email@example.com to let us know.