The End of Garden-Variety Conferences Is Nigh (or Should Be)

I was watching a New York Knicks game recently when Carmelo Anthony sank a three-point bucket to tie the game. Melo jumped for joy, as the Madison Square Garden crowd roared with approval.

A guy sitting courtside (probably in his late 30s or early 40s) leaped out of his seat to revel in the moment, pumping his fists in the air. But the boy sitting next to him (probably 10 or 12 years old) was oblivious to the live action surrounding him. He looked like he couldn’t care less about all the excitement on the basketball floor. His eyes were glued to his smartphone.

If you thought holding people’s attention during events and conferences was tough now, just wait until that young fellow gets into the workforce.

Good luck getting your message through to him. That’s why PR managers have to take the lead in figuring out how to reimagine their company’s events and conferences. And fast. Otherwise, funding live meetings might turn into a profound case of throwing good money after bad.

Despite the dramatic changes in consumer behavior wrought by the Web, most business conferences/events/meetings remain painting by numbers.

You know the drill: The work session starts off with an anecdote or two, which goes into the heart of the presentation, accompanied by bullet points and visuals to help illustrate the spiel. A Q&A usually follows and then the speaker wraps things up before assuring the audience that he or she is available for follow-ups.

Remarkably, the model has changed very little, just as more and more people who attend conferences consider them a mere trifle to their computer screens.

Communicators may not want to blow up their events and conferences altogether, which is understandable from a budgetary standpoint. But they certainly need to shake things up and create more compelling ways to hold their audiences’ attention.

Here are a few suggestions:

> Make your meetings much more participatory. And we’re not talking about asking attendees at the beginning of a work session how many of them heard of (the latest product making a splash in your industry). Put on your disruptive hats. You need to engage attendees in ways that go beyond having them nod in response to a question or simply raise their hands. And it can’t be a one-shot deal. The participatory aspects should thread throughout the entire presentation.

> Create a playlet; insert strategically. Make it challenging for attendees to stay glued to their smartphones. Instead of starting a presentation with a talking head, produce a very short play (with characters) that can goose people’s attention and help drive the overall message. Surely, you have some frustrated actors, directors and comedians in-house. Harness their talents to make a more creative presentation—and one that is rooted in storytelling (as opposed to lecturing, which makes younger folks run for the hills).

> Rethink the Q&A. We may be committing heresy by suggesting this, but don’t end work sessions with a Q&A. By making presentations more freewheeling in nature, attendees won’t be conditioned into thinking that they can tune out the bulk of the presentation because there will be a Q&A at the end. You need to close your presentations with a sharp and resounding message, and one that the brand owns.

What are we missing?

Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1