stand to attention

Anyone who has ever had to address an audience of marketers – particularly after they’ve had a good lunch – will be familiar with that sudden, terrifying question: “How am I going to keep this lot awake for the next 45 minutes?”

Business people are no different to anyone else. No matter how interested they might be in a subject, there is always the risk of their eyes glazing over and their thoughts beginning to roam.

But there are tricks which conference organisers and speakers can use to keep the audience’s attention.

Margaret Thatcher proved to be a winner at a conference organised by the International Securities Market Association a few years ago. As Margaret Wilkinson, ISMA’s head of marketing, says: “It’s crucial to get a decent list of speakers with something interesting to say. Lady Thatcher was wonderful: she spoke without notes or props, and she kept the audience’s attention throughout.”

Not everyone can afford a guest speaker of the note – or notoriety – of Lady Thatcher: even so, most experts in the conference field say it is vital that speakers know their subjects and have rehearsed their presentations.

Michael Selway, managing director of The Event Organisation, observes: “Everything depends on the quality of the speakers and of the visual aids they are using. You have to make sure they rehearse thoroughly; that they do not repeat themselves; and that they get as much ‘light and shade’ as possible into their presentations.”

By “light and shade”, Selway means that speakers should vary the pace and the style as much as possible (without, of course, breaking them up too much), a point which is also brought up by other experts.

They say that no-one should ever be forced to sit through a single speech lasting an hour and a half: indeed, half an hour is probably too long, if the speed and the manner of delivery remain the same throughout. If someone is going to be talking for a considerable length of time, then they should be encouraged to break their presentation up into discrete chunks, the experts say, lasting perhaps 15 minutes. After each part, they should introduce a change in pace, or some form of new visual aid, to help the audience keep their attention fixed firmly on what is being said.

Mark Wallace of event production company Mark Wallace Associates says: “I don’t believe that you should make any part of a presentation or speech longer than 15 or 20 minutes without something happening to break up the flow. You should vary the style and pace of the event all the way through.

“You could have a dance troupe coming on, although that tends to be for a particular type of audience, such as you would find at car launches. That sort of thing happened much more in the Eighties: in the Nineties, people tend to use software presentation packages,” Wallace says.

While he admits that there are clients who still want “bangs and stinks” to wake their audience up, “a lot of people have done that sort of thing before and want something different.”

Planet Presentations is a conference production company which specialises in advising clients (including the ISMA) in the use of multimedia in conferences or presentations. It recently helped Cambridge Control put together a series of presentations on behalf of the Department of Trade & Industry promoting the services that British industry could provide to help the Government of Ghana develop infrastructure and utilities. Held on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, these presentations integrated text, graphics, photographs, animation, video and sound, and were delivered from a PC through an LCD data projector.

Good quality lighting and sound systems are vitally important. Obviously, if slides, videos or films are being shown then the lights may need to be dimmed: but keep the audience in the dark for too long and again you run the risk of them dozing off.

There are other very basic points which conference organisers must remember. For a start, rooms in which seminars, meetings or talks are to be held must be air-conditioned.

And it is important to bear in mind that many delegates will remember a conference not for the nuggets of information which they take away with them, but for the food and drink – and the atmosphere.

This at least is the argument put forward by Juliet Norvid, sales manager of the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel in Southampton. She says: “In our experience, regardless of the message or information imparted to attendees, or the methods used to deliver it, such as magnificent stage sets with all sorts of ‘reveals’, lasers, dry ice, famous personalities and presenters, we find that most delegates measure the success of a conference by the standard, varieties and quality of the food and drink provided.”

She argues it is better to hold an event in a three or four-star venue and provide good food and drink than stage one in a five-star venue with poor-quality eats. Norvid also advises care in the selection of any entertainment booked for a gala dinner, and warns that attendees seated badly, or in a position where they cannot see the entertainment, or where they feel cut off from the rest of the group, can begin to “feel like second-class citizens and may become noisy and disruptive”.

The management of the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre appear to agree with Norvid’s thoughts about food: its catering is done by the cordon bleu chef Prue Leith.

Purpose-built conference centres such as the QEII Centre or the International Convention Centre in Birmingham can offer conference organisers certain in-built advantages over other venues. The ICC – and the National Exhibition Centre, with which it is now being jointly sold to the conference market – has purpose-built conference theatres, in the classic tiered seats arrangement, with the latest hi-tech delivery systems built in. ICC sales director Christina Gearing says that a number of companies have exploited the full potential of this setting in highly dramatic ways – cars have been dropped out of the fly stage for example, and presenters have abseiled onto the stage.

She adds that clients who want to start with a blank slate and build their own sets – as some of the bigger car and computer companies have done – have also made use of what she calls the “black box” approach, where they take a basic cubic space and do what they want. This allows them to keep the audience on their toes with some sophisticated techniques and ‘tricks’.

Several years ago, when IBM launched its AS400 range of computers, Spectrum Communications built a set in one of the NEC halls which at first appeared to be a lecture theatre: once the main presentation was finished, however, what appeared to be solid walls (but were in fact cleverly lit cloth backdrops) became transparent and then rolled up into the roof, and the space became not a lecture theatre but an exhibition hall.

Wallace says that the use of such theatrical flourishes is increasing – even to the extent that many companies are using professional actors for presentations. MWA has just run a sales conference for Lotus software which featured six presenters, only two of whom were Lotus staff, and the rest.

Virgin Megastores opted for scale when it chose Alexandra Palace for its sales and marketing conference. The company’s aim was to make its message more tangible. It presented the new-look Virgin Megastore in 3D by erecting a full-size shop. Another client, AXA Equity & Law, also made use of the Palace’s spacious interior. It constructed a Victorian fairground in the Great Hall to mark its 150th anniversary.

However, Wallace maintains that whatever gimmicks you use to keep the audience’s attention, there is no substitute for good speakers who know their topic. He says: “Speakers have to be focused on the audience at all times. If they aren’t, then no matter what else you do, they will lose them.”

Here is a checklist for ways to turn a conference into an event.

– Gain a clear understanding of the reasons for staging a conference in the first place. What are we trying to communicate?

– Messages must be tailored to the audience. Delegates should know why they are at the event and what they will get out of it.

– Printed conference material must be clear and easy to understand, including maps, schedules, badges and so on.

– The conference venue should be properly briefed and managed, with what happens where being made absolutely clear.

– There has to be a high standard of catering, whatever the event.

– Superb logistics are essential – transport, “meet and greet”, catering, badging and so on.

– Speaker and technical rehearsals are vital. Speakers must have absolute trust in their production company/technical team.

– Speakers should be encouraged and trained to use whatever facilities are available, such as speech prompters.

– The audience must have a clear view of speaker support material and software, and must be able to see and hear the speakers properly.

The whole thing has to be seamless.


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