Technology can help make meetings more engaging. But it also provides an easy way for attendees to tune out instead of tuning in.

In years past, if you were a speaker at a business conference or event, the one thing you could count on was a captive audience. Attendees may have flipped through the conference materials or done a little daydreaming, but as long as you were moderately interesting and kept things moving, you were likely to hold their attention.

Times have changed.

In this age of smartphones, laptops, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, there are a lot more ways for an audience to be distracted. "You are competing with everyone's electronic devices," says Bret Icenhower, vice president and general manager at Brainstorm Media.

Talking to a roomful of people when two-thirds of them are staring at gadgets is bad enough. Even worse, you might be "Tweckled"-a new word coined to describe a combination of "Twitter" and "heckled."

"They can literally be heckling the presenter to different people in the room as the presenter is up there," Icenhower says. "That speaks to the speed at which we communicate these days. It's real-time feedback."

In Person and Online

Increasingly, conference planners are turning to technology to make their meetings more engaging.

Jerry Spencer, vice president of sales and production at Bartha, says the event production company recently planned a meeting that included real-time audience feedback using the Internet. The event was webcast, and those watching it remotely were able to respond to what they were seeing.

"People online were able to chat and send questions back as they were watching it," he says. "The viewers could interact with the presenter. We put [their questions] on a monitor so that she could see the questions and answer back."

Bartha also has conducted polls using audience members' cell phones. They put a question on a monitor with multiple-choice options--A, B or C--and attendees text their answers to a given phone number. "Their answers go to a server on the Internet and it immediately tallies the answers, and we're able to present the result live on-screen," Spencer says.

Another way to interact with the audience is through quick response, or QR, codes. These boxy codes work similarly to UPC codes. They can be scanned with applications available for virtually any smartphone. The phone's owner takes a picture of the code, which can instantly take the user to a website, add contact information or download a file.

Speakers are using QR codes within their presentations as a way of providing their audience with additional information, Icenhower says. "[Presenters] want us to be able to put that on their screens and they are using that as part of their communication," he says.

Engaging the audience that isn't in the room also is increasingly important and increasingly easy, says Rusty Ranney, CEO of Live Technologies. His company recently did a large event for a local corporate client. "They had 5,000 to 6,000 employees in the arena and they got to see the live presentation," he says. "But they also beamed it back for employees around the country to see."

In the past, broadcasting to remote locations would have required a complex (and very expensive) video setup. But today it can be established through a live feed streamed over the Internet.

Up on the Big Screen

Another tech trend--at least for big events--is the use of large video installations. Ranney says people are taking their cue from the full video backgrounds seen in TV shows such as ESPN's "SportsCenter." They want to re-create that immersive look in their own events.

"That's a pretty good example of some of the things that people are doing at larger presentation events," Ranney says. "There's also ‘edge blending,' where you'll use several projectors to create very wide screens, sometimes hundreds of feet wide."

And more than ever before, it's being done in high-definition, Ranney says. "HD-quality video is becoming more and more prevalent."

There's a simple reason for that, and it's probably sitting in your living room. "Every consumer is used to looking at HD video at home," Spencer says. "So now we have to be HD, too, or someone is going to wonder what's wrong. In the presentation world, they've been forced to upgrade their presentations."

Meeting and conference organizers are also learning how to use all these new bells and whistles-not just to project what's happening on stage or post another PowerPoint slide, but also to more effectively use video and animation. The slow-moving, simple slides of PowerPoint presentations are now being upgraded for the YouTube generation.

"A rule of thumb has become ‘less words and more pictures,' " says Brainstorm Media's Icenhower. "Retention increases significantly, to the tune of something like 600 percent, when it's visual. That's a big difference."

There are a number of ways that video can be used to enhance presentations, Icenhower says. Think of a presentation where the results of a customer satisfaction survey are shown in a typical chart. Now envision the same presentation supplemented by actual, recorded opinions of customers.

"If I put a customer on the screen and you hear their voice and listen to what they're saying, you're going to remember that much better," he says. "People remember stories much more than words and statistics."

Visuals may also include animation. "Sometimes there are subjects being addressed when you want to show how something happens," Icenhower says. "So we create an animation that demonstrates the process better than words."

Custom animation may seem extreme to some conference veterans, but it isn't as extravagant as it sounds, Icenhower says: "The tools have made it easier and people have come to expect it. You don't go anywhere today for information that you don't expect to see moving pictures.

"Our society is so much more visually oriented these days. So text doesn't stay with them as long. When you use animation, it stays with them. It's more memorable."

Having a tough time deciding between video and text? Why not try both? Bartha's Spencer says that with a widescreen display, it's easy to project the person talking alongside slides from his or her presentation. This also carries over into Web simulcasts. "Instead of switching back and forth from a video to a PowerPoint, we can do that all at the same time," he says. "It's a unique and cool way to present."

Coming Soon in 3-D?

As with HD video, the "cool" factor may signal another future direction for meetings: the use of 3-D. Hollywood has fallen in love with three-dimensional technology, releasing scores of movies that allow filmgoers to feel like they're about to be hit with an object tossed into the audience or that they're flying over an alien landscape.

Now, event planners are wondering if that kind of excitement can be brought to corporate shareholder meetings and product announcements.

Ranney was expecting to see vendors present 3-D video systems at an upcoming convention for meeting planners. "I'll probably see several people who try to get it done in some way," he says. "People are experimenting and pushing forward in those areas."

Still, Ranney says he isn't yet convinced of the value of using 3-D at such events. "I haven't seen it as something that is effective as anything but a trick yet-where it belongs as part of the meeting and is effective."

Perhaps, he says, 3-D might be useful to get out a big message, but for run-of-the-mill meetings, the technology's worth is dubious. "I don't know if there's any value of having numbers leap off a spreadsheet," Ranney says.

Down to Earth

While many technological changes are bringing more sizzle to meetings, technology also is improving events in less flashy ways.

Perhaps nothing in the world of conferencing has gone from innovation to standard practice faster than the introduction of wireless Internet access. Today, it's a given that a facility will have Wi-Fi available for guests. The level of service, though, depends on the needs of each client, says John Page, assistant general manager and director of operations at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

What has changed is the complexity of clients' requests. "We do a lot of groups where security is key," he says. "We're also seeing the need for higher bandwidth."

Security on a network might be achieved by creating password-protected, encrypted access. At the same time, clients might also want a more accessible, open network for others at the convention to use.

Because today's attendees are so much more plugged in, Wi-Fi also must be available for a wider range of devices, from smartphones to tablets to laptops. The convention center has provided as many as 3,000 to 4,000 "drops," or connections available for devices, for some events, Page says.

One important consideration of wireless use, he says, is that event traffic often occurs in clusters. Unlike a coffeehouse hotspot or a home network, conferences tend to see usage peaks that happen, for example, between sessions-when everyone is checking email or accessing the Internet at once. A conference center's network must be robust enough to handle the traffic.

Wireless technology also is being used in other ways, bringing a greater degree of flexibility and power to longstanding technology. Take the tabletop microphone. Imagine the traditional panel discussion-five or six speakers lined up with a mike in front of each, the wires trailing down to a big input box.

"Those are wireless now," Ranney says. "So you can put them in any configuration you need in any amount, and it all goes back to the base system. You can store [the panel discussion] digitally or you can create CDs or DVDs of the meeting. It's an old technology that's been redefined to work in a much newer way."

Another device getting a high-tech makeover is that standard of small group meetings everywhere: the dry-erase board. New digital whiteboards, or smartboards, work in much the same way-only with a stylus (or even a finger) substituting for a marker. During brainstorming sessions, users can write down thoughts and ideas that appear in real time on the screen.

Whiteboards allow users to instantly save and share all the notes taken during a meeting. However, Duane Thompson, space operations manager for sparkspace in the Arena District, says the technology still isn't where he'd like it to be.

"We have looked at some higher-end smartboards," Thompson says. "For the price that's involved, we're not really impressed with the quality of it. It's really no better than what we do on our regular dry-erase boards."

He's also been disappointed with the quality of image transfer from the smartboards to a computer. "The old tried-and-true dry-erase markers actually provide better images than the electronic version," Thompson says. "There's some problem in the translation over to the laptop."

Instead, sparkspace sticks with dry-erase boards and uses an iPhone app that takes a photo of the board and digitizes it for distribution. The lesson: Innovation doesn't always result in a better tool for the job.

"We've never had a dry-erase board fail us," Thompson says. "In some cases, it's the low-tech option that works best."

Lawrence Houck is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the August 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.