Higher audience expectations call for more tech, clear context, good stories and compelling visuals
Debra Jasper understands why business meeting and event planning has gotten so high-tech. The rationale is in some of the data that guides her work as a cofounder of Mindset Digital.
"In 2014, the number of cellphones will surpass the number of people on earth, and the number of photos estimated by Yahoo to be taken is 880 billion-121 for every person on earth," she notes, following it up with the take home: "In that world, you can't just show up with a lot of old-school tech slides."
Those who work with corporations, associations, nonprofits and even religious organizations to stage meetings and events agree: Today's fascination with anything video and electronic drives audience expectations for being engaged and entertained throughout all manner of gatherings, and woe to the speaker who doesn't live up to those expectations.
This is the business meeting and event world navigated daily by staff and vendors for the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
"The biggest change is the jump to high definition. Everything's bigger, everything's brighter" in video production for meetings and events, says Lisa Martin of Markey's Rental & Staging, which handles AV for the convention center.
Audio-visual needs are generally the second largest expense for meetings and events, right behind food and beverage, says Sherry Chambers, GCCC senior director of sales. But creating presentations and figuring out what technology to employ with them is where most events soar or sink.
"The new challenge is that everybody has access to everything online so the wow factor is harder and harder to get to an audience, because they've seen it all on video," says Rodrick Pauley, vice president, MJx--Mills James Experience Group. "The biggest change is in mobile engagement. People are always looking at their screens, so instead of telling people to put away their phones, how do you utilize their phones as part of a show?"
Mills James has found mobile apps to be a great way to get meeting and conference attendees to use their cell phones and other mobile devices in a way that draws them into a presentation rather than distracting them from it, Pauley says. They can be used to receive content that complements a presentation, to send questions to a speaker and to respond to audience polls.
"We've been doing mobile apps with product launches," where associates at a company sales conference can download an app that immediately sends new product information to their phones, he says. "The same high-quality video that they just saw on the screen is on their phone, and it's something they can send a link to. It makes it super easy," Pauley says. Instant access to high-quality video and information also helps keep attendees focused on the event, knowing they will immediately have content to share without having to capture it themselves, he notes.
The approach worked well when Mills James produced Longaberger's national convention last year, Pauley says. "They had never done product reveals that were just video before, so they were very nervous about not having that ta-da! But that mobile component allowed us to get more of a ta-da out of it," and attendees immediately had videos to show new products at parties.
Martin of Markey's says widespread Wi-Fi access is important to organizations holding events at the convention center, which offers free Wi-Fi in all meeting rooms now, helping to make it one of the busiest convention centers in North America.
Jerry Spencer, Bartha vice president of sales and production, notes, "The technology has improved and changed, but beyond that, the content we are able to produce allows that technology to shine. They go hand in hand really." Earlier this summer, Bartha used LED display technology and animation to reveal a new line in Las Vegas for a company that sells health, wellness and skincare products. "You're able to have a virtual stage. You can have this LED technology behind the presenter. You can change the stage set or the environment they're presenting from, from a simple background to the product that they're trying to present."
Outside of meeting rooms, attendees expect technology to continue to engage them, so many events offer interactive displays in lobby areas. "They can walk up to an electronic kiosk, almost like a virtual tour of the product, and get all the information they want," Spencer says.
"I think the next generation of events is going to be audience-driven," says Pauley of Mills James. "So you start the show and the audience gets to choose what they want to see....It's really about changing the event from a monologue that we're pushing to a dialogue that we're having with the audience. And all of these kinds of technologies and pieces allow us to have that. It makes for a much better event actually, because you've got a better-engaged audience."
Pauley continues, "We've all heard horrifying stories of speakers up there delivering a presentation while just getting ridiculed on Twitter….They're posting remarks about 'this is terrible, I'm leaving, how about you?' kind of thing until the entire audience is gone and this man is left alone on the stage. That can be a frightening and powerful tool if all these people are connected together." Better to allow feedback in a transparent way to engage audiences, he says.
Jasper agrees. "Anyone who is doing public speaking today realizes there are no captive audiences anymore. The big shift is that the audience has a phone in their hand, and if what you're doing isn't captivating or engaging, they can check email or text a friend or catch up on the news. The notion that people are coming to your presentation and they have no other options, that is just not true anymore. Your audience has a lot of different options if you're not giving them compelling content. It is truly up to the speaker now to design presentations to persuade you to pay attention."
Digital Mindset teaches people to do just that.
"The average professional today has an attention span of eight seconds," Jasper says. People will tune in longer if engaged but will make decisions in mere seconds about whether a speaker is worth their attention. "It's not that you can't convey a lot of complex information, but you have to unpack it in a way that people can understand it easily and that it's engaging. You have to create a presentation in a way that gets people to stay with you," she explains.
"What's on screen should be what you're talking about – but visually. You can be just an OK speaker and have a killer PowerPoint presentation and people will be raving about you. A lot of it is if you have a really visual presentation and it's interactive and you're getting the audience to talk. That really can improve the audience perception of your speaking ability," Jasper says.
Too many words and data on slides are fatal to audience engagement, according to Jasper. Speakers need to put what's most essential in bite-size, tweetable points and put everything else into handouts, and "slides are not handouts," she emphasizes. It is also critical not to share slides and handouts in advance. "You kill the curiosity. It's like giving people the ending to a book," Jasper says.
"Audiences are just less patient than they used to be. All of us are just really, really busy, and if we show up and your content is not really relevant, we don't have the patience to say I'll sit here for an hour, so we check our emails," Jasper cautions.
The key is giving digitally connected meeting attendees a constructive outlet. Announcing a Twitter hashtag in advance and encouraging people to use it helps. A backchannel conversation on Twitter can function as a focus group, indicating what stuck with an audience. "It's like having the smartest people in the room take notes for you," Jasper says.
"The lecture is over. Everyone can talk-not just you-during your speaking engagement. That's a big shift for a lot of speakers," adds Jasper, an accomplished keynoter.
"We have a whole keynote we give called 'The Power of the Visual.' There is a researcher who says our brain is an image processor, not a word processer," Jasper adds.
Good visuals plus good story equals memorable presentation, stresses Pauley of Mills James.
"What hasn't changed is the storytelling; it's all about the story. You have all these communications tools that you can use and technological advances, but the one thing that never changes is that you have to tell a good story. No matter what the technology, if you don't have a good story to tell, it doesn't matter," Pauley says.
And the story needs to have context as well, according to Tracy Moran, senior events strategist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
"People, because they are so engaged, they want both substance and purpose in their experiences," Moran says. Her philosophy is an event is just one tactic in a long-term communications strategy. "That live event is a unique opportunity to immerse your attendee into an experience with other people with leaves a lasting impression. At least for me, that's what I'm seeing more and more."
Moran also sees increased demand to justify costs. "Because of the economy, there is always a bigger push now for return on investment, which from a live-event experience is difficult to measure. That's where the goals and expectations need to be set up on the front end," she says.
Design options that don't help reach an event's goals should be left out, especially if budgets are tight. "If it doesn't enhance, it's more of an expense than an investment," Moran says.
Photo booths and portable photo studios where event or meeting attendees can get a keepsake photo branded to the event and sent to their portable devices is one of the new technologies that has caught Moran's eye-if it makes sense within an event's goals and overall strategic plan. She also recommends Bonfyre, a social media app that allows conference attendees to connect in a private network, as a way to keep attendees engaged throughout a several-day event.
And both Mills James and Batha are ready to incorporate one of the hottest new elements-3D image mapping-in future events, say Pauley and Spencer. It's a technology that projects images from multiple sides to change the look of an object or create 3D images on a blank backdrop.
Sherry Chambers, the convention center's senior director of sales, sums up the trend she sees succinctly: "Shorter presentations with more bling."