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“If you really want to know about business, you should refer to Scott Steinberg.” -Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group

Event Planning: How to Get More From Your Meetings

Planning and orchestrating a successful event is hard enough  without  having  to  worry  about  how  presenters are going to consistently sustain interest and buzz for large and often diverse audiences over extended timeframes. Thankfully, you don’t have to schedule 87 networking breaks, provide each registered guest a custom coffee IV drip, or hire fire-eaters and dancing horses to keep attention and conversation levels consistently high throughout any program. Here’s how to drive more audience interest, enthusiasm and participation around special occasions while keeping viewers both engaged and glued to the edge of their seats.

1.  Invite advance contributions. Long before delivering live programs, invite observers to participate via online channels such as via the Web and social media by submitting questions, suggestions, comments or feedback prior to your occasion. Submissions can be used to shape event programming (e.g. when weighing trending topics to feature), incorporated into presentations (i.e., by putting queries that participants have sent to featured experts), and used in supporting materials (e.g., video reels filled with testimonials, insights and real-world frontline commentary). Each presents a great way to heighten empathy, boost audience attachment and ultimately make attendee voices heard.

2.  Request creative input. Want to better underscore organization-wide support for various initiatives and programs? Ask participants to share their enthusiasm by submitting photos, slideshows, video commentary and more – all of which are easily posted to your event’s website, social network page or online community to raise audience interest and involvement. Crowdsourcing (read: requesting creative contributions from your community) can also be a powerful way to invite attendee participation, bolster internal resources, and heighten contributors’ emotional investment and takeaway. Consider this: “Submit your best designs for our new fundraising campaign’s logo: Winners will be featured in our national ad spot!” Not only can such techniques improve contribution rates — they also can ensure that messages resonate better and hit closer to home, coming straight from an audience’s peers.

3.  Crunch the numbers. Partner with your speakers and/or sponsors to conduct surveys, polls and studies, or provide audience questionnaires, both prior to and during your event–not just after presentations are delivered. Research and input can be used to craft more insightful programs, incorporated into call-and-response segments, or potentially debuted as part of special onsite announcements. Findings may even be used as unique value-adds: “All who attend will receive a copy of our 2013 industry awareness survey!” Data collected prior to, at or following your event can further be used as part of press releases, white papers and other novel takeaways–all built by and for attendees with their active input.

4.  Surprise and engage. Since when in the connected age does conversation work one way? Rather than delivering canned 60-minute speeches, consider stopping at regular, preset intervals during presentations to invite audience questions, conduct informal polls or source offstage input–all techniques that can help re-ignite interest and discussion. Reaching out to known experts in attendance (“I see marketing V.P. Jane Smith is here today: Jane, what challenges do you see this trend presenting?”) also can help heighten programs’ sense of dynamism and engagement. Talking with an audience, not simply at it, makes for more must-see sessions, and helps enhance participation, engagement and retention rates.

5.  Add guest appearances. Want to really shake things up? Use videoconferencing services (see: Google Plus’ excellent Hangouts feature) to source live input from surprise guests wherever high-speed Internet connections are available. Via these platforms, top authorities including notable community members and organizational leadership can pay events unexpected visits that keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Similarly, you also can beam in thoughts, opinions and live updates from events occurring simultaneously in other parts of the world. The next time international sales, marketing or management teams convene at distant locations, consider using these platforms to bring all closer together–and illustrate your organization’s global impact.

6.  Promote running commentary. Courtesy of online connectivity, every smartphone-, tablet- and laptop-wielding audience member is now a potential broadcast announcer or program participant. Running streams of questions and feedback from viewers can be projected live on screens for speakers and viewers to see throughout events, courtesy of Twitter and other services, helping guide ongoing discussion. Attendees also can be given tools, links and access to share live blog streams, chats and event highlights via their own websites or social channels, helping all promote and drive conversation around presentations as they unfold–and allowing your efforts to reach a wider target audience. Invite sharing, streaming and ongoing online discussion, and you instantly boost interactivity and impact.

7.  Better leverage speakers. With so many hard-to-pin-down experts onsite and available for audiences to engage with, why limit their exchanges to cookie-cutter keynotes alone? Question-and-answer sessions, meet-and-greets, book signings, breakout sessions and panel appearances can all help attendees enjoy further access to these luminaries. Have a smartphone or spare audio recorder handy as well? You know what they say about free press–make a point of creating and archiving film or podcast clips with them on topics of interest for sharing online via your website, social or digital channels to boot. Consider asking speakers to share each of these assets, and additional insights, with their own audiences, too. The practice can help increase your reach, add value for viewers no matter which channel they discover you through, and potentially generate more publicity ops for your event or organization.

8.  Create unique takeaways. Everyone loves seeing his/her name in lights. Letting you capture and record onsite learning as well as audience insights or reactions, a video camera can be an event planner’s best friend–always keep one handy. Make a point of interviewing attendees to get their thoughts on programs or key takeaways, and setting aside space where they can share stories or expert tips, hints and advice on primary event topics. Material can then be edited into standalone segments or short packages (“5 Reasons Great Customer Service Matters”) for sharing during or after the gathering via YouTube, DVD or video learning archives. Alternately, contributions can be transcribed and used in newsletters, eBooks or blog posts that help highlight your community all year long.

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