Speaking our language: how to create events that connect with people

December 11, 2018

We have brilliant friends at Brilliant Ink and now we’re sharing the wealth. We’re sitting down with experts to chat about all things employee experience to uncover even more ways to empower your people. Stay tuned for all the best practices you can handle.

Keryn Gottshalk is what I like to call an event whisperer. From TED to PopTech, she’s produced events and conferences in places like Nairobi, Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Vancouver, Banff, Arusha, Camden (Maine), and New York. These aren’t your typical ballroom gatherings; often they’re in off-the-beaten-path locales, with attendees who expect opportunities for meaningful connection to the event program and each other.

Despite the large size of the events (usually ranging from 200-2000 attendees), Keryn infuses warmth and clever whimsical touches. She creates moments for authentic engagement that stay with attendees long after they leave. (Can you tell I’m a big fan?)

As internal communicators, we’re often tasked with dreaming up (and delivering!) the next great Town Hall, employee all-hands meeting, or team offsite. How do you create gatherings that have an emotional connection? How do you bring people together in a way that doesn’t feel forced? That are memorable? And not boring?

I sat down with Keryn to find out what’s in her secret sauce and how we can get ourselves a bottle. As you look to plan your next internal gathering, perhaps take a page out of Keryn’s book and see how your people respond.

In one sentence, what’s your mantra when it comes to producing events/conferences that people love?

People first, everything else second.

What are a few ‘tried and true’ tips for creating a positive attendee experience?

  • Work with key stakeholders to establish an overall goal for the event, then ensure that every decision you make supports that goal.
  • Take time to think through every step of the attendee experience from online registration through the final farewell. Is everything crystal clear? Will attendees feel taken care of? Are there any missing pieces?
  • It goes without saying that diversity is key to a dynamic and vital gathering. Make sure that your stage and your audience reflect the full spectrum of the community (and potential community) you’re planning for.
  • Go overboard with way-finding signage. It’s hard for attendees to feel at the top of their game when they can’t find their way to their breakout session (or to the bathroom).
  • Be hands-on with speaker prep. Encourage speakers to distill their information into a few key points and hold them to their time limits.
  • Create low-stress opportunities for people to interact. Give attendees a task or engage them in an activity that will get them talking to someone new.
  • Consider ways to involve the local community. Could a performer work with nearby school kids the morning after your event? Would an area nonprofit benefit from donated swag? Might the local community college be a great place to look for event staff or volunteers?

What do you think attendees value MOST when they go to events? And how does that translate to your approach to planning/production?

People want to feel seen and valued. When planning an event, excellent content is the obvious first step, but once that’s underway, I really love to think of ways to make people feel truly welcomed and connected.

What do you always try to AVOID when it comes to the attendee experience of events/conferences?

Attendee confusion. People come to an event to gain knowledge and to network. Give them the gift of removing any barriers to their experience; ensure top-notch way-finding, communicate clearly and effectively, and keep your staff well-briefed before – and during – the event.

What are some easy ways to jazz up the attendee experience in a less than thrilling venue?

Hotel ballrooms are my nemesis. If you are hosting a workshop or seminar in one and can upgrade from freebie hotel seating, do it. Then, add some inexpensive up-lighting at the perimeter of the room and add a design element to the front of the room like great furniture, graphics or a plant. Try something unexpected.

Your rapid-fire recommendations on…

  • AV: Have an AV check for every single person who will be on stage, with techs on hand to ensure that any issues can be cleared up immediately.
  • Music: Music sets the vibe. Think about the energy you want to foster when choosing tunes.
  • Room set-up: A well-designed and comfortable room will help speakers and attendees feel valued and ready to fully engage.
  • Breaks: ADD MORE/LONGER BREAKS! Give attendees the opportunity to connect.
  • Food & beverage: It can be simple, but it has got to be good and plentiful.
  • Solo presentations versus panels: My rule is to choose panels only if every person preps for the event as though they’re giving a solo presentation. Otherwise, it’s solo presentations for the win!
  • Giveaways and swag: No landfill! Give attendees something truly useful, or nothing at all.
  • Keeping people engaged with late in the day presentations or heady topics: Add unexpected networking opportunities, short activities or movement breaks to keep energy up. The success of heady presentations lies in speaker prep.

Lastly, in 140 characters or less, what should we never underestimate when it comes to the attendee experience?

The power of human connection.

Read more bite-sized brilliance on our LinkedIn and Twitter.

Becky Sennett

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