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Strategic Communications Expert Mark Jeffries on Creating The Perfect Event

Editor-in-Chief Christine Born of Connect: Meetings Intelligence magazine caught up with Strategic Communications Expert Mark Jeffries to talk about his recent e-book, Creating the Perfect Event:

Is there really such a thing as a perfect event? Yes, says former-stockbroker-turned-author Mark Jeffries, a communications consultant to some of the world’s largest and most successful organizations. He speaks at and moderates conferences, summits, sales meetings, user forums and conventions around the world for clients including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Bank of America.

What made you go from speaking at events to creating a book that one might expect from a professional planner?

I’m lucky enough that I am in this bizarrely individual position of being able to see how people roll out events. I attend about 24 to 50 a year. What I see as a trend is giving an audience what it wants—it sound ridiculous even to say this. What they don’t want is one person standing on a stage for 30 to 45 minutes going through PowerPoint slides.

People are smarter than what some organizations give them credit for.  They are active on social media, they are able to absorb a lot, and they will switch off or check out if they are bored. A presenter should know this when people start staring at their iPads or the equivalent, or the cough count increases. If they’re engaged and want to hear what is being said, they don’t clear their throats.

You’re talking from your point of view as a speaker, but what advice do you give planners?

There’s a terror in the industry of trying anything new because if you get it wrong, your job might be on the line. That stops people from sparkling. It’s about risk-taking.

Planners need to start with what the audience might want. What they want is much more dynamic than what we give them now. It’s no longer about an hour for this presentation or that one. We need to give them 20-minute bites and change off. I call it David Letterman-style presentations. People need to see a change in the visual. Give them something different to look at, like a panel discussion, a video or a live link to something else. Cut in and out like a TV show, where nothing lasts more than five or six minutes. Things need to be faster moving and far more interactive. Audiences need to know they are part of an event; they want to add to the conversation.

How can a planner jumpstart creative thinking or breaking the mold when he or she is part of an organization that is wedded to doing things the same way every year?

I think it’s important right at the outset to have a brainstorming session. Make it blue sky…let’s go crazy. Obviously, you’ll want your executives and usual suspects, but get some others involved who you never would have considered, like the girl at the front desk or your sales person. You’ll often find something that becomes the core of the event.

What do audiences really want?

Maybe they are coming for some of the education, but that becomes one of the choice tracks—what you are going to force on the audience. Most come for connections, networking, what will help them with business success. That is what people come for and will be forever grateful for. That is the driving force of any event.

How can planners meet those expectations?

We are restricted by budgets, time and existing space. We have to deal with what we have. What really counts is turning the event into something where people really want to contribute. That means having strong speakers with strong talking points.

What else?

What I don’t see enough of are true anecdotes. Show me how one person just like me used what you are saying or presenting. Give me a picture of what it does. It’s the write-down theory; time to be brutal with your content. What will your attendees write down because it is so useful they will take the information away and use it? Decide that and throw away everything else.

How can a planner ensure every speaker delivers that kind of value?

Set rules early on. What’s generally lacking is a real rehearsal. Someone on the production team has to go through the timing. You have to get everyone’s buy-in [speakers and staff]. Tell them you are doing this for the audience. You are going to do it as a live show. Let them know that every minute they go over their time allotment, they are taking away from someone else’s time. After that, if they choose to ignore you, it is the height of rudeness. It’s all about the preparation and getting buy-in. And you have to have a significant screen timer.

The most important aspect is to keep it moving. As soon as someone would normally be reaching for the remote, you need to be moving on. Consider every element of your running order from the perspective of the demanding audience member.

Everyone has to respect the human nature of the audience. There is only so long you can keep them in a room. They need mind resets. They need mini-plenary vacations. Great speakers will pause for two or three seconds and take a break in their cadence to wake up the audience. The audience needs to be refreshed frequently. Show them videos of yesterday’s proceedings. Ask them do to something different. Give them physical breaks and intelligent brain breaks.

Can you give an example of a brain break?

I love an event that has team members or staff who can help with games. I usually have a selection of fabulous general knowledge questions that are easy to answer. You get everyone in the audience to stand up and ask them a series of questions with a choice of two answers for each one. They put their hands on their heads for choice A, and hands on their tails [bums] for choice B. You lose half the room with every question. It never takes more than seven questions to whittle 5,000 people down to a winner.

What suggestions do you have for involving attendees in the conversation?

The plenary where everyone gets together is the most important part of the convention. Encourage attendees to email in questions to the panel. It’s just as easy to have them raise their hands, but it feels more up-to-date to text in and then you’re able to replicate the discussion. You can continue the conversation by adding what experts said after the event.

In the end what really counts is the sort of people you put in front of the audience. The format is everything. It needs various elements and activity. It has to feel more vibrant.

What surprises you most about attendees?

I always expect the attendees are going to be so smart and informed, they’ll say, “I know all this.” And they are, but they want to know more. People are so happy when they learn something new. I am  always very honored that people are hungry to learn and will learn from what you say.

People do find the networking aspect very nerve-racking and scary. I throw in some cool and amusing networking ideas: How long you should talk with someone until you know they’re bored with you?

What to do when you get someone’s business card? What about someone’s handshake? They become icebreakers.

How important are big-name keynote speakers to the success of a conference?

I am often the moderator introducing an expensive keynote speaker. There’s the initial, “Oh my God, it’s him.”  But just because you paid $50,000 doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. The wow factor has to be a combination of wow and meaningful content. You want your attendees to go on and on about the fact that “so-and-so” said this on stage.

The lesson is that spending big money on a big star doesn’t guarantee success. You cannot change their content. They’re going to do whatever they do.  A lower-feed speaker will do more for you because they want to develop a name. Discovering someone new who is great will be remembered.

How do you determine if the conference is a success?

A real sign of success is when the group is involved in active discussion after the event. You want to own some of the content of that event so when people think about it, they think about you. You are telling them, “This is what we think that you should think.” If instead, you tell people stuff they already know and there is no further comment when they leave, you lose.

Can you encourage or instigate further discussion post-con?

It is difficult once everyone has gone home from the tropical island where you’ve made lot of promises to each other. It’s kind of like a romance—once reality hits, it’s hard to continue. You can encourage ongoing discussions as event organizers by sending out updates on different people, especially with LinkedIn discussions. It requires a commitment, but you have to be active at reaching out to people for new comments and opinions. Newsletters or blogs to attendees help, but there is only so much you can do. If person A met person B at your event and started a company, they will always rate you a success.