Smarty Pants

Hello. This week I’ll be speaking to 700 health care professionals in Las Vegas, or 35 regional managers in Nashville, or 1,200 insurance adjusters in Boise—I’m not really sure. I just know I’m on a plane and it’s going somewhere. The point is, everything is going to go great. Whatever conference I’m flying to will be well-organized, the A/V will be top-notch, I’ll manage to say all my words in the right order and the attendees will refrain from punching each other. That’s usually the case. I deliver between 50 and 75 keynote addresses every year and the vast majority go off without a hitch. 

But as a seasoned meeting planner, you know that successful events are boring. Seriously, who wants to go to a wedding where everything happens the way it’s supposed to? Those aren’t the ones you remember. You remember the weddings where the dress caught on fire and the groom had to be bailed out of jail in time to make the ceremony. They make movies about them. 

So if you want them to someday make a movie about your event, here are a few things for you to keep in mind.

Don’t Schedule a Conference Call With Your Speakers Before the Event

Your speakers are busy people and should not be expected to learn more about your organization or their role at your event, and you definitely should not ask them to tailor their presentation. In fact, you should expect your speakers to make your event indistinguishable from every other event where they speak. For example (true story), I recently attended a conference where one speaker told everyone how excited she was to be in Miami, when in fact we were in Wisconsin. That’s the kind of disconnect every meeting planner should be proud of!

Solution: Schedule the doggone call. The only way your speakers can give you their best is if they know enough about your organization. You can hope they’ll visit your website and do their own research, but many of them won’t. If you can find 20 minutes to give speakers some specifics, your attendees will get a lot more out of whatever sessions they’re about to sit through.

Don’t Bother With a Sound Check 

I see no reason to pester people by making them show up just to see if the microphones work or their PowerPoints load properly into the main computer. Just because they do dress rehearsals for weddings, concerts, theater performances and every other live event imaginable, that’s no reason for you to do the same. After all, if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you?

Solution: The sound check doesn’t have to last more than five minutes, but it’s essential. Some people are naturally quiet, and others might not realize how close you need to be to a podium mic in order to be heard. My sound check generally consists of “Does this work?” and then some bad singing. I firmly believe everyone should have the chance to sing badly into a microphone from time to time. Don’t deny others their dream.

Set Up Fewer Chairs Than Number of People

We all know that if you invite 1,000 people to a conference, only 700 of them are actually going to show up. The rest will be shopping or sleeping or 

showering away a monstrous hangover while they’re supposed to be attending stuff. You can probably save some money by ordering fewer chairs and smaller meeting rooms. That will make things extra fun whenever everyone actually does show up. People love being hot and crowded—just ask passengers on a broken-down subway car in New York City. There’s no place they’d rather be.

Solution: In my experience, the best events are ones in which everyone has a comfortable view of the stage. For eight-person round tables, that means seating five or six people in an open semicircle, with empty spaces where they would otherwise have their backs to the podium. The extra space might cost more, so that may be impractical. But if you can get away with it, you’ll end up with a much more elegant, sophisticated feel than you will with everyone crammed together like sardines. Remember, sardines aren’t sophisticated, not even when you put them on pizza.

That should get you started. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare for a presentation. The good people of (fill in organization name) at (insert name of hotel and maybe the city we’re in) can’t be kept waiting. Talk to you soon. 

Jeff Havens is a professional development expert who addresses leadership, generational issues, and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. To learn more about Havens’ keynote presentations and corporate training, visit