Melissa Forziat is a keynote speaker who encourages event attendees to “Take the Doughnut” (her version of “Carpe Diem”). Prior to starting her business, Forziat worked in event management for major international sporting events, including the Vancouver and Torino Olympic Winter Games, New Zealand Rugby World Cup and with the U.S. Olympic Committee. For more information about her motivational or marketing keynotes, visit melissaforziatevents.com/keynote-speaker.
When you are an event manager, you can spend months or even years organizing a single event. After all the time and effort you put in to the planning phase, you hope that your attendees, your VIPs and your many key stakeholders will have a fulfilling, valuable experience. Yet, when the world of all or some of your attendees is in crisis, what can you do to create an engaging experience for them so they get the most from the event?
As a keynote speaker who also has event-management experience ranging from the Olympic Winter Games to local fundraisers, I know the nuanced ways that the vibe of a room can be influenced both by those working from the stage and by those working behind the scenes. While you cannot control what is happening outside of your event for your attendees, you are actively able to shape and design the experience they have inside your event. Since part of facilitating a successful event is helping everyone stay on track with the event objectives, having strategies to engage or re-engage event attendees is critical in challenging situations.
Even if your audience is dealing with extenuating circumstances, you can help them to refocus on the mission of the event. Here are a few tips for captivating an audience even during challenging times:
Make sure you have good communication between your event staff and your emcee, your speakers and entertainers. Communication is everything. Event staff are often better-positioned to get intel from behind the scenes on what is happening with the audience. Registration staff may have unique insight into the conversations happening at check in. Those dealing with the venue or the different vendors will have a more holistic view of timing and delays. Those behind the scenes may be putting out little fires on a regular basis, but they have a valuable perspective on what is going on in the room.
Some of this information may be useful to the people who are delivering your programming and talking directly to your attendees. A good emcee or speaker, for example, may be able to weave in a note to the audience that can help everyone get on the same page. They are the bridge from you to the audience. They can manage expectations or provide reassurance on your behalf, and they can do it while preserving a consistency of tone for your event.
In the Olympic world, we often would do “table-top exercises” in which we would assemble staff from all different departments at a venue. The exercise involved picking a random crisis situation and going around the room asking everyone what they would do and who they needed to call. “The Olympia machine breaks down on the ice. Go!” (This actually happened at the Games, by the way.) After you do enough table-top exercises, you start to realize that every situation resulted in calling the same handful of people from other departments to get and stay informed and then — when necessary — figuring out who was developing the message of what to say to your client base and delivering the message. It is the same thing at any event. If you have an emcee or a keynote speaker to set the tone of the event, they can help you deliver the information in a way that will feel on brand with the event vibe you wanted to create and your overall objectives.
Know when to acknowledge the elephant in the room. There are some situations when “the show must go on” as if there is nothing wrong is the right approach, such as when privacy breaches or legal issues could arise from over-sharing with your attendees. If a problem situation can be entirely resolved by your event team without most of the audience ever even knowing about it, then usually fixing a problem quietly is the best answer.
However, when something is happening in or out of the room that is widely known and affecting a large portion of your audience, it can become a distraction.
From five years of improv training, I have learned from the world of comedy how powerful it can be to call out a distraction up front. Comedy shows are constantly dealing with having to be funny after serious occurrences. Often the way they deal with it is to announce the elephant in the room at the top of the show, to acknowledge that it is flat-out not funny, and then to note that for the next hour or so, the audience can use this show as a space to breathe, feel a little normalcy and then be ready to go back to the world.
A good speaker can acknowledge a challenging situation to disarm it, then create a safe container and new rules of engagement for your audience to experience the event you created as it was intended. If a tragedy happened, for example, a speaker can respectfully address it, give the audience a moment of time and space with the issue, then create a segue that shows why this makes it important to be present at your event.
Sometimes, the elephant in the room is not as serious, but is still distracting. I once spoke at an event where there was a Jazzercise class happening in a nearby room. My talk was now set to ’80s music and the occasional “Five, six, seven, eight!” I could feel a palpable tension in the room from the attendees who were partially struggling to focus themselves and partially worried about how I would handle it. I paused for a moment and said, “They are counting us in. Let’s get up and shake it out. Five, six, seven, eight!” Everyone stood up, shook their bodies for 20 seconds, laughed and sat back down. The tension had dissipated. They were more ready to listen, and they felt safe in knowing that I was still able to take care of them as a speaker. It also gave the event coordinator an opportunity to leave the room unobserved to deal with the volume level of the neighboring group.
Find a way to accommodate different styles of coping. The more lead time you have in knowing that there is a crisis happening, the better prepared you can be to accommodate the variety of ways people may need to cope.
Some members of your audience will want a business-as-usual sense of normalcy, some may want more connection with people and some may want a quiet space between sessions. Not everyone will find focus in the same solutions. As an event organizer, if you have advanced notice, you can create options that fit within the context of your event.
If you have an emcee or speakers, let them know what options are available to the attendees. There are speakers who will be able to adapt and share this information with the audience, and some may even go as far as to find appropriate content from those solutions you created that they can weave into their talks. The result can be an event that feels even more integrated and a stronger bond between your speakers and your attendees.
As an event planner, you work too hard to have a good event be lost to attendee disengagement. Outside challenges happen for the people in your room, but your event can still be a success. Keeping your audience captivated will allow you all to achieve your goals for the event. I&FMM.