Food for Thought: Iron Chef Event-Style

We hear it time and again from clients: "We've slashed the budget, how can you help?"

It seems that budgets are continually dropping, and creative solutions are ever-needed to do more with less.

In one instance we came up with an innovative way to help with the client's food budget. Now, we aren't typically involved in things like food and lodging and such, but in this case we integrated our solution into the event design; making it part of an ongoing competition.

Wilson's Leather had been meeting for two days when they came to their evening event: a ranch cookout. Catering was expensive, dining out before the event was a logistical nightmare, and there just didn't seem to be any good, original options for the next-to-last night.
The attendees had spent the general sessions and breakouts divided into teams; competing against each other in a series of challenges, activities, and awarded participation interspersed throughout the days.

We saw a great opportunity to both be mindful of the food budget and contribute to the ongoing competition.

Thus we staged:

Wilsons' Iron Chef.

We purchased a broad range of food supplies, rented grills, and had the teams cook their own dinners...for points.

We hired supervisory culinary students to both give teams a short course on food safety AND to supervise and intervene (in case of a safety violation or imminent inedibility).

Teams were given a set amount of time to divide up responsibilities, which included:
Menu planning
Prepping/assisting
Head cook
Auxiliary cook
Marketing materials
Presentation/pitch

The VP of Sales was designated judge--complete with Iron Chef hat and persona.
As the teams completed cooking, they brought a judge's dish up for tasting. They presented it in a creative way and received a score. After all dishes were scored, dinner proceeded as a potluck (each of the teams were responsible for producing both a tasting dish and a certain amount of all components of their meal).

The scores for Iron Chef were then added to their teams' running totals.

The teams left well-fed and with the pride of accomplishment. It was both fun AND tasty.
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A Story of Persuasion and the Gunning Fog Index

Last blog post, we talked about the Gunning Fox Index. As a refresher, the Gunning Fog index is a measure of how well the written word will be understood by its intended audience.

We've also talked about the Psychology of Persuasion in the past: The long and short of it being--people are persuaded in different ways (social proof, data, experience, etc.) so one specific style of argument won't necessarily sway everyone in your audience.

This is the tale of a client, a presentation, a Wharton MBA, and how we used the Gunning Fog Index to make a case for simplicity.


Several years ago, we were helping a client (a major international Fortune-50 hospitality company) with their executive presentations. The presentations were written out and would be read off a TelePrompTer. Each executive wrote their own presentation and our job was to vet each one, suggest improvements, etc. One particular client was the VP of marketing.

She was delivering her marketing plans for the year at their annual event. Since they were going in a new direction the material was going to be very relevant for the audience (made up of Hotel Managers with only a cursory understanding of marketing and marketing terminology).

The first draft she gave us was a highly detailed examination of their marketing plan. It was well written...

... if it had been designed to appear in the Harvard Business Review.

But it didn't hit the mark for the audience. It was full of jargon, and was designed for READING not for spoken comprehension. (The brain can process reading material more rapidly than spoken material--we read faster than we can speak.) We've seen our share of presentations and are pretty savvy at understanding marketing speak and strategy--but even we had to re-read the presentation several times before we fully understood the gist of the material. Clearly there needed to be a re-write.

We highlighted key areas that should be simplified (the document had more yellow than white) and returned it. The second draft was slightly better--but only slightly. Some of the jargon was removed but it was still thick with content, huge words, and complex strategies (and sentences). It was a challenge to read and it was going to be a bear to listen to.

We sat down and had a heart-to-heart discussion with the client, but she didn't seem to grasp the need for simplicity. She stated: "Well, this is awfully clear to me... I think we're okay... I really do."

We were discussing the issue with her administrative assistant, who empathized with our plight, and she was also trying to help her boss "see the light".

Clearly, the way we were presenting our feedback wasn't persuading her. We asked her admin to tell us more about her. She explained that her boss is very bright (MBA from Wharton), very passionate about her job (that was evident in her presentation), and that she is very statistics-oriented. Statistics helped drive her decision making. Looking at her presentation, you could tell this was true. There was an abundance of data and charts. Clearly, numbers ruled for her.

Ah-ha! That's when the light bulb went on for us. We needed a way to communicate how her complex presentation was making it difficult for the audience to understand her message.

Enter the Gunning Fog Index. For someone statistically-minded, it the simple tool (and equation) used to illustrate how difficult her speech actually was to understand helped her overcome her own familiarity with the topic and look at the presentation with more objective eyes.

For the record, her first REVISED draft was so high on the Gunning Fog Index that it was at the comprehension level of a 4th year COLLEGE student--not at the level of a 7th or 8th grade HIGH SCHOOL student, like it needed to be.

By presenting her with a way to measure the result she was able to simplify the presentation and communicated the key points in a very clear manner.
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Graphic Recordings at an Event

What you see above is a "graphic recording" of a session we hosted at e4 in Orlando this year. (The session was Brain-Based Events, and you can click on the graphic above to see it at a larger, easier-to-read size.)

E4 has always been great about introducing new innovations in the event and meeting industry and putting them into practice at their own event. This was no exception--we were treated to a graphic recorder right on the side of the room in the general session. The objective was to provide the audience with an instant, graphically stimulating portrait of the presentation to appeal to visual learners.

Like many innovations, there were some great elements and some not so great aspects to the graphic recordings. Here are our general impressions from a brain-based perspective:

What worked:
  • Having the graphic recordings posted around the room past the session they were "drawing" was a great recap and reminder of what was covered. It also provided a colorful, visually stimulating environment.
  • Having the graphic recordings scanned and available post-event was extremely cool. It was easy to reference a presentation.
  • The graphic representations made it easy to recall chunks of information in a presentation and they made for a great review tool.
  • Graphic recorders had an opportunity to go back and "amend" the recordings with extra information past the session (or at least they did during our session).

What didn't quite work:
  • Having the graphic recorders at the front of the room pulled focus. The novelty aspect of the graphic recording was constantly demanding your attention (and seeing something moving out of the corner of one's eye while focusing on the presenter was slightly off-putting).
  • The brain can't multitask, and the tendency was to switch from the drawing to the presenter with little success at "getting" the information from either source while it was occurring.
  • When the recordings were i-mag'ed on the main screen, they were incredibly distracting.
  • The graphic recording wasn't instantaneous, and as a result if one was watching that element, it tended to drag quite a bit or was incongruous with the information at hand.
If one were to use graphic recording, our suggestion would be to have the graphic recorders on the side or back of the room, and use the recordings primarily as a review tool post-session. (And we *love* the idea of walking in the second day, or after a break on the first day, and having those big, bright sheets detailing the previous days or presentations before.)
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Doodling Along

The photo to the left was taken during the recent Kagan hearings. (Credit: AP photo)

It shows Minnesota Senator Al Franken doodling while the hearings are taking place. This has been remarked on positively and negatively, and while we won't touch the partisan politics, we do believe that this photo illustrates (pun intended) a point.

I, myself, am a meeting-doodler. This has frustrated some bosses I've had, because they take the doodles as a sign of disrespect or inattention. The truth is, however, that I need to sketch, doodle, write, etc. (do something!) with my hands while I'm listening to a presentation. It helps me focus...and I'm not alone in that. (Sen. Franken, for one, appears to be in this camp as well.)

This is why, when we design meetings, in addition to any structured workbooks, sheets, etc., we always suggest blank notebooks. It appeals to the kinesthetic learner--those who need to move to learn.

Some people will write notes (and even if they never look at them again, the act of writing them down helps cement the knowledge), some people will doodle (forming strong visual associations in their mind along with keeping their hands busy and brain focused) and others won't use them/don't need them. Whatever the audience's personal involvement with their notebook, everyone needs the option of having a space to physically write, doodle, draw, note-take. It doesn't mean that their attention has waned, in fact, quite the opposite.
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Homer Simpson Builds a Computer: An Event Design Parable

I recently caught an episode of "The Simpsons" where Homer (the bumbling father character--on the rare chance that anyone reading hasn't been exposed to "The Simpsons") decides that he wants to build his own computer.

Ever-ambitious, he gathers up the necessary supplies and assembles his masterpiece. He knows that a computer needs a keyboard, so he gets a typewriter. He finds a television set for a monitor. He attaches a CD player for a CD-rom drive. This continues on. All the elements come together and finally, Homer has a machine with all the functional parts of a computer.

But it doesn't work.

Just because all the elements are there, doesn't mean that it can perform the desired function, or produce the correct result.

We see the same thing happen with a lot of presentations in an event. (Or an event as a whole.) Not that we'd dare say that any meeting planner is akin to Homer Simpson, but they fall into the same trap.

They have the PowerPoints. They have the presenters. They have the content. They have the audience. They have the staging and breaks and food and evening activites. ALL elements have been collected, put together, and voila! Event!

The problem is, these individual elements don't make an event. Just as a computer is more than the sum of its parts, an event has to have every element designed with the outcome in mind. Just having content doesn't mean that the audience will absorb it. Having PowerPoint doesn't mean that there's a good presentation.

This is where event design comes in. When the event is designed with the brain in mind, instead of the individual elements that make up an event, the audience walks away knowing, doing and believing in the key objectives. Next time an event is being produced, don't just think about each element going into place--think about the whole direction of the event.
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Up in the Air about Virtual Meetings

I know, I've been writing a lot lately about virtual events (both pros and cons). The topic seems timely and has captivated certainly the training world as well as the event world--so it makes sense that I keep coming across it on a day-to-day basis.

This weekend, I watched the recent blockbuster "Up in the Air", and I couldn't help but revisit the topic.

Putting all romantic and personal growth plot lines aside, at the heart of the movie is a company considering switching its face-to-face business into the virtual conferencing space. They're doing it for the reasons that I see a lot of companies eschewing in-person meetings for online conferences:

• It saves significant money on travel costs
• It saves time/energy on traveling
• It's new technology and therefore appealing
• It theoretically provides the information needed

BUT this company fires people--that's their product. George Clooney's character argues that this simply can't be done any way but face to face. By the end of the movie, the company has transitioned back to sending people on the road for in-person meetings instead of continuing to use the virtual solution.

Interesting to note here that this seems like a prime example of where virtual meetings would be most useful. All the numbers add up, the technology is there, etc. But at the heart of the movie we find that there are just some messages that have to be delivered face to face. People were insulted that they were told such life-changing news as a layoff, and there wasn't even the courtesy of having a person in the room with them. They were stuck staring at a video screen. How cold.

Companies utilizing virtual technology are, in some instances, doing so in reaction to economic hardship of some sorts. It's a cost-saving measure like anything else. But when they're not meeting in person, and are delivering OTHER economically sensitive news, what message is that sending to employees? That they don't care enough to look them in the eye and tell them that the annual yearly report isn't looking so great?

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to be harsh. I understand perfectly the constraints of budget. However, one cannot ignore the human factor in the virtual world. And that, so far, is missing to me.
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Hybrid Events: The new crop of conferences.

We recently attended the Virtual Edge Summit, where the big buzz centered around "hybrid events". We have hybrid corn, hybrid pets, hybrid cars...in this modern day and age, it was only a matter of time before we got the hybrid event.

So what the heck is a hybrid event, anyway?

Simply put--a hybrid event is the blend of an in-person conference with a virtual component. This can be done several ways:
  • The event can be simultaneously broadcast--streaming from the live on-site event to the virtual event site online in real-time (in theory, both in-person and virtual attendees get the same content).
  • The live event can be re-played in the virtual space on a delay or with additional content.
  • The virtual event can supplement the live event--adding only additional content to the event, giving attendees a richer experience before or after the live event.
Wisely--though virtual events have become a solution to decreasing travel and production budgets--we haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In-person events may be toned down or reduced in size, but they still have undeniable appeal and value, and are regarded correctly as necessary. Going to an entirely virtual solution is not a route that companies seem eager to travel. (And virtual events present their own unique set of challenges where audience engagement is concerned.)

The main fear of event producers with the advent of the virtual event and hosting a hybrid event is that the virtual component cannibalizes attendance at the live event. I can see where this would be a concern, but initial forays into event hybridization have shown that: A) People who weren't going to attend an elective conference in person still won't attend in person; B) People who really wanted to attend in person will still attend in person; but it adds another component C) People who weren't going to attend in person might check out a virtual event and people who wanted to attend but couldn't now have that option to them open as well; and D) Virtual events can create buzz for the in-person event, increasing attendance there, too.

While we see the promise in hybridizing events, there's a danger in thinking that a broadcast of a live event is an adequate virtual event. A death-by-Powerpoint situation in a live setting is not improved by moving it into the virtual space. In fact, it's more difficult to capture and retain the attention of your audience when they're in front of their computer--one of the biggest distraction-makers and multi-tasking tools out there.

So while the future of a hybrid event is bright and undeniable, this is a prime opportunity to rethink the presentation of content and to tailor it for a broader virtual space.
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Deja-Conomy and Audience Advocacy

Business persons practicing through the 1980's are feeling a striking sense of deja vu with the current economic situation.

The impact on businesses--particularly in regards to how they view their events and meetings--is also similar.

We reflect back to when Live Spark was in its infancy, and Dan Yaman, our founder, regales us with tales of companies in difficult times; merging, scaling down, participating in acquisitions, etc.

In fact, Live Spark's predecessor company was started on Black Monday--and the term ignorance is bliss had never been more true. It may not have seemed like the best time to start a business, but it ended up being the perfect time for the company to introduce itself to the world.

At the time, Live Spark was known as Interactive Personalities--specializing in AniMate technology--real-time animated characters--instead of the entire spectrum of event design.

What happened during that time, was that companies going through significant change due to the economy or simply restructuring started contacting Dan and company.

"We need an audience advocate," was the request. Companies were still bringing their employees together for meetings--in fact, meetings were even more critical than ever for getting everyone on board and reassuring them with the new company visions. But what companies realized was that their audience needed a voice.

An audience in a state of uncertainty, or sitting in a meeting unconvinced, is an audience that is not receptive to new messaging. Likewise, when a company has issues that are unresolved, not addressing these before moving forward into mission-critical content is like putting a drop of water in a bucket of soup; the water is still there, but it's diluted by the simmering broil of the pot at large.

An audience advocate--in the form of an AniMate--was a transformational presence in these events.

Instead of CEOs and Executives talking AT the audience, they were able to talk TO them in an intimate way--even in a crowd of thousands.

The audience advocate:

  • Kept the audience entertained and focused by interjecting humor.
  • Brought up questions that were on the minds of the audience when an new concept was introduced.
  • Voiced issues and objections so they could be addressed and the meeting could move forward.
  • Provided an opportunity for top-level personnel to show that they understood what was going on, and were "with" the audience.
  • Increased unity and feelings of company loyalty in a time where boosting morale and motivating employees was absolutely critical.

As we experience a deja-conomy of sorts in 2008 and heading into 2009, we're seeing more and more need for the audience advocate. As businesses find themselves in undesirable positions (or, sometimes, great positions, but with a high degree of change), the need for the audience to have a voice in the process grows. Though these AniMates have always been part of our toolbox, they fill a very specific niche in tough times that truly makes an impact.
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