5 Ways to Herd Your Sheep: Getting your audience where you want them, on time.

Are your event start times accurate, or merely aspirational?

We hear, often, that clients have consistent issues getting their events to start on time (or to start on time after a break, lunch, etc.). Many clients accept and account for this, building time into the agenda assuming that the event will start two or three or five or ten or fifteen minutes late. Many don't, and a late start throws off the whole schedule for the day.

Many have the best intentions, but simply don't want to start their Big Event Opening with half a room full of audience. Many have huge audiences and unwieldy logistics that make moving that volume of people in and out of a space difficult to do in a limited amount of time.

Once late start times begin, it's tough to get an audience back on track. So: How do you herd these sheep? Or, more delicately: How do you get your audience where you want them on time?

1. Start on time NO MATTER WHAT

Audiences can be trained!
And like any trainable entity, they can either be trained in a positive way or a negative way. If meandering in 5 minutes late is the accepted standard and they know they're not going to miss anything, they is little incentive to change that. They've been trained to do it, and the time frame will only continue to be more lax.

Starting on time--no matter what--may leave you with a partial audience the first time or two. However, audiences learn quickly. If the expectation is to start on time--and that expectation is clearly communicated--then a majority will be in their seats on time.

Note: Prepare to start on time yourself. This includes allowing enough time for proper rehearsal, run through, and technical troubleshooting. Stuff happens, but too often meetings are derailed because a speaker can't be found or a video wasn't checked or a presentation wasn't updated.

2. Incentivize on-time behavior

When we put audiences onto teams (great for teambuilding, ongoing game shows within the event, team competitions, etc.) we will frequently give them points if their team is back on time. But ONLY if ALL team members are back on time. What happens is this:
A. Team leaders or members make sure that everyone else is back on time.
B. Peer pressure is strong: it only takes one person missing the points for their team one time and EVERYONE will be on time after that. (Opposing teams will also make sure that no one is slipping in.)

One of our methods of keeping team points is to hand out fake money. It makes a big impact to hold teams accountable for being on time by handing them a small stack of cash.

Note: You can also penalize lateness (i.e. if you're not in your seat when the event starts, you have to donate $5 to the company charity the first day, $10 the second day, $20 the third day, etc.). This also works, but we generally prefer carrot to stick--and peer pressure is something that's harder to write off than $5.

3. Utilize on-screen timers, all the time

Have timers for every walk-in, every break, etc....for the whole time. Sometimes lateness isn't intentional--people lose track of time, they forgot what you said when you dismissed them (was that a 25 minute break or a 15 minute break?), and they don't necessarily have their watched calibrated to yours if you don't say "be back at 12:21".

A lot of the time you'll get a count-down timer at an arbitrary place during a break. However, if you have an accurate count-down timer whenever doors are open, people can better plan their break time. They know how much time they have. They know, if they peek back in the room, that they have to hustle back to their seats, and this consistency also trains them to watch the on-screen timers and anticipate the start of the event.

4. Rely on rituals and cues

Doing the same thing, over and over, consistently will create rituals at your event that let your audience know what is expected of them--this includes coming in and sitting down on time.

There is a term in the industry for an opening video--it's called the "sit down, shut up" (or SDSU) video. When that video starts, the lights go down, and everyone KNOWS that the event is beginning. It also gives them a few moments to settle, but without continuing on conversations.

This doesn't have to be JUST for the opening--you can play the same video (or variations) after every break, returning from meals, and at the beginning of every day.

Music is also an extremely effective way to get your audience in their seats. Making conscious choices about music during breaks makes the absence of music very notable when it's time for the event to start. The lights dim/brighten, the music stops, the first presenter or emcee is announced, or the SDSU video plays. These are all cues that get your audiences back to their positions and ready to begin.

5. Create a culture of on-time

Set the expectation at the beginning of the event that everyone will be in their seats on-time. Too often this is something that is assumed, and audiences will feel that it's flexible (especially if it has been in the past). The event is a mutual investment--the company is investing time and money, and the audience is also investing their time; to be respectful of everyone and to get the most out of the investment, there needs to be an on-time culture.

If you're concerned about this seeming patronizing, have the audience set their OWN rules for a successful event (and we promise, this will come up).

Give them 5 minutes at their tables or seats to brainstorm, as a group, a list of guidelines that everyone should abide by.

Common things that come up when we do this:

  • Turn off cell phones
  • Be back from breaks on time
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Utilize networking time
  • Etc.

A peer-generated set of event guidelines that everyone makes a commitment to follow can be more powerful than rules handed down from on-high, but it makes a difference to (bare minimum) frame the expectations clearly.
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