5 Ways to Herd Your Sheep: Getting your audience where you want them, on time.
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 WHATAudiences 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 behaviorWhen 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 timeHave 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 cuesDoing 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-timeSet 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
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.
How tightly should you pack your event agenda?
For a lot of our clients the thinking is: Well, we have everyone here and it was expensive to bring everyone here...so we're going to use every minute of our time!
One can see the (sort-of) logic in that. But utilizing every minute can actually be a WASTE of time (and money).
Not only does it leave the attendees exhausted and frustrated, but it also interrupts business and attendees can't possibly be expected to actually remember all the content in so intense a time-frame. It's just too much (and often times this is concurrent with bad learning design).
One of the biggest complaints we hear is that attendees don't have enough time on their own--or time to decompress (they go from general session to breakouts to team building to some orchestrated team dinner and networking session, etc.). When presentations run over-time, organizers shorten and sacrifice breaks and lunches and discussions. It's kind of crazy--and most certainly wrong--that a jam-packed event (that is supposed to be inspirational or kick off a great year ahead) can leave attendees more stressed out than motivated.
Why people pack agendas:
- Having everyone at the same place at the same time is a great opportunity to communicate a consistent message.
- They want to get the most "bang for the buck"; as long as people are there, they want to communicate as many messages as possible.
- They feel that downtime is wasted time.
- They feel that, left to their own devices, their audience might be bored or even organize their own non-sanctioned networking (i.e. drinking), and that it will distract from the event as a whole.
Why people shouldn't pack the agenda:
- Having the audience leave exhausted is no way to inspire them in the coming year.
- People simply cannot absorb the volume of information in a compressed period of time--especially without consistent reinforcement of the few most important messages.
- People need to take "brain breaks" to process and assimilate information. They need time to synthesize and make personal meaning from the messages they're hearing.
- People need to hear the same information and deal with it in many different ways--whether it's being creative with a message, having a little playtime or downtime to present their own interpretation, or simply going off to work on their own on a project.
- The audience still needs to conduct business--personal and professional.
- Some people simply cannot handle the constant pressure to be "on" at an event with their colleagues, and need some time to recover before the next day or session.
What you should do instead:
- Breaks are sacred: Don't shorten or sacrifice breaks for over-long presentations.
- Focus on a core set of messages/outcomes that you want to get out of an event, and have each presenter speak to those in some way.
- Include time for discussion and reflection: Attendees should get to talk about, deal with, and absorb the information they hear before being forced to move on to the next thing.
- Include creativity: the brain needs to play to interpret information. Having attendees participate with the messaging in a creative, fun way (like a team competition, game show, role play, etc.) gives the brain an "information dump" break and allows them to retain more information.