How tightly should you pack your event agenda?

How much information should you pack into your event, and how full should your event agenda actually be?

For a lot of our clients the thinking is: Well, we have everyone here and it was expensive to bring everyone 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.

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.

Presenters: Meet the Gunning Fog Index

The world is full of very smart presenters at very large companies in prestigious positions doing important work.

When they give presentations, their audiences may be equally brilliant, MBA-laden, rocket-scientist-level persons. BUT that doesn't exempt the presenters from being subject to the Gunning Fog index.

The Gunning Fog index is a measure of how well the written word will be understood by its intended audience. It measures (in English) by grade level. (I.e. If the Gunning Fog Index was "10", then the piece requires that someone has a 10th grade reading level to easily comprehend the piece.) This is measured by a combination of word length and familiarity. For universal understandability, most written pieces should have a Gunning Fox Index of 8, though many things can be understood up to level 12.

HOWEVER, comprehension is trickier with spoken word. We can read much faster than we can comprehend spoken language. When one is presenting at an event, the goal is to convey information and captivate the audience. The audience, therefore, shouldn't be expending subconscious (or conscious) brain power trying to figure out what you're trying to say. Comprehension is the first key to retention: the more they have to figure out WHAT you're saying, the less they'll remember.

A spoken presentation should be BELOW level 8.

So what's a presenter to do?


1. Not everyone understands your vernacular. Especially in niche-departments (i.e. engineering, marketing), colleagues can develop their own vernacular that is easily understood between close partnerships, but will be opaque to a broader audience. Use simple language, not cliches or corporate colloquialisms.

2. Run your speech through the Gunning Fog Index. You don't have to be precise or modify EVERY troubled word, but running your speech through the Gunning Fog Index (here's a quick tool) will give you a general idea of how tough your speech would be to understand.

3. Run your speech by your home partner or a colleague outside your department. If they get the gist of what you're saying, chances are your audience will too.

4. Simplification doesn't mean "dumbed-down". Seeking clear speech doesn't mean patronizing your audience. Giving examples, switching up your media, adding engagement, and simplifying your language will all keep your audience engaged without making them feel like your speech is a reiteration. There are certain things that are simple and captivating. Check out examples of How It's Made: These are complex processes that one would not necessarily find familiar--distilled to engaging components. Specialized terms are also explained.

Infographic: Sales Meetings for the Sales Brain


Using QR codes

We found this whiteboard snapshot floating around the internet:
We found it incredibly funny. We do get clients who want to use a QR code for their event. Sometimes they can be useful ("checking in" to certain elements for an event--like in a scavenger hunt) but mostly it's unnecessary. People generally don't know how to utilize the QR codes, or information could be more easily conveyed in a way that ISN'T a QR code. 

Additionally, a lot of people still have to install additional apps/QR readers to process QR codes. This leads to permissions and personal vs. company phone issues.

So our response (with some exceptions) skews toward this flowchart. 


Part 5: A newness perspective check

One of my friends recently attended a big corporate event at his company. Naturally, I was curious about his experience as a regular plain-guy attendee, so I peppered him with questions. I asked him about activities and team building and PowerPoints--not-so-stealthily conducing my own focus-group-of-one.

He patiently answered my questions, but when he came to the team building activity, his eyes lit up. "Oh, there was this REALLY cool thing. We all got drums...and we were led by this guy and he had us drumming and eventually we were all creating music together...and it was just SO COOL and I've never done anything like that."

I rolled my eyes and started to fill in the details for him; describing the drums and the outfits the leaders typically wore and the schtick in their routine. After all, how many drum-based team building activities have I seen at events? A dozen? More? The light dimmed in his eyes as he realized that this was something rather commonplace. I felt like I had just let the air out of his tires.

The point is--event planners have seen a lot. Audience members, as a rule, have not seen as many things as we have. It's helpful to remember this when dismissing elements as "been there, done that". After all, I've never seen an audience so bored and unaffected as when I attended an event-for-event-planners.

Events are your world, not theirs. Your audiences--unless they are meeting planners themselves--do not live, breathe and eat events like you do. They don't think about the details--they go with the experience...and the experience is novel in and of itself. Most people don't go to events on a weekly, monthly, or even bi-yearly basis. Only attending, say, one event a year gives a lot of leeway for experiencing new event concepts and ideas.

What's old to you is new to them. That being said, the average audience member hasn't experienced the full event environment often. Something that feels old because you've seen it two dozen times before may be brand-new to them, or even still feel really fresh if they only experience it at the event once a year.

They pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: they get lost in the experience.  The average audience member has no idea what is going on behind the curtain; what elements had to come together to produce the experience. Because the event is outside their typical routine in so many ways, they tend to take it as a whole. This means they're both very adaptable (more willing to try new things because they're outside of their comfort zone anyway) and somewhat forgiving.

Event elements can feel like tradition. While it may seem old hat to you, participants can look forward to a stable, consistent element at an event. For instance; playing a traditional game show every year might feel stale to you, but it might be a competitive element that the audience looks forward to year after year.

It's often helpful to take off the event professional glasses and see the event through the perspective of the audience. Sure, you've seen a million motivational speakers do a million speeches, but that doesn't mean that it won't excite your audience. You've had it with round-style seating, but that doesn't mean your audience experiences that every day. Taking your audience's experience (or lack thereof) into account can be a refreshing take on your event elements.

Part 4: Here today, gone tomorrow...still at your event.

When something becomes part of the public consciousness, we joke that 5 years later we'll be seeing that anecdote/element at corporate events.

For a while, flash mob videos littered social media. Just this year a client came to us: "I have a fresh new idea...we're going to do a FLASH MOB at our sales event."

Eyebrows were raised. Eyes may have been rolled (just a little bit). At this point, it was already a stale trend, but the event world was just catching on.

Why do events lag behind pop culture? Why are we still (now) seeing Survivor-themed events, Harry Potter parties, flash mobs, corporate rap songs, and the guy who performs "the evolution of dance"?

The answer is multi-faceted:

It takes a while for some of these elements to become "safe". After an idea or concept has been in the public eye for a while it becomes less risky or edgy. This is why we see 50 Shades of Grey jokes tossed about at corporate events; it's longevity has dulled the taboo. That might be a very specific example, but things like corporate raps, dance groups, etc., were once considered risky or counter-culture and have now made their way into the relatively sterile environment of the corporate event without the teeth that gave them their cultural bite.

Social and peer proof is strong persuasion. Event professionals, naturally, have varying levels of risk tolerance--just like any other professional group. However, when one is putting on a large event with a large budget, one tends to go with tried-and-true solutions. Social proof--seeing an element be successful at a smaller event or even a similar event--is a powerful contributor to trend elements. Therefore, when one group utilizes a flash mob and they are asked for recommendations, the flash mob trend is passed to another group and so on. This can cause a ripple effect for several years--making a "trendy" element show up in the weeks and months and years past its freshness expiration date.

A lot of event planning is done years in advance. That being said, a lot of companies have a 1-2-3 year event plan, and popular speakers must be booked well in advance. That trendy Olympian from Sochi still has a good story, but their keynote doesn't seem fresh, new or topical anymore.

So what's an event planner to do?
  • Choose new ideas that are less trend-based and will stand up to years' worth of planning. For instance, basic concepts like team competition, multimedia presentations, etc., will always be on-trend because they're not tied to a specific moment in pop culture. A team competition may take on a "Hunger Games" (or similar) theme, but it can be easily modified to accommodate trends that are on the downswing.
  • Accept that some trendy ideas are a flash in the pan (but are still effective) and others will fizzle. Trend-based elements are always a risk. Fortunately, not everything will always go perfectly, and so long as the audience is still engaged and entertained, an event can withstand a few less-than-stellar elements. 
  • Don't base the whole event on a trend. Make a trend element a small or ancillary part of the larger event.
  • Try to gauge the demographic of the audience. A "hipster" theme night may seem stale to a young audience, funny to a slightly-older audience, and may be completely lost on the older demographic. Remember: Just because you "get" the trend doesn't necessarily mean your audience will understand the concept.

Part 3: Baby Steps to Big Impact

During our last entry on event trends and traditions, we noted that to persuade some members of one's team to embrace change, sometimes bargaining was needed.

Not only are half-measures sometimes necessary, but they are often *good* for your event. You don't need to re-invent the event wheel to bring change--and in some cases, to layer on metaphor, doing so is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Not everything has to be brand-new. It's tempting to go for a complete overhaul when consciously adding new elements to your event. After all, it feels good to have a fresh start. However, trying a ton of untested elements can lead to confusion and can be overwhelming for both the audience and the event design team.

Add freshness to stale elements: Some elements are unchangeable. If the president always gives the keynote speech at the beginning of the event, and it will be that way until s/he's no longer the president--well, there's not much the event designer can do about it. However, the element itself can be modified to incorporate new components. Maybe the standard q&a session features questions collected pre-timeslot on the event app. Perhaps after the president's address, the audience plays a game show to review key content and goal points. Perhaps the speechwriter works with the president to incorporate multimedia components. There are a lot of ways to make a stale element seem fresher by playing off the element itself.

Change/modify elements you want to keep: We had been producing an annual game show for a company for years. It was extremely popular and the company wanted to keep doing it...but it was also years-old. They didn't want to get rid of the game, but they wanted it to be different enough to be distinctive from other years. What we ended up doing was radically changing the way the game was played. We added team captains, physical challenges, and a random-raffle element to freshen up what was traditional (but that needed an update).

Slowly incorporating new elements: Maybe this year is the year of the event app; but that doesn't mean that all paper agendas should go away, for instance. While complete adoption can force participation, sometimes the learning curve is just too steep to make an element effective at an event. When this happens, it's hard to see whether an event element is truly unsuccessful, or if was just executed in a non-ideal way.

Isolate new event components: Along those lines; you may want to isolate the new components of an event so that they are independent of the other components. When one thing doesn't work ideally, the whole system doesn't shut down.


Part 2: Persuasion for People Who Don't Want Change

We attend this event every year that is dedicated to showing internal event planners the latest and greatest in the industry. The audience leaves the event totally psyched about all the new possibilities they can bring back to their event in large and small ways.

And what we hear--time after time--is that they return to their team brimming with ideas and innovation and... are hit with the death-knell for creativity: "But we don't NEED to change anything. What you're proposing sounds risky. What we're doing now is fine. I's okay...not too many people complain. Why risk it?"

Some people are strongly motivated by security and a lack of risk--especially when it comes to putting on an event with, say, 3000 of their biggest clients. NOT EVER changing your event--even if what you're doing is working--leads to a stale event. There are tons of new technologies, creative ideas, presentation formats, etc., that are improving events every day. To reject them all summarily is madness--and yet we hear it all the time.

So how does one take brilliant new ideas back to their team and get them to adopt some of those ideas in the face of such aversion? We don't promise miracles, but here is some advice:

Provide examples
Give examples of other companies or events that have employed the same tactics with success. More than that, though, provide examples of exactly how what you're proposing will work; where it comes into play, what it looks like in the event, how it could be used outside of the event, etc.

Peer testimonials
Get testimonials not only from your own peers in the event industry, but also from the peers of the people you're trying to win over. How have other VPs been impressed by the same thing you're suggesting? What impact has it had on their event? Were they skeptical at first but saw how amazing the concept was once it played out? 

Put them in the moment
Try to immerse your team in the moment of the event through demonstration and examples. If you want to use a new social media platform, for instance, start trying it out during your planning meetings. If you can get them to attend an event employing a similar strategy--do it. Seeing is truly believing.

Make a bargain
You can provide the best examples, testimonials, and illustrations and there are still some people who will say, "That's fine, but that's THEIR group, not our group." The truth of the matter is that--despite huge demographic differences--all audiences have some pretty basic needs. They want to be entertained and engaged. They want to be interested. They want to play along (even if it takes some good pre-framing). To get the event strategy that you want, you may have to bargain. Baby-steps are better than no-steps-at-all, and if they agree to employing something for the first day (knowing that if it doesn't work it can be redacted completely on the second day) may make them more willing to try something different.

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Part 1: Is your "trend" worthy?

Before incorporating something "hot" and "trendy" into your event, it's worthwhile to weigh the benefits of the trend against its potential harm.

Harm? Well, we're not talking about any deep, lasting effects on your attendees, but sometimes doing something trendy for the sake of trend can have a negative effect on your event overall--especially if it's not thought out.

Some examples of trends that we've seen that have obvious benefits, but that also have drawbacks that are worth measuring against the actual impact they might have at an event. Often times, the difference that they make is minimal compared to the amount of hassle or time one has to spend encouraging attendees to get on board with the application/trend.

Here are a few trends at recent events that have had some great benefits, but also some obvious drawbacks.  This list isn't comprehensive, of course--and any time you choose to incorporate technology (especially bring-your-own-device) it comes with its own set of issues: privacy concerns, a social vs. professional tension, and basic logistics--like phones running out of charge or being unable to transmit in a no-reception ballroom:

Hashtags: distraction or discussion?
Creating an event hashtag and using it to start discussion, recap presentations, and engage attendees in the ever-so-trendy social media world seems to be riding a wave of popularity. In some events, however, we've already seen this trend come and go; a brand-new thing one year that doesn't quite pan out. The fizzle puts it on the do-not-repeat list for the next event, because the hassle is often not worth the payoff.

  • We've seen some truly unique interactions come out of the Twitter hashtag--participants can engage personally with a keynote speaker and get questions answered that wouldn't normally come up at the event. 
  • Attendees can engage with each other in a less formal, peer-to-peer way.
  • Twitter feeds at the event can give a real-time pulse of what's going on, and can help solve attendee problems/answer questions at-moment.
  • The hashtag feed gives you an opportunity to make the event encompass the entirety of the time together--not just the general session or breakouts.

  • Adoption has generally been low; people either don't have a Twitter account to engage, or don't want to use their own personal account for a business event (and don't want to create a new account for the sole purpose of the event, either. 
  • The few people who *do* end up participating in the Twitter feed tend to be heavy users (there isn't a lot of moderate participation), and have their own cliquish event discussion apart from non-using peers. This also leads to nose-in-the-phone syndrome during event time.
  • Generating enough use for the hashtag/feed is continual work; presenters, materials and staff are continually "marketing" the hashtag--or it doesn't get used.

Apps: True value or phone clutter?
Many companies have invested in making their own smart-device "apps" for an event. This seems to be particularly common in events where the audience is external (like association meetings), though we've also seen internal event application.

  • Logistics--like agendas, housekeeping, where-to-meet, when to check out, etc. can be updated in real-time and paperlessly.
  • Allows for internal, somewhat-more-secure networking between attendees and things like quick attendee profile access, access to speaker bios, etc. 
  • Enables branded access to the event in a way that extends beyond breakouts and general sessions.

  • Requires a dedicated app manager and, also, dedicated staff to assist in download and instruction for attendees.
  • Many apps we've seen have had various complexity and functionality issues; i.e. loading and navigating the app was slow enough to make it virtually useless.
  • Compliance and adoption tends to be low: company devices often restrict the download of external apps, many attendees don't want an additional program on their personal phones, some will neglect or forget to download the app before the event, etc.

Vine/Instagram: Privacy versus people.
Remember when a lot of events had Facebook Pages, trying to incorporate social media almost in a for-its-own-sake social media push? That trend fizzled quickly with concerns over personal and professional privacy. However, some companies are encouraging the use of other up-and-coming social media darlings in a more piecemeal, personal way with Vine and Instagram.

  • Human element: Little Vine videos and Instagram pictures really capture the *people* that are at your event in a way that your event photographer might not be able to do. These can be great mementos and reminders of the event post-show.
  • Capture cool moments: Inevitably there are many little "viral" moments at an event that become running jokes or themes. Capturing and displaying them gets your audience involved and actively participating in the event.
  • People are already utilizing/familiar with these technologies. There is a potential for wider exposure of your event through your attendees' existing networks.

  • On the other hand, there is potential for wider exposure of your event through your attendees' existing networks.  The public nature of these mediums makes it an uncontrolled element, and attendees may not want to mix professional and personal personas.
  • Incrimination. If your VP has a few too many cocktails at a networking reception and lets a bit of proprietary information you have it on record. Sure, an after-hours karaoke meet-up for attendees is a fun idea--especially if they've had a full, productive day in working sessions--but out of the context of the a public the hands of the media...will it look like a boondoggle?
Sensational moments: Budget-blowing distraction or Millennial attraction?
Recently we were at a presentation geared toward making events attractive to the Millennial generation. The presenters suggested creating sharable moments--big, sensational elements in an event that attendees couldn't resist telling their friends about. This isn't something that's new for this generation--companies have been doing big event openers for ages--but what goes around comes around, and the sensational moment is trending yet again.

  • Sharable: Attendees want to talk about a great big-name comedian, a personal fireworks show, a giant character from their favorite show, a cool meal presentation, etc. Having a sharable moment can generate buzz for your event.
  • Thoughtfully crafted, a sensational moment can fit with the brand or theme of your event.
  • A big opening sets the tone and expectation at an event.

  • Hard to live up to. If your first moment of an event is a huge gospel choir leading everyone into the room, having your extra-dry VP give a finance update is going to seem especially painful. You don't want there to be too much up-and-down at your event; the energy level should increase not crash and burn.
  • Often times, these sensational moments don't further the message. So the impact is superficial, and not sustainable. 
  • To make a true impact, budget is often needed--and often lots of it. We had a client that wanted to make a huge deal of raising a ship's flag on stage: multiple people, lights, sound, everything. In reality, however, the flag was about 6' total and took about 4 seconds to raise--so it looked ridiculous. Is the budget worth the moment of impact is a question that needs to be considered very carefully--especially if the moment isn't going to have an impact throughout (or after) your event.
I'm sure we're missing a few trends (flash mobs still haven't died out entirely), so if you have any other suggestions feel free to share them.

Trends aren't bad--they're trends for a reason--but before you incorporate that hot new trend that every event is doing, consider:
  • Does it add value?
  • Is it "worth it" to your attendees?
  • Is the extra effort giving you a big enough payoff?
Because if it doesn't do ANY of those things, then incorporating a trend doesn't make your event fresh--it just adds a cumbersome element. 

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