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
Head cook
Auxiliary cook
Marketing materials

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.

How to select a keynote speaker who doesn't suck.

In today's events, keynote speakers are still a draw--though they can be looked at with a weary and skeptical eye.

"I just hate it when people try to rah-rah motivate me," I was talking with a friend who had experienced her share of bad keynote presentations, "I mean, they can be so fake. Then they're done and you're like...whatever."

Indifference and level of eloquence aside--she has a point. We can always tell when a keynote speaker is truly GOOD when the av crew is listening along. They've heard it all--many times--and it takes a unique talent to break through the jaded facade of the shadowy characters backstage.

Sitting backstage, I've also personally cringed as I've watched keynote speakers lose their audience. They had them one moment and then they slip away or, worse, turn against the speaker. A keynote speaker is a huge investment, and you want to make sure you get that return on your investment.

Here are some tips for selecting a keynote speaker (who doesn't suck):

Make sure they match your industry and audience.
We once listened to a keynote speaker make a lot of great points and analogies for how the audience could be successful at sales. It was truly inspiring!
...the audience was made up of public service workers who had zero interest or involvement in sales. In fact, not only was the heavy emphasis on sales irrelevant, but it also left a bad impression with the audience--whose values were not aligned with those of the keynote speaker.

Similarly, not all subjects translate across all fields. You wouldn't want a serious poet speaking at a tanning convention, as an extreme example. A lot of companies stumble here by picking sports figures as keynote speakers. While sports are universal and a relatively safe choice, they may be the wrong choice for a non-sports-oriented audience.

Willing to customize.
There may be times when you're willing to accept an out-of-the-box keynote speaker (if the wow-factor is just too high, maybe), but ideally, your speaker should be willing to spend ample time making sure their message fits your audience. There are always going to be recycled components in a keynote speech (gasp! You wouldn't expect them to start from scratch every time, after all), but there should be some customizable pieces as well. A good keynote speaker will have a variety of anecdotes and examples that they can change out for your audience; and it won't just sound like "insert company name here".

They should also be asking you for information about your audience, event, and company before their scheduled speaking engagement. If they don't, it's a red flag.

Just because they achieved something doesn't make them a good speaker.
Someone can be really famous, achieve a lot, be an impressive figure...and a crappy keynote speaker. Sometimes they don't know how to craft their story or present.

An internationally-famous Olympian sought our help in becoming a keynote speaker because his initial efforts had not been well-received. Instead of crafting a story the audience could relate to, his speech was basically: "I was really good at this sport. I practiced a lot and got better. I went to the Olympics and won. And you can do this in your life!"

Not only was it unrealistic, but it has no compelling challenge or call to action, and it only very loosely related to any obstacles your average audience member would face as a business person.
Your keynote speaker should have a relatable, compelling story with actual takeaways.


Your speaker doesn't have to be famous to be great.
Don't place too high a focus on name recognition. One of the greatest speakers we'd seen was an unknown college professor. Another was a salesman who had spent a significant amount of time in jail. The story and ability to connect with the audience and their goals is most important.

Which leads to the point...

Samples are good, anecdotes are better, in-person viewing is even better.
You can't always tell a good speaker from a mediocre speaker from their samples and clips. Video is a great start, but it generally does a poor job of capturing the energy of performance (kind of how fireworks are amazing in person and substantially less impressive in recorded form).

Whenever possible, see a performance in person, have a chat with the presenter on the phone, and gather anecdotes not only from attendees (who may not see very many speakers overall) but from unaffiliated event planners/production companies (and even av crews) who have seen it all.

Offer greater depth beyond the 60-90 minutes.
A presentation is only a moment in time. That may be all you want, and that's fine. However, you get more value out of speakers who have a broader range of capabilities. For instance, we've found that keynote speakers who can emcee an event can keep the energy high for a while day (or multiple days) and have the opportunity to build on their own principles/messages.

Some speakers also offer books and programs for post-event follow-up, however be wary of the quality of these materials. Just because a presenter can speak doesn't mean they're capable of writing a sustainable motivational program.

Interaction is key.
Again, for some purposes a speaker who talks at your audience for their allotted time is fine. Some have the storytelling skills to sustain this and some don't. However, you'll get a far more compelling keynote with a speaker who utilizes audience interaction. This is also the mark of a more agile speaker, as audience feedback can be unpredictable, and agility is more compelling than a tightly scripted recitation.

The Play is the Thing

Photo Property of Humans of New York
This photo was recently featured on Humans of New York with the anecdote:
“Back in the 30’s, I used to go to summer camp in Maine. Those were the happiest days of my life. There was a great freedom. I rode horseback, walked in the woods, went swimming, made new friends.”
“What was your happiest moment at camp?”
“One time I won a tennis match and got 50 points for my team. The whole camp was divided into two teams: Green and Tan. And we competed all summer long to see which team could get the most points. And 50 points was a really big deal! To give some perspective-- you’d only get ten points for riding on the gunnel of a canoe.”
Taken in 2015--years and years later this woman remembers the points she earned for her team.

When we try to encourage companies to break their audience into teams at an event and have them compete throughout the three days--we aren't making the recommendation for the sake of frivolity.

Adding in team competition:
  • Makes an event more memorable
  • Increases buy-in and participation
  • Encourages organic networking
  • Is an extended team-building activity
There's no mention of which team won, or prizes. It's about the points she earned contributing to her team. That's a powerful testimony to friendly team competition that can--and should--be leveraged at corporate events as well.

For more Humans of New York, visit the facebook page or website.

The Prudential Relocation Services Case Study

Prudential Relocation Services hired Live Spark to produce a game show for their national event. Here is what they did to make their game show a success in a large group.
Company: Prudential Relocation Services
Audience Size: 250

Game Show: Family Feud Style

Game Setup

The audience of 250 people was divided down the middle. One half of the room would be on a team, and the other half on the opposing team. Five game show contestants for each team were pre-selected to come and play up front. An engaging game show host led the teams through the rules and game play; teams had a face-off question to determine which team would get to answer the question, and then the “playing” team tried to uncover all the answers on the Feud board. Pre-determined judges stepped in to give rulings on potentially controversial answers. The winning team went home with “prizes”—the shampoo, conditioner and body lotion in their hotel hospitality kit.

What worked
Pre-selecting contestants: Because contestants were pre-selected, it was assured that they would be willing participants. This also eliminated the potentially messy process of trying to gain spontaneous volunteers. Contestants, however, were not “plants”, and did not have prior knowledge of the game show.

Having a designated host: Having a separate host aside from a “tech” running the game show made sure everything was smooth and seamless. The host could concentrate on engaging and working with the audience and contestants, and the game show tech could focus on running the software without a hitch.

Pre-selecting Judges: We’ve always been huge advocates for having judges during a game show. This way, when there was a controversial decision, or a team gave an answer that was close (but not quite accurate) the host and game show tech didn’t have to enter into the fray.

Inexpensive Prizes: We love the idea of using the hotel hospitality kit as a “prize”. It’s a fun way to give contestants something (and everyone in the audience something) without spending a lot of money on prizes that only increase competition and game show scrutiny. Everyone in the audience on the winning team got this prize—so everyone was cheering along. 
Good Questions: The questions were neither too difficult, nor too easy. They were compelling, clear and easy to read—and still provided entertaining, relevant review information.
 What Could Have Been Done Differently
Consistent rule enforcement: While rules were explained beforehand, and contestants were generally good at following the rules, at one point the host became lax on a few points. Instead of individuals having to guess an answer, teams started to collaborate—which increased the game time and added to a level of chaotic play on stage.

Timers: Answer timers were used only infrequently. This made the game show lag a bit. Teams got used to the idea that they could take as long as they wanted/needed to answer a question instead of answering right away. This led to more discussion and collaboration amongst team members, but lessened the entertainment experience for the audience.

Both the audience and the Prudential Relocation Services team were very happy. The game show was used as an after-dinner entertainment piece, but it also helped cement the content from the presentations earlier that day. Overall, Feud and the game show set up was an amazing success.

How do you define a successful event?

For some, the litmus test for a good event is perfectly executed production.
Certainly, perfectly executed production is something to strive for and is a joy to behold. However, there are more meaningful ways to measure success at an event that go beyond "everything went off without a hitch".

Was the content on-point?
Did you convey what the audience need to hear in a way that made them receptive to the content? Was the content engaging and immediately relevant to the audience? If you had asked them what they wanted to know during the event (and you should), were those points addressed?

Did you interact with your audience?
Did you have dynamic, continual input from your audience, or were they static, chair-bound recipients of hours of monologues? Did they get a chance to engage, to get hands-on, to stand up, move around, synthesize information, talk and compete?

Do they know, believe, and do the right things after the event is over?
Events should have specific, achievable, actionable outcomes. Were these outlined at the beginning of the event and was there follow-through throughout? More importantly, does the audience believe that the event outcomes were achieved? Do they know what they're supposed to believe, know and do as a result of the event?

Did your audience leave the event in a better state than when they came?
The definition of better state can vary: is your audience leaving with more energy, or are they skeptical and worn out? Are they motivated? Did the event end on a high instead of starting with a bang and fizzling out at the end? 

Are there opportunities for follow-up after the event?
Are promises made at the event going to be delivered? Is there a way for new connections made to continue to be strengthened? Is there a post-event action plan in place?

Was it memorable?
Was the content delivered in a way that the audience is going to remember it? Were keynote speakers impactful, or merely entertaining? Did the event generate true moments of connection? Did it bring the team closer together?

Was it fun?
Events are a break from the daily routine. Even when they're covering very serious topics, there should be elements of fun. The fun should come from inside the general session and breakouts--not just at the bar or during social hours. Did it have lively sessions, competition, games, interaction, role-plays, etc.?

An event can be so much more that just perfectly executed production. In fact, it SHOULD be more than that--else it be a waste of resources. The veneer of an event is great when it's shiny and well-packaged, but there has to be more substance than just pretty wrapping.

What's the point of your event app?

Event apps are ubiquitous now--or they are certainly trending that way. Pre-event or in the first general session an attendee can be expected to be reminded to download the event app.

Adoption rates can vary, but many of our clients have experienced surprisingly low compliance. Rates tend to be higher with a captured internal audience and lower with an external audience (i.e. an industry event with attendees from many different corporations).

But why the heck are we using event apps, anyway? What's the point? Surely if they're being developed simply because they're the next thing and "everyone has one nowadays" it doesn't mean their being utilized to their full potential.

So what is the full potential? What's the point of your event app, anyway?

Event apps used well:
Push notifications for logistical changes: Letting attendees know--in real time--when you have to make adjustments out go to plan b can be incredibly valuable. Push notifications can also be great for important reminders or to highlight a key session or presentation.

Agenda at a glance: The event app allows for a nod to the green event. A lot of things that previously consumed copious paper resources can now be done on the app: agendas, evaluations, speaker bios, and more.

Social buzz: This is tricky. When designed correctly the event app can bring the audience together outside the general session, allowing them to share insights, play event-based challenges, post pictures, and even interact with key speakers. However, this can be difficult to generate organically.

Event apps used poorly:
No valuable content: An event app can't be just another thing to download on a personal device; only to be discarded after not being used at the event at all. It should be robust: an essential guidebook to the event itself.

Demanding too much personal data: Interaction with an event app can be severely curtailed if attendees fear it treads on their privacy, or even demands a level of personal interaction that they don't want to mix with their professional life.

Social buzz: The flip side of the social buzz coin is that it's not a "build it and they will come" feature. There has to be proper incentive to participate. There should also be plenty of participants so people don't feel like they're having a one-sided conversation. Conversely, the event organizers shouldn't be the only ones participating on the event app; it becomes inauthentic and promotional instead of fostering deeper relationships between attendees.
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Speaker's Corner: Asking questions to engage your audience.

We were recently asked, for the purpose of discussion: Should you ask your audience questions?

First off, there are a bunch of different types of questions in the context of the event: 

  • Letting them ask questions--where an audience can participate in a q&a session
  • Rhetorical questions--asking an audience questions that aren't intended to be answered
  • Questions to shape the presentation--where the answers to the questions you ask will you actually change your presentation
  • Knowledge questions--gauging what your audience knows about a topic
  • Competition questions--reviewing what you've told your audience to ensure comprehension
  • Questions to get demographics--finding out where your audience is at on a particular subject/topic.

Rhetorical Questions:
All questions have their place, of course, and they're a fantastic way to engage the audience. We naturally answer a question that's been asked within our heads--whether we do it consciously or not. That's why good speakers (I'm talking super-top-tier) will often pepper their speech with cues that get audience buy-in/engagement. Sometimes that's as simple as saying "right?" at the end of a point--at which time the audience will generally nod or make a physiological sign of agreement/engagement. It's not intended to be answered, and it's only effective if you know how to use the strategy. Too many rhetorical questions become a handicap to a good speech instead of an aid.

Q&A: Letting the audience ask questions: is a structured-unstructured process. I often find it more successful to let the audience write down questions and then have a specific, separate time to address them. This isn't to prevent the "flow" from being interrupted, but is, rather, another strategy for engagement. Lots of audience questions are very specific to a particular situation (that no one else in the audience might have) or are irrelevant to the topic. Or people ask questions seeking prominence and recognition with the speaker or their peer group. They can be really dull if not managed. (Not all of them--there are times when a good audience question session ends up really making the presentation great, but from what I've seen this is a rarity.)

Demographic and Shaping Questions: Asking the audience questions that are meant to be answered can certainly be a way of engaging them. Either you review knowledge by asking them rapid-fire questions about what you just covered, or you use the questions to gain datapoints/craft your presentation. The latter, of course, is only useful if you're willing to change things on the fly. There's nothing worse than being asked one's opinion only to have it thoroughly ignored--what's the point in that?

So if you're asking your audience how many of them have children to prove a point--and no one does have children--you should be prepared to shift your point instead of plowing forward. If the presentation needs to be tailored in reaction to a demographic question, be prepared to do so.

Knowledge and Competition Questions: Asking the audience questions as a review--either in competition context or just to self-test their knowledge--can be one of the most engaging tools in a speaker's toolbox. HOWEVER, this needs context within a presentation. One must prepare the audience to answer questions if they're not going to be in a structured game or competition. Prime the audience and give them permission to speak up--and let them know how to do so. If you have a multiple choice question on a powerpoint, are they supposed to shout out an answer? Vote? Raise their hands? Is it rhetorical or not? Clarifying this for your audience is key.

Competition questions can boost content retention--and presentation attention--exponentially. When the audience knows that they're going to be competing with their peers, they hyper-focus on the information at hand to gain the advantage and contribute to their team.


How creativity rules when an event goes wrong.

Stuff happens. 
Life happens. Nothing goes exactly according to plan ALL the time (and if you're reading this and saying, "It does at MY event," then 1. I don't believe you, and 2. Blessed are you among event producers, for you are nothing short of a miracle and shall be sainted by event producers everywhere.)

Lucky for, well, everyone--no one knows EXACTLY how the event is supposed to go save for you. Chances are that an overwhelming majority of the time the audience won't know that something didn't go as planned.

But sometimes BIG things happen. You can't know what will go wrong, but the best thing you can do is remain creatively agile. Have a backup plan in mind. We're not talking about moving the lunch inside when you're blessed with an epic tropical storm during your soiree, here. We're talking about content not going over, technical issues that stop the show, and things that just flat-out didn't play.

1. Have a contingency plan.
When you have many years of experience in events, you have a couple of activities or strategies in your back pocket that you can seamlessly insert into an event. It's good to have these planned out ahead of time. They can either be backup presenters (uh oh, if the CEO gets the flu, who is going to deliver her message the day-of?), backup activities (the team competition is incredibly skewed, how can you insert an activity that might balance the event), or other (we've gone 1 hour over time--what can be swapped out for something else or moved around).

Look at each place in your agenda and think, "What if?" We're not saying to start thinking like things ARE going to go wrong--just have a few tricks up your sleeve just in case. Sometimes plan b ends up going over better than plan a anyway.

2. Get a Character assist.
We realize that this is unique to our offerings in a way, but having an AniMate* to right the course can be an incredibly valuable tool at an event. One of the main issues with executing plan changes at an event is communicating the what, when and WHY. An AniMate can do this in the voice of the audience, make sure everyone is on the same page, and host additional activities or events without having to get an internal presenter up to speed on the fly.

3. Engage low-tech solutions for high-tech problems.
We've all had technology crash and burn (um, sometimes quite literally) at an event. You run the PowerPoints 100 times and the projector bulb goes out. You triple-check the video sound and someone unplugs and re-plugs a cable without running it one more time. The amazing event laptop AND backup system is wiped in the middle of the night by Event Goblins. Whatever. Technology is ubiquitous and can be flawed. The good news is that the low-tech solution can be a welcomed novelty when the high-tech plan fails.

Having a presenter sketch out their points on a flip-chart when the powerpoint goes down can be compelling and even force the presenter to speak more spontaneously and engagingly. Narrating a soundless video on the fly can be an exercise in improvisation with fantastic (and often humorous) results. Phone polling that ceases to function because ballrooms get notoriously poor reception can be replaced by a simple raising of hands...or an even more interactive standing up to respond.

The key with any event issue is agility and creativity. The best producers we've known have kept their head in times of uncertainty and chaos, taken a deep breath, and put forward several alternate solutions. They don't have to be perfect to work, and the audience doesn't know the difference most of the time anyway.

*An AniMate is a live, 3-D animated character who interacts with the emcee and presenters to communicate messaging, be the voice of the audience, add humor, and/or host the event.

Learning By Experience

Recently, Dan Yaman, President and CEO of Live Spark, was quoted in MPI magazine; highlighting how events must be interactive to be effective.

Learning By Experience 
by Wendy Helfenbaum | Feb 04, 2015

“Studies point out that the emotion does not have to be from the material that’s being presented, but it has to be generated in some way,” he says. “Being able to create a level of emotion through increased engagement and interaction is the biggest trend we’re seeing among our clients: How do you keep the audience at a peak state and create a fun experience?”

Ditch the Data Dump and Keep Things Simple

Too many conference sessions include overwhelming amounts of complex content, often worsened by presenters misusing PowerPoint.

“PowerPoint [presentations] should be clear so as to enhance what the presenters are talking about—anything else will create an overload situation, where the brain shuts down,” Yaman says. “Get the information honed down to what is absolutely critical. Make that information really meaningful and ask, ‘What do I want the audience to do after they leave?’ Make sure everything’s aligned to achieve those outcomes.”

People retain information more effectively when presenters combine art, science, psychology and fun—but preparing groups is crucial.

“At events, everyone focuses on the presentation phase, without fully preparing the audience,” Yaman explains. “We’ll spend a half-hour before bringing out the first presenter—even if he’s the CEO—to get the audience totally set up for success.”

By doing this, the audience is more likely to receive and retain the information, he says.

“Evoke a need for the material that’s being delivered by creating curiosity and a strong buy-in from the audience so they’ll really focus—put the responsibilities for the takeaways on the audience,” Yaman advises. “We say, ‘This could be the most powerful two days of this event. Are you willing to step up and put it all in?’”

Keep the Energy Alive
Next, control the room and the audience’s state of mind to keep attendees engaged by switching things up.

“If they go vacant, the client’s message is gone,” Yaman warns. “At four- or five-minute intervals, present the same information in a different manner: Tell a story, show a video, do a case study; just keep it alive.”

One way he accomplishes this is by occupying the moments between presenters with relevant, on-screen questions and arming the audience with remote-response keypads.

“It’s a shot of adrenaline that helps re-engage and re-energize the room for the next presenter,” Yaman says.

Live Spark also threads gaming elements throughout the entire event—as opposed to scheduling a single team-building challenge for one day—which fosters emotion while building upon education with quizzes pulled from presentations.

Yaman says. “We want people to be sitting at the edge of their seats, having a good time,” Yaman says.

He believes AniMates—computer-animated characters that show up onscreen throughout the event to interact in real time with people onstage—can greatly increase content retention and comprehension.

“It’s not the sophistication of the equipment—we could do the same level of engagement with a sock puppet,” Yaman says. “If you know how to create a rapport with the presenters and, more importantly, with your audience, these characters can break down complex issues into simple, relevant chunks that everyone will understand.”

Live Spark recently introduced Eddie the Eagle as a mascot for a heavy equipment company in South Dakota. Eddie voiced the audience’s concerns through live interactions with presenters while keeping the audience engaged.

“We’ve done studies for Gartner and found that the biggest indicator of whether someone thought something was successful was how much interaction they had with the other people in the audience,” he says. “A lot of learning happens in the moments when presenters and participants can interact with each other. Create different tracks so that people can go after what they think they need.”

Read the rest of the article "Learning by Experience" on MPI's website

How to: Kill your event with a Q&A session.

Recently we partnered with a client to re-design their one-day event. They had many goals; team building, building product knowledge, demonstrating different vertical markets, etc.

They also wanted to add a q&a (question and answer) session at the end of the day.

We advised against this. Strongly. But in the end, they were persistent and there was a half-hour q&a session at the end of the day. We watched the (up-until-then) fantastic, engaging, uplifting meeting spiral down into a pit of suck*.

*technical term

Now we're not opposed to q&a sessions. There are many reasons to do them--and many of those reasons are great:
  • They promote transparency
  • They allow executives or upper-level management to hear from "the people"
  • You can craft your content around more-relevant topics as you hear common questions
  • It's important for people to feel heard
However, so often q&a sessions are BAD.
  • They drag on too long
  • They're unmoderated and awkward
  • They take the event or content in a direction that is undesired
  • Worse, they take the event or content in a direction that is irrelevant or overly-specific
  • They turn into gripe sessions
  • They are uninteresting for anyone who is not asking a particular question
So mix a half-hour of q&a into a previously-lively, on-track event and BANG. You've killed the momentum.  So how can you still have a q&a session and leave your event alive and kicking?

Don't: Put your q&a session in a huge block of time at the end of the day.
People who have already been through a large amount of content are brain-tired and less receptive to answers, less likely to pay attention, and less likely to leave the event on a positive note.

Having a q&a session at the end of the day also eliminates your ability to respond to concerns or content shifts brought up in the q&a

  • Instead: Sprinkle your q&a in short chunks throughout the day.

Don't: Leave questions up to random chance.
People ask what interests them. Often times, questions are irrelevant to a large majority of the audience, or deal with an extremely specific situation. Questions can also become a forum for "bitch sessions" where people air more grievances than on Festivus.

Non-anonymous questions can also lead to "safe" questions only or a lack of participation.

  • Instead: Have question boxes in the meeting room where people can submit questions at any time. Ask these in your q&a time instead. This is a method to filter questions for the q&a session--but it isn't censoring the questions. All questions may be answered, just not immediately at the event. 

Don't: Have an unmoderated q&a session.
Both executives AND question-askers can lead a session WAY off track or make it drag on too long. You don't want attendees to be sitting with a sense of "when is this going to be OVER with, already" anticipation.

  • Instead: Have a panel and limit answers to a particular time. This keeps the q&a session moving along and provides a bit of lively levity.

We're not against q&a sessions--it's just that they so often become the Achilles heel of the event...and they don't HAVE to with a little restructuring and thought.
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