How Winning Organizations Transform Their Conference Openings from Average to Unforgetable

“Logic will get you from A to B.
Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Albert Einstein

My name is Sam Glenn and for the past 20 years, companies and associations from every type of industry, have hired me for one very specific purpose. They want an exceptional conference opening that captures the human attention, creates focus, produces energy and promotes engagement for the balance of their event. It sounds like a mouthful, but a conference opening is the one segment that sets the tone for the rest of the conference.

The opening session either creates focus, enthusiasm and engagement or it’s business as usual and hoping for the best.

How do you know if you need to upgrade your conference opening session?

One big sign is if the best seat in the house is located anywhere in the back of the meeting room away from the front. If attendees scramble to fill up the back of a conference room first, it should communicate that people do not fully trust the stage or agenda of presentations that will be taking place. Their frame of reference for this reasoning is based on past conference experiences. They feel the safer place is away from the front or stage area. The good news is, with a little strategic planning, this can easily be adjusted. The front of a meeting room should be like a magnet that draws people in with readiness and excitement.

So, let’s play this out a little — let’s say your company is planning their annual conference for leadership. Your event will be held in Orlando, Florida. Most everyone arrives the day before the conference officially begins and there is an opening cocktail reception that evening. Then the next morning, breakfast starts at 7-7:30 and 8 am sharp the conference opening starts. The day is filled with general sessions, workshops, concurrent breakouts, networking, training, possible team building and extra curricular activities. The next few days are jammed packed with learning, and more networking and activities. By the time the conference is over, you are pretty much ready for a 12 hour nap. Sound familiar yet?

The question is, how will you (your company or association) start your event knowing that everyone is going to need a lot of energy and focus to be engaging, learn and participate???

Some organizations stick to the same format year after year because they are simply afraid to change or fear resistance from attendees. Let’s be real, nobody really loves change, but do you know what conference attendees dislike even more than change? A boring -no life -put you to sleep – same as usual opening session. Trust me, I give 100 + speeches per year, and after 20 years of doing this professionally, you pick up on what works and what doesn’t. If people aren’t engaged, then what’s the point of being there?

When you are planning your company or association conference

It’s important to understand the two most memorable or what I call “stick with people” moments to any event are – the opening and closing. Again, for the sake of this article, I’m gong to focus on the opening because the opening is the key segment that defines everything else.

Think of it this way – do you have a favorite sports team? Do you like when they won? Of course you do. Now, what do you think a winning coach might say to “your” personal favorite sports team before game time? Do you think the coach gets everyone pumped up, focused and ready to play? Or do you think the coach simply tells the players to hope for the best? If you had to pick an option for your personal favorite sports team, which option might you pick? When you want people to win, hoping for the best is simply not a winning strategy. The game plan must consist of raising the energy level, establishing focus and preparing for engagement.

Strategy is key to crafting an effective
and energetic opening conference session.

I subscribe to Steve Jobs philosophy, “Keep it simple.” This doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Here are 3 simple rules to transforming any conference opening from average to unforgettable! And by the way, these ideas are what Winning organizations do who desire their people to win everyday – in service, leadership, sales, teamwork, etc..

Rule #1. Energy is essential.

You want your opening session to have LIFE. If people have traveled in the night before, chances are they maybe a little fatigued. It means they have been working, had to pack, prepare and plan to attend. Their energy level may not be at a 10. Now, I travel over 200+ days a year. which puts me into a category called road warrior, however when I get off a plane, I feel exhausted. Travel equals fatigue. Take my word for it, travel by land or air, it can zap you of valuable energy. So imagine how unseasoned travelers might feel when they arrive to the conference? A lack of energy creates a lack of focus and engagement.

Creating an energetic opening doesn’t mean people have to be jumping all over or bouncing off the walls. If you watch or attend a Tony Robbins event, the reason he gets everyone fired up, jumping around and going full on bananas is a strategy. It’s done with a purpose. Tony does this to get people energized because they are going to require a lot of energy to learn, think and grow based on their week long conference agenda.

To get people focused and excited about learning, growing and getting involved, energy will be required. Coffee will help, but it won’t be enough.

Rule #2. Position presentations
and presenters with purpose.

Recently, I attended a conference and the opening was the CEO giving a 55 minute “meat and potatoes” kind of speech about the state of the company, partnered with a less than thrilling power point. All while the audience seemed out of it, tired, unfocused and disengaged. There was no part of that opening that captivated and connected. It was business as usual. Conservative or not, creating a captivating opening should be a huge priority if you value the overall purpose of why you are there having a meeting in the first place.

My suggestion: Position the meat and potato
type sessions for the middle of your event.

I understand a lot of elements have to be squeezed in to a very short time period. However, to be effective with these elements, it’s best to position them where they will have the greatest impact and connect with people verse just doing something to mark it off the checklist. Sandwich the heavy stuff between an awesome opening and a grand finale closing.

If your CEO or someone in leadership wants to do a greeting, that works and I think a warm greeting is always a must- but keep it simple. They should greet people, praise them for being there, maybe share a personal story and why they are looking forward to the conference – be heartfelt and connect. Then follow that with a really great opening presentation that fuels people to go from fatigued to charged up. The goal of a great opening is to get everyone focused, ready to participate, learn, grow and be engaged. This is smart and strategic planning.

You want to be strategic about who and what you position in the opening. It can be fun, creative, entertaining or balance out part of the opening that may entail heavier agenda objectives. What I often suggest to my clients is they don’t have to overhaul everything, but implement some balance.

Sometimes when I speak at an opening, the first half of the opening may be on the heavier side, but my program balances everything out going into a break. Think about it, you probably don’t want to start things off with a social media presentation, a panel session or a sad story kind of presentation. While those may be great segments to have depending on your group and agenda, they are not effectively positioned as strong in the opening.

The reason my clients love opening with my presentation is that it’s not to content heavy, but it’s a session “purposely designed” to get the audience focused and ready for the rest of the meeting. I have done this for every industry you imagine and it works for all of them – healthcare, real estate, employee meetings, insurance industry, banking, education, sales, leadership, sports, plumbing, administration, retail, government, legal, manufacturing, oil, agriculture, food and that list goes on and on.

Often, I am the only non industry speaker at these events, but I am there with a purpose – I am an expert at kick starting a meeting. My clients want that because they more than want the entire event to be a great experience for their employees or members.

There are so many unique and creative ways to open a conference. One of my clients in the banking industry hired a famous drummer to kick start things and he brought the place to their feet. It got so loud, the conference center thought there was an earthquake. That’s awesome!!
I’m not suggesting a drummer for your opening, but it’s an idea.

Now remember, not all openings have to be
over the top, crazy or insane.

It’s about positioning the right presentation that will set the right tone. My personal tools for creating engagement involve using humor in my speeches and performance art that visually communicates a simple message. At the end of the conference, the group that hired me might auction my painting off for a special cause they support. It normally auctions between $2,000 -$29,000! I also give away a free painting to someone in the audience. So I try to make the experience fun, offer take away points that pertain to personal and professional growth, but most importantly set a tone of enthusiasm, focus and energy for the balance of the event.

Positioning is everything when it comes to a great conference opening session.

transform opening session with strategic plan
Rule #3. Have Fun.

The more fun you have, the better your event will be. Even if it’s a lot of training and informational sessions, you can still have some fun.

This last year, a few groups I worked with actually based their conference theme off the title of my book, Be Your Own Real Life Superhero. They decorated everything in a superhero theme and even allowed attendees to dress as their favorite superhero for the evening reception or pick a t-shirt at registration that signified their favorite superhero and inspirational quote. I personally like to make learning fun, and it creates more retention. It creates a memory that people talk about and look forward to again.

One meeting I spoke at last month was a retail Jeweler, and they did it right. From the start they made energy, focus and engagement a priority. They were impressive to say the least. But the key factor was the leaders and planners worked as a TEAM, worked hard and had an incredible amount of fun in the process. It transferred over to all the attendees. They all had fun!!
Fun is one of my favorite attitudes and a key element to Winning in life and setting the tone to a great conference.

If you found this article useful, please share it with someone in your organization who could benefit from it.

Sam Glenn
Award Winning Motivational Speaker, author and performance artist
Celebrating 20 years of empowering and inspiring conference openings
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