IT'S easy to become complacent with the routine. "We've always done our general sessions this way--it's the way our agents like it!" But we can almost always improve our sessions--often at little cost. And attendees will definitely notice the difference. Here are a dozen ideas to help add some spice to your general sessions.
The Basics * Use a custom-designed stage. Instead of the gray rectangle with black skirting, hire a set design company to create a stage to fit your conference theme. If your budget is limited, you may be able to rent a set that works with your theme. Many companies have sets that were custom-built, but can be reused with little or no modification.
* Use walk-in/walk-out music. This is a simple idea, but selecting the right music and playing it properly can add a lot to a general session. We usually play background music for 15 minutes before our general session begins, and then again as our people leave. The volume should be low enough so that people can talk over it. Try to select music that fits the locale.
* Special lighting. Speakers who are lit properly from the back, as well as the front, look much better to the audience--and to the video camera. If you don't have curtains behind your speaker, you can light a rear-projection screen with blue gels to create a pleasing color wash. White backdrops can be "painted" with colored lights, projected from the front, and you can use gobos to cast silhouetted images--these
elements can be changed often during the meeting. And the use of intellibeams or spotlights adds theatrical punch.
What's Your Sign? * Have effective signage. Break up the distance from the stage to the side walls with signage--perhaps your conference theme, or your company logo. Use "gator foam" or another lightweight material and hang the signs with transparent fishing line. If the backdrop is black, spotlight the signage. At Safeco, we hang and spotlight signs on either side of the stage, and we put our company logo on the podiums.
* Use your video/data playback screens for signage. If you have a rear-projection screen (or better yet, one on either side of the stage) for video or data, these can double as your signage. Project slides or a data image onto these screens when they're not being used for speaker support.
Get the Audience Involved * Image magnification (IMAG) works well when your audience is large or seated at a distance from the speaker, and is especially effective when the speaker or entertainer relies heavily on facial expressions or body language. The speaker's live image is projected onto one or more large screens using video cameras. I typically use IMAG if my audience is larger than 500 theatre style, or 400 banquet style.
* Audience response systems. You can rent both hard-wired and wireless systems. Either kind allows attendees to respond to questions using individual keypads, and the results of the poll are instantly displayed.
* TelePrompTers. Consider using Tele-PrompTers if your company speakers depend on their notes too much, or have a tendency to look down rather than maintain eye contact with the audience.
One Step Beyond * Video puppets and robots. The use of interactive personalities is an effective technique to liven a presentation. A puppet or cartoon character, "live" backstage, is projected onto a screen on stage, interacting with the emcee or speaker. Alternatively, a robot can be on stage and interact with your emcee and/or speakers.
* Lasers or pyrotechnics. Lasers can be very effective, especially in sales meetings where you're looking for some "rah, rah," and the new ones do not require the use of fog or smoke. You can also use fireworks, or explosive charges. Obviously, you want to choose your vendor with care.
* Virtual-reality sets. Virtual-reality sets combine the emcee or speaker with a software-based set, or background, and use techniques like real-time animation and 3-D graphics. Seen by the audience on a large screen, the result can appear as if the person is speaking to them from anywhere in the world. The speaker is usually just off stage in a blue or green seamless "cove," commonly known as a cyclorama. These sets are often available to rent.
* Dancers/Singers/Theater. You may have access to people with special talent--a children's choir, a dance group, etc. If you're on a Disney property, you can arrange for a "character" opening or closing to your meeting.
There is an arsenal of technical aids at your disposal to help liven up your general sessions, limited only by your budget--and your imagination.