• Popcorn

• Paper cones to fill with nuts and candy

• “Pod” seating—six-foot, classroom-style tables facing each other, with three seats on either side and two at the far end

• A scattering of toys and other things to fiddle with and munch on spread across the tabletops

• Presenters lounging on soft furniture behind a coffee table

These were just a few of the clues that this session on improving engagement at meetings wouldn’t be a typical talking-head presentation.

And it wasn’t. The session, part of the Ninth Annual Pharma Forum last year in Orlando, co-organized by MeetingsNet and The Center for Business Intelligence, aimed to show life sciences meeting planners how to add value by creating more meaningful experiences, better understanding how their attendees learn, and encouraging more attendee engagement during live events. “You need to understand who your attendees are, keep it interactive, and help them learn,” said panelist Sonal Humane, associate director, investigator meeting management, with Merck. “And then listen to, and act on, the feedback you receive.”

The Evolving Meeting Planner Role

If you want to create and produce more engaging, effective meetings you’ll have to shift from a traditional, tactical “order taker” role to one that develops objectives and ensures those objectives and strategies link together from pre- to post-meeting. You also provide more value bproviding a centralized solution, and working collaboratively across teams and divisions. To make it work, planners need to prep their internal teams to make sure discussions stay on time and on point. Humane said her company has a facilitator tasked with keeping presentations on time, fielding verbal and written questions, making introductions, and ensuring participants interact.

“We have every presenter go over their presentation with someone on our staff, who makes sure that it aligns with the meeting’s goal—if it’s off, we tweak until it’s right,” said Humane. Panelist Lisa Almert, a meeting management consultant with Roche Diagnostics Corp., said she spends a lot of time picking table leaders who will be able to facilitate the group’s learning. Added Humane, the people you choose have to be willing to use their personality and style to really own everything that goes on at the meeting.

An audience member pointed out that it can be hard to coach executives. The panelists agreed, saying it often makes sense to hire someone to work with senior managers. Often the production company you work with can help with this, added Almert.

The topic, environment, and messaging also are key to developing an engaging event. As Apple founder Steve Jobs famously said, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” Almert added that Jobs “kept it minimal, simple.” Make sure your speakers’ message is clear and the topic relevant.

What Drives Your Attendees?

If you want to engage them, you first need to know who your attendees are and what drives them. One way is to use the DISC behavior-assessment tool. DISC is based on four different personality traits: dominance, influence, steadiness, and compliance.

  1. Dominant—are your attendees direct, competitive, and results-oriented? They will likely also be more task-oriented, so giving them things to do will help engage them.
  2. Influencers—enthusiastic, friendly, and optimistic attendees may be more people-oriented and so need more interaction.
  3. Steady—your more reserved attendees also may tend to be sincere, patient, and modest. They also are likely to be people-oriented
  4. Compliance—these types tend to be conscientious, accurate, cautious, and contemplative.

You also can draw some general conclusions by looking at the generational mix of your attendees, the panelists said.

• Millennials (born from 1982–2002) tend to expect instant results and feedback.

• Gen-X attendees (1964–1982) like a more structured environment. They also like to be in the know and lay out plans.

• Boomers (1946–1964) like to process information and act on data, so they prefer research and evidence-based information.

• Matures (born earlier than 1946) are practical and perceptive, and face-to-face interaction is important to them.

You likely will have a generational mix in the room, said Humane, so it’s important to make sure, for example, that the funny video your presenter wants to use won’t turn off some in the crowd.

Engage, Interact, Immerse

For both internal and external events, the key to presentations that engage is finding the right presenter and the right topic. Humane said to look for goals that are common to all attendees, and a topic that is “bigger” than the attendee (i.e., don’t focus on minutiae). “Remove barriers to participation—find ways to make them feel comfortable about asking questions—streamline the Q&A, and communicate more in less time,” she added.

Interactivity is also key to learning, said Almert. Give people interactive and immersive materials:

• “Finger fiddles on the table to help stimulate and keep people alert,” she said, explaining the toys and goodies on the table in front of her Pharma Forum participants.

• Visuals also help keep people engaged, so give attendees opportunities to write what they’re learning or brainstorming about on flip charts.

• Include peer-to-peer learning and networking opportunities, which can be anything from polling using a mobile app to encouraging them to engage in social media pre-, during, and post-con. Also enable attendees to help co-create their experience by polling them pre-con to help set the agenda.

And, whatever you do, don’t just collect feedback and put it in a drawer. Collect it, learn from it, and use it to improve your next meeting. “Timing is important,” said Almert. “What do you do with the feedback—wait until just before next year to look at it? Or do you analyze and provide feedback to speakers? Take action on feedback and provide continuous communication.” And don’t forget to thank participants for providing their input.

Virtual or Face-to-Face?

Panelist Helen Kalorides, a meeting management consultant with Roche Diagnostics Corp., opened the session by exploring why, in today’s increasingly virtual environment, face-to-face meetings are still the preferred way to engage attendees. The mix of verbal and nonverbal interaction is comfortable, she said, and it works. That’s because it includes everything needed to close the communication loop: verbal and nonverbal interaction, a controlled environment, context for the message, and feedback that can be used to improve the next cycle.

Face-to-face meetings are especially good for controlling the environment, said Kalorides. “We can identify ‘noise’ immediately,” she explained. Noise can be more than just physical sound. Meetings also can adjust for physiological noise—for example, making accommodations for the hard of hearing. When people are face to face, it’s also easier to see and immediately pull people back in when their attention drifts from what’s going on in the room, overcoming what she called “psychological noise.” You even can control for “semantic noise,” such as when speakers overuse jargon or aren’t fluent, by training them to use plain language and providing translation when needed.

Virtual and hybrid meetings are here to stay, but they may not be the best way to accomplish every goal. “We have to align the goals with the format,” said Kalorides. Added Humane, “We have a decision tree we use to decide when we can save money by making an event virtual, and when it must be face to face. But we do have to prove to management that we need to meet face to face to meet our objectives.”

Practicing What They Preached

The panelists didn’t just tell participants what to do—they showed them by engaging their hands with small toys and “finger fiddles” on the tables, fun food nibbles, roundtable discussions, interactive polling using the meeting’s mobile app, and having people write some of their best experiences in engaging attendees at their meetings. The peer-to-peer exchanges resulted in some pretty interesting ideas for engaging attendees:

• Flash learning mobs

• Five-minute success stories

• Pecha Kucha presentations (Pecha Kucha is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each—six minutes and 40 seconds in total.)

• Providing two-sided white boards and positioning attendees on each side. The attendees write their response to a question, then they flip sides to share.

• Offering a number of small areas with screens showing five-minute videos of content experts talking about an area of interest. A facilitator at each area led discussions around the video, and people could move freely from area to area.

Don’t Forget the Logistics

Logistics, or tactics, need to support the goal of the meeting, too. For example, planners of a meeting whose goal was to strengthen customer relationships, generate new business, and raise brand awareness showed thought leadership by educating attendees on topics they care about through the use of dynamic presentations. Tactically, this involved creating a relaxed environment where people would network, and allowing the company employees to socialize with clients and prospects in a way that would build relationships instead of just pitching products. The result:

• 60 percent increase in customers/prospects over the previous year

• $200,000 in new business

• 88 percent of attendees saying in the evaluations that they had a more positive image of the company.

Not bad for a meeting with a $15,000 budget.