Recently, Joe Schmelz, owner of Wolfgang Productions, and corporate entertainer Philip Myers led a breakout session about making awards dinners more compelling. To start things off, they asked audience members to call out the challenges they face. The list was long: same old thing, limited budget, poor sound, ballroom constraints, execs don’t want to change tradition, short turnaround time, not memorable, attendees leave early, etc.

Unfazed, the pair offered help based on their years of event experience. Myers even modeled one of the big ideas just as the session began, when he walked from the back of the room through the crowd, singing. Everyone was immediately focused on him, ready for the event to begin. So consider that—and all the ideas below—next time you face your annual awards-show dilemma!

1. Break down the wall between the stage and the attendees.
It relaxes people and gets their attention from the beginning, which is key to keeping them interested.

2. Build a team you trust.
Hire a production company to help you coordinate the process. Their expertise can save you time, which saves you money. Engage entertainers early and make them part of the team, too.

3. Tell a story.
Be coherent. That means considering your location and your theme when you design your awards event and choose your entertainment. “When you do a site,” Myers says, “look at what is available locally at low cost.” Wolfgang Productions worked with one corporate client on a Western-themed event for which they hired a local lasso expert who performed a demonstration on stage and gave lessons afterward.

4. Have an opener.
“You need to grab the audience with something different,” Myers says. For example: a marching band, drum corps, soloists, comedians, Cirque du Soleil performers, magicians, or a flash mob. The latter might be students from a local theater company, some of whom are scattered amid the audience. As the mob grows and travels, the audience’s attention is drawn to the stage. Or start with your entertainer alone in the center of the room, lit with a single spotlight.

5. Don’t lose them at the break.
If you need to re-set the stage, plan an interlude to keep people interested. One idea: singers strolling amid the banquet rounds, performing songs from “The Phantom of the Opera.”

6. Hire an emcee.
“I can’t stress this enough,” says Myers. An emcee connects the elements of your program and takes the burden off execs, who may not be natural presenters.

7. Use light well.
“Lighting is the simplest and most inexpensive way to create something magical,” says Schmelz, who once took a ballroom set from “sports center” to “Prague” in an hour. The secret: gray drape, which can be lit with any color. Use haze or fog to make the light visible. And consider LED lighting, which gives off no heat and more easily meets fire codes. It can also be used “intelligently”—programmed by computer to move around the room as you need it to. Colors can be changed on a whim. And special effects, such as fish that “swim” around a ballroom that itself is lit to look like an underwater aquarium, are possible with intelligent lighting. Also, LED walls can create a three-dimensional-looking background without projection.

8. Liven up the award handouts.
Play a bit of each winner’s favorite song as he or she accepts the award.

9. Rehearse.
Enough said.