Engage Me

Meetings have changed in line with the audience. Keep up, says Nigel Collin.

As a young whippersnapper in the events game I remember the legendary Glen Lehman saying to me that every 40 minutes you need to change tack, shift gear, and give the audience something different otherwise they’ll get bored.

And he was right of course because the attention span of most people was about 40 minutes.

That was back in the 90s. Today the attention span of participants is a lot less – more like 20 minutes – because we are bombarded with information faster and more concisely than ever before.

Social media inspires ideas and opinions in a matter of lines, words, and characters. We absorb company profiles and sales pitches in two to three minute videos. We have learned to embrace entire philosophies, concepts, and innovative notions in 18 minutes or less with such things as Ted Talks.

Truth is we take in information faster than we used to and our participants are demanding shorter, punchier sessions. They want the big picture first before they decide whether or not it’s worth their time getting into the details and attending a break-out.

For people to learn and take on board new ideas and concepts we need to give them the big picture before we dig down into heavy details. We need to set the scene first, let it sit, and simmer before digging into the complex.

I’m not suggesting we abandon longer style keynotes, break-outs or workshops; what I am saying is we need to think about how we deliver and structure them.

For example at the MEA conference recently we introduced thought starters. These were 40 minute sessions which included three different speakers each presenting a concise overview of different topics. Following these short talks each presenter then delivered a more detailed break-out session over a 60 minute timeframe.

As a participant what this meant was that you didn’t need to sit through a 45 minute presentation which didn’t entice or interest you. You got an overview of each topic and enough information to then choose which break-out you wanted to go to because you had enough information to make a decision.

From a presenter’s point of view I love it (although some have kittens over it) because it forces you to hone down your message and articulate it really clearly. If not you won’t get the numbers to your break-out. Secondly, and better still, you only get people in your break-out who actually want to be there.

It’s a structure I first came across in the US working with ISES and one that is picking up popularity everywhere.

Of course the precise structure may not be perfect for every conference but the idea of overview first – detail second, is an absolute no-brainer. Play with and modify it to suit your own meeting or event.

Glen Lehman taught me that one guaranteed way to disengage your audience is to bore them with endless lengthy sessions.
Shorter means punchier, engaging, and memorable. m

Nigel Collin is a meeting designer and content director as well as speaker within the meetings and events industry. More can be found at www.nigelcollincreative.com.au.