December 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions Xcommunication December 1999 Current Issue
December 1999
Chris Carr


Younger attendees demand more kinetic, involving presentations

By Amy Drew Teitler

In 1991, a writer named Douglas Coupland wrote Generation X, a novel about three well-educated twentysomethings disenchanted with society. The media drew parallels between the book's characters and the youthful members of the population, and a market segment was born.

Loosely categorized as those born between 1965 and 1975, Gen-Xers often are described as frustrated, unmotivated slackers who still live in their parents' basements, a hopeless lot of college-educated Starbucks employees whose conversations are peppered with irony, pop-culture references and generous doses of sarcasm and apathy. (Whatever.) Also, conventional wisdom suggests, Xers are a little cynical having been left a legacy of financial deficit and environmental disaster and are the most media-savvy segment around, television and technology being cornerstones of their personal development.

For planners, what is important to understand about Generation X is that its members make up 33 percent of the work force, and odds are good you already are planning meetings for them.

If you subscribe to the stereotypes, you're aware that Xers are easily bored and have a dire need for perpetual entertainment. Here's how to find speakers who won't have Xer attendees setting new records in the Olympic eye-roll event.

Perpetual motion
Keeping things moving is the key in presentations for Gen X. Watch popular soft drink or clothing commercials. The key elements? Music, motion, color, humor. Instead of setting the seminar up classroom-style, try it in the round. Instead of hand-held microphones, why not have the speaker wear a headset? Go for an environment that facilitates mobility, motion, mental massage.

"They say that with any crowd, you have 20 minutes before you lose their attention," says Mark Baltazar, director of creative services for New York City's LCI Communications Ltd., a corporate communications firm. "With a Gen X crowd, you don't have that much time before they disconnect. They need more something that's part performance."

"A lot of Xers like speakers to mix it up," says Kevin Johnson, the Charleston, S.C.-based director of entertainment and speaker research for ESP-3, a division of David J. Richardson Inc., a full-service meetings management company. "They don't want anything dry... They want it fast-paced, high energy."

Johnson adds that although these elements are a recipe for success, you always have to take the client's vision into account. "It's definitely dependent on the message you're trying to send."

Whether it's motivation, education or involvement, Xers want it served up differently every time, in a way that sets it apart from anything they've tasted previously. Because Xers continually are trying to increase their marketability in the business world, and that is based primarily on what they know, they are always on the hunt for more skills to pay the bills.

"Seminars offered to Gen X need to be done in a 'how-to' format," Johnson suggests. "Teach them how to get where they want to go. Gen X likes goals."

Pass the mike
Cam Marston, self-titled "guy who does some of everything" for Charlotte, N.C.-based Marston Communications, is a popular speaker. He lectures not only to Gen X, his own generation, but to baby boomers and beyond as well, teaching them how to manage and motivate Xers.

"I speak in the round when I talk to Gen X," Marston explains. Along with music, graphics and video, he positions four assistants around the room with microphones. "When I ask a question," he says, "one of them will stick that mike in someone's face and get an answer. There's no anti-participation option." Generally, he says, as soon as the mike gets in front of them, the ideas and debates start flowing.


When the speaker at your last meeting brought out a sock-puppet sidekick for a musical bit on maximizing profits, did you hear a noise akin to Velcro strips being pulled apart? That was the sound of the Xers mentally detaching. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere for engaging presenters to motivate the masses. From team speakers who can teach employees to close the generation gap to “corporate” jugglers who get the audience participating, there are people out there who can talk to Generation X and actually get them to listen.

Bridge Works. Lynne Lancaster, baby boomer, and David Stillman, an Xer entrepreneur, do programs for corporate and association audiences on bridging the gap between their generations. Presentations include How to Attract, Manage, Motivate and Retain the New Work Force and When Generations Collide: Marketing to the Generations. (843) 795-9095

The Juggling Matrix. This Nyack, N.Y.-based program appeals to Xers with its motion, color, pace and highly visual method of educating. Using juggling as a centerpiece, a program is customized for the message the client wants to send. Team-building exercises, keynote performances and in-booth promotions at trade shows are some of the options available. The firm’s client list includes West Coast Video Entertainment, Intel Corp. and the Texas Restaurant Association. (914) 348-8780;

Village Music Circles. This program, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been described as “interactive or experiential team-building through the use of rhythm,” says founder Arthur Hull. Xers use drums and percussion instruments to interpret the company’s message through their own rhythms. (831) 458-1946;


Me Incorporated
The era of the talking head has passed. Gone are the days when one expert could stand before hundreds and hold court as the all-knowing guru of "insert- corporate-buzzword-here." Gen X doesn't buy it. Show them. Teach them. Challenge them. Put up or shut up. How is what the speaker has to say going to make the path to goal achievement more direct?

"Gen Xers feel that they're working for themselves, even if they're working for a corporation," says LCI Communications' Baltazar. "The more that a company can do to support that, the more productive its X employees will be."

Perhaps this explains why many Xers find successful entrepreneurs riveting as speakers. Someone like Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, hits Xers in two soft spots: She's a financially successful woman, and her company's policies are extremely eco-conscious. Other heavy hitters include Frank Meeks, one of Domino's Pizza's top franchisees, and Richard Teerlink, former chairman and current board member of Harley-Davidson.

What else appeals to the X factor? Brand recognition. They've all eaten Domino's; they've all admired the chrome on a Harley at one time or another. These are staples of popular culture.

And then there's technology. It may have started with Pong, but we've come a long way, baby. There are hundreds of examples of young people teenagers, even who have gotten rich on the Internet. Now that the World Wide Web has greased the path to enlightenment, ideas are flowing more freely than ever before. "It's easier to connect now," says Baltazar, who believes online meetings are the next step. "I still think there's a need to physically get together, but the Web is the wave of the future."

Although older generations might balk at the change, Xers embrace new waves of technology, eagerly looking for gadgets and modes of communication to make them more efficient and valuable. Speakers who incorporate new technology, or new uses for existing technology, seldom will fail to reach an Xer audience.

Marston says, "The way to engage that generation is to give them actionable info, whether it's new technology or ways of thinking and doing. It's information with handles on it, so they can pick it up and use it immediately."

Y: The Next Generation

And you thought Gen X was confusing? Meet Generation Y, 60 million people who will be coming of age in the new millennium. They were born after 1980 and have never known a world without compact discs, laptops or MTV. Soon, they’ll be attending your meetings.

“If Gen X has proved a difficult animal for corporate America, imagine an animal that is more complex and three times the size,” says Eric Chester, president of Generation Why, a speaking, training and consulting firm based in Lakewood, Colo. Chester uses the term “Why” to describe them “because they demand validity in everything they do.”

Planners should consider the following when planning for Gen Y attendees.

Interactivity. Give them part of the spotlight. “There’s a large percentage of this generation who have experiences and talent they want to use,” says Chester. “Put them into small groups, and let them share and shine.”

food choices. “These are people who grew up on food courts,” Chester says. A simple choice of fish or chicken just isn’t enough. Give Generation Y a lot of options.

More social time built in. Members of Gen Y “want activities that will get them away from the meeting site,” says Chester. “Things that are fun and innovative.”

Y points to ponder: “If X is the ‘me’ generation, Y is the ‘what’s in it for me?’ generation,” says Chester. Try to plan accordingly.


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