by Tom Yorton | July 01, 2004

Company meetings, trade shows, conferences, staff retreats all are vital events for motivating employees and exciting customers. As a planner, you go to great expense to use the best venues and gather all the right people.
    And then what? How do you pull off an event everyone will remember and talk about for months? What’s more, how do you top last year’s event? Answering these questions well usually results in a stronger meeting.

There’s a huge difference between hosting an event and producing a great experience. The latter is more about creating a memorable moment that truly engages your people and leaves them inspired, motivated, well informed and ready to go.
     At Second City, we believe there are certain vital ingredients for making a corporate event a runaway success.
     Have a point of view. Your meeting should do more than dump information on your audience. What’s at stake? What’s the prevailing mood? What are you trying to get people to do? The best meetings have a point of view that challenges attendees to think or act differently. Sure, share information that is relevant, but make sure it provokes new thinking or action.
      Deliver real content effectively. We see this paradox often during the hundreds of events we participate in each year: For all the logistical preparation surrounding a large meeting, equal attention rarely is paid to the content to be delivered. Expensive videos can get any event off to a rousing start as can live comedy messaging (the kind we do). But all the excitement can be lost if the presenters don’t prepare their message with equal energy, focus and integration. 
     Make sure your presenters are prepared, individually and collectively. Yes, it takes time and energy to review their materials and styles, but your audience will feel the difference. Unprepared, uninspired or disconnected meeting content actually can do great harm to an organization by fueling fears that leadership isn’t in touch with employee issues or isn’t working effectively to meet the group’s challenges.
     Be interactive. Here’s your chance to break down the invisible wall that often goes up between presenters and the audience. People are not accustomed to being as passive as they’re forced to be at most meetings, so encourage their participation. Find ways to convey information in a way that actively involves the audience.
     Play to the highest common denominator. There’s a great mantra we use around Second City: Play to the top of your intelligence. This might sound obvious, but leaders who bore groups with platitudes or old news tend to lose credibility and engagement. The audience is savvier than you think. Make sure your presenters have content that addresses attendees in frank and candid ways.
     Pay attention to running order. At Second City, “running order” refers to the sequence of material sketches, songs and improvisation that flows during a show. We’ve found that even the best content will fail if the running order is bad.
     In meeting contexts, an effective running order usually opens big, varies in tempo, and gives people downtime to absorb the content and discuss it amongst themselves. That 14-hour day with a working lunch might look efficient on paper, but you’ll lose most of your audience and jeopardize your meeting objectives if you grind attendees through such a schedule too often.
     We improvise for a living at Second City. But funny enough making it all come together effectively is something that even we don’t leave to chance.

Tom Yorton is the president of Second City Communications, the corporate entertainment division of Chicago’s Second City improvisation theater group (