What’s in a Theme?

by Contributor Jennie Morris

Conference themes are a staple of business meetings, trade shows and other corporate presentations. A surprising amount of time and expense can go into developing them, just as with brand identities. Sometimes multi-million-dollar competitive bids are won or lost, based upon a selection committee’s reaction to a few words.

As you consider your theme selection process in 2013, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind…

  • A good meeting theme invites participation, by leaving something to the imagination.
  • The theme should also provide a metaphorical framework capable of supporting a variety of activities and presentations, since you are only at the beginning of the planning process and don’t want your theme to dictate your content.
  • A great theme always leads us back to an underlying truth, and embodies the intentions and aspirations of those gathered in conference.

With this in mind, how do you best craft a theme for your upcoming event?

First, look to the central objective of the program. Is it taking place because of a need to train employees or inform a market? Is the mission to gain support for a cause, a program or product offering? Does it seek to overcome employee inertia or customer resistance? Perhaps you need to build trust among shareholders or employees to change attitudes driven by past employees or actions?

Each of these goals calls for a different approach. Begin with the objective and it will lead you to the appropriate theme as you can see below.

Challenges are “call-to-action” statements. They may announce a program or product, motivate a sales force or move customers to act.

Some examples of past Challenge themes include:

  • Lead the Way
  • Building Experiences
  • Reach-the-Beach
  • Destination: e-Space

Celebrations use assertive statements or phrases that command attention. These can be used to promote an existing product, recognize accomplishments or raise morale.

Some examples of past Celebration themes include:

  • The Power is On!
  • We are Here!
  • I (Heart) Talent
  • Timeless Solutions, Endless Possibilities

Characterizations apply to occasions that need an identity to intrigue and attract an audience, giving them a sense of what to expect without giving it all away. Most appropriate to events with multiple objectives, such as association meetings or industry conferences, they may be location-specific, when location is part of the attraction.

Some examples of Characterization themes include:

  • Trust Matters
  • A Taste of New Orleans
  • Cadkey Evolution Tour

Your theme is truly your starting point, the springboard for crafting your meeting, trade show presentation, webcast or corporate video. Begin with honest questions, which will lead to your goals and objectives. This will then drive the type of theme statement or event title that gives your project a launch that will inspire those involved. A theme that grabs the imagination of the organization will be invaluable as you guide your team to the successful realization of your ultimate goal.

What You Don’t Say, Counts

So last year’s Best Picture Oscar went to a story about public speaking – and this year, it’s all about what can be done with silence.  “The Artist” makes amazing use of gestures, gazes, graphics and music to engage us in a simple love story.

Corporate stories are rarely quite as straightforward, but business presentations can really benefit from similar performance techniques.  Sometimes all it takes is a couple of dramatic moments to underscore a key message, or focus attention on an important issue.

Great presenters can do this simply by pausing at the right moment.  A moment of silence gives the audience a chance to absorb what is happening and prepare for the next moment.

The right gesture evokes an emotional response without resorting to explanation – and that is key to delivering memorable performances.  Appropriate gestures signal authenticity, and build credibility for the speaker.

And of course, sound and graphics can lend a great deal.  That’s why great presentations are often the result of teamwork among talented specialists.  And if someone can tap-dance like Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, well, that could be a plus!

Why the King matters…

As you might imagine, my vote for best picture this year is The Kings Speech.   If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do…today!  Not simply because of its numerous Oscar nominations, but because you will rarely see the significance of trust so well expressed.

In this elegant film, the coach Lionel Logue sees courage and possibility in the Prince of Wales, while the future King can only focus on the barriers his speech impediment creates.  Lionel demands trust from “Bertie,” which is the foundation of building trust in his own leadership potential.

I believe we have many exceptional leaders whose awkward speech hinders their effectiveness.  And today we desperately need them to be effective, and not to be stymied by anxiety.

It’s no wonder this is common: the risks associated with taking messages public, and the negative impact of less-than-effective performances can be magnified upon replay.  Contemporary examples of bad message delivery abound:  the tone-deaf remarks of BP’s ex-CEO Tony Hayward, President Bush’s public praise for his FEMA chief, Howard Dean’s excessive enthusiasm in front of the microphone.  Political leanings aside, we cringe to see leaders pilloried in the media after a misstep – because it discourages those who may have the ability, but not the confidence, to take on a leadership role.

Delivering messages successfully is not about talent. It is about hard work.  It is about taking the resources you have, building on them and pushing them to their limits.  And as this film illustrates, great performance is not just about the physical characteristics of the task.  That is just the beginning of the work.

To get to the true power of performance, you must find the courage to let go of those demons that would limit you.  Have the courage to share your beliefs, principles and ideas.  Embrace the task of understanding your audience and use your own best abilities to reach them.  And as the audience nods their collective heads and realize that the speaker is speaking to their needs, beliefs, principles and desires, a well-delivered speech connects with people in ways that surpass volume and diction.

Who wouldn’t want their leaders to have this capability?  It’s powerful.  King George VI spoke with the voice of one who faced down personal limitations and overcome them. He did so because it was his duty to inspire confidence – but also because someone trusted in his courage, and gave him the ability to help lead a great nation through crisis.

Enough for now!  Hope you enjoy Oscar night.

An Ear to the Groundswell

Keeping up with the breaking news from Egypt in recent days was a challenge for anyone, including experienced news analysts.  But the most clueless comments of all came from then-President Hosni Mubarak.  Clearly, he just wasn’t listening to “his” people.

Sadly, many leading business executives seem to have similar challenges.  They may be good at listening to their peers, or their advisers or leadership teams, but the voice on the shop floor?  Not so much.  And the impact of that is demonstrated by numerous cautionary tales ending in bankruptcy: poor labor relations at Delta and US Airways, whistle-blowers ignored at Enron and WorldCom, excessive risk-taking at Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual.  Not to mention dozens of firms that struggled to profit from ill-conceived mergers with baked-in cultural issues (can you say AOL?).

Perhaps those leaders were so caught up in what “the message” coming from the executive suite ought to be, that they failed to hear the warning sounds outside their windows.  The message from the ground in Tahrir Sq. was “we know what we need, and it isn’t you.”  Leaders who take time to show they are listening before a crisis hits are more likely to remain standing when it has passed.

Making the Stage your World

If it is true, as so often said, that people fear public speaking more than death itself, we might expect to see an unusual suicide rate among corporate executives.  But that isn’t the case.  So, why not?

I think companies like ours can take some credit.  We work hard to ensure that presenters on stage appear comfortable and engaging, and are able to hold the audience’s attention for however long they speak.  It’s critical to find time for rehearsal, reduce distractions and help focus the speaker on the task at hand.  Then we can find the appropriate vocal tone, tempo and natural gestures that will make that speaker most effective.

Our ultimate promise to clients is this: we will never let you look like a fool in public. That’s not unlike the promise a theatrical director makes to his actors.  The director’s task is to bring the production to life.  Though audiences may question the play, or even the casting, they shouldn’t fault the performance.