Time to Deliver On Your Corporate Events

When a multi-billion dollar public corporation brings its top 100 global leaders together for three days, what’s at stake? What will justify the time and expense, and make a difference?

We asked ourselves that question when Harsco Corporation once again asked Preston to help plan the agenda for its 2015 Global Leadership Meeting. The company was IMG_4200 copyemerging from a transitional year, with a new CEO, new additions to its executive team, and well-aligned plans and strategies in place. Promises had been made; it was time to deliver. So gaining the active support of this audience would be critical.

Working with Ken Julian, Harsco’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications, and his team, we identified two key aims for the agenda: engage and inspire. This led us to develop a story arc that would move the audience from passive attendance to active participation.

Several agenda topics were set up as conversations, rather than presentations. Burning issues were addressed as the audience engaged in dialog with senior executives and among themselves. Interactive polling and ample networking time also drove engagement.

When our guest speaker, Maestro Itay Talgam, arrived on the third morning, the group was relaxed, receptive, and ready to be inspired. Itay’s TED talk has over two million views, but his personal presence adds even more to the leadership theme. For our Harsco audience, his session offered a new awareness of their role in the company, and of the capabilities they – as leaders – can foster in others.

Finally, to end the conference in a truly active fashion, we crafted a performance challenge. Attendees were sorted into small teams, and given this charge: “tell us who Harsco is now.” Choosing from a variety of settings and formats (skits, game shows, songs, etc.) they summarized the conference experience and takeaways with six-minutes on stage. Enthusiastic competition was part of the process, as teams sought to out-do each other with humor and imagination.

The final message to this group was clear: as leaders, we need each of us to carry the plan forward, deliver on our promise and build the future for Harsco.

The Carter Center: A Round of Applause For Peace, Health and Understanding

The_Carter_CenterWayne Jackson talks about his relationship with the Carter Center.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter founded Carter Center in 1982 to promote global human rights and welfare can claim remarkable achievements.  From eradicating persistent diseases to fostering democratic processes in numerous countries, the Carter Center sets a standard among NGOs for influence and effectiveness in program execution.

None of that would be possible without generous financial support. But Carter Center fundraising events are not like the typical ball or gala. Contributors come for information, education, and to connect with the dedicated experts who carry out the programs. Of course, a highlight of these occasions is the opportunity to hear from President Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and to ask questions in an informal forum.

Preston Productions helps the Center stage The Carter Center Weekend each year.  Every time, the agenda holds a few surprises, and perhaps a few last minute additions.  The presenters come from all over the world, and their very busy schedules are often subject to change.  Part of my role is to ensure that each one of them gets the kind of support, respect and recognition that the Carters themselves would provide.  We create a setting that is dignified but comfortable, designed to foster open and productive conversations.  The same applies to serving the audience: by making sure every aspect of the agenda flows smoothly and minimizing distractions I hope to ensure that attendees will feel both rewarded and generous!

The highlight for me is the opportunity to work with this team.  Carter Center staff are extraordinarily dedicated and focused on outcomes.  The attention to detail (something I’ve been told I take seriously) is second to none, and it feels great to work with this like-minded, considerate – and fun! – group of professionals.  Knowing that what we are doing contributes to such honorable causes really ices the cake.

Right now, my team is currently on site working on the Carter Center Weekend which began June 25th.  I look forward to reporting more on that in our next newsletter!

Showing How It’s Done, Telling It Like It Is

Every business discipline has its own jargon, even communications (consider the ubiquitous terms “content” or “social”).  It speeds up some conversations, but can easily obscure some important ideas as well.  By applying a completely different vocabulary we can gain some insight.

At Preston, we like to talk about leadership communications in terms of theatre.  We use words like script, show, cast and stage even for programs that won’t involve traditional performance.  This sometimes makes people uncomfortable, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do.  It allows us to take a message out of the cozy context of the client’s comfort zone, and examine how it will play to an audience.

I’m struck by how often I hear presenters say, “I don’t want to sound scripted” as if that were the kiss-of-death.  Done well, scripting is a process of mental composition, not about sticking to precise phrasing.  When you are composed in front of an audience – when you know the beginning, middle and end of your story and how you will move from place to place – you can pay attention to your listeners.

When we talk about building a show (instead of producing a meeting) there’s a dual meaning.  Great presentations go far beyond scripts or bullet points; they show that what is being said is meaningful to the audience.  They incorporate illustrations, maybe physical props, even costumes.  (What would it say if you delivered your message in a hoodie instead of a sports jacket?)  This is why we attend conferences, rather than simply download decks from SlideShare: the way people interact in public has an enormous impact on what they understand, absorb and retain.

Then there’s the showHarsco GLM Screen, versus the agenda.  Great business events have an overall flow, unfolding like a story rather than delivering “content” in discontinuous chunks.  Individual performances reflect on, and build upon each other for collective impact.

Over years of doing this, we have noted one important thing:  only a very skilled performer can effectively deliver a message he doesn’t believe in.  If an executive has not composed his thoughts it won’t matter whether he speaks from a prepared script, or off-the-cuff.  This is often revealed in rehearsal, a critical part of the process – about which much more will be said, in another issue!

 

 

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.

Elementary Performance

Last week the media buzzed with reactions to a supercomputer’s victory:  IBM’s Watson trounced human opponents solving puzzles on Jeopardy, with only occasional pauses or mistakes.  This provoked all kinds of speculation about the future of human/computer interaction.

One fact overlooked in the discussion was this:  Watson had no consciousness of the audience.  No way of knowing whether anyone was laughing at its answers, cheering with delight or gasping in surprise. How much more difficult would it be to teach a computer to take on an unscripted Q&A session with a live human audience?

That’s a challenge that business leaders face on a regular basis.  Questions come up that can’t easily be answered with a Google search or by matching data in stored documents.  There are fine nuances:  beneath the surface of a question there may be a challenge, a plea, a demand or a hint (the unspoken question is often the most significant).

Those are aspects that speakers should listen for, and need to address if they wish to be effective leaders.  But with more and more Q&A sessions taking place online, with limited face-to-face interaction, the challenge is magnified.  How do you read nuance in a text question?  How do you judge the mood of an invisible audience?  Computers may be capable of analyzing online discussions and social networks, but having data is not the same as having answers.

And would we really want a Watson to explain corporate policy or predict industry trends?  Not likely.  What’s needed is better ways of connecting leaders to their online audiences so they can become attuned to the nuances of online buzz (and online silences) and respond with feeling.