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30 July 2014

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Conferencing: how to energise your delegates

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Get your crowd in an environment that stimulates the senses, prompts interaction and gives delegates freedom to keep their mind on the matter at hand.

Wake up and look around

Let’s be clear – finding the right venue is essential if you want your delegates to have a positive experience. Many organisers put all their effort into arranging the programme, but if all delegates wanted was content, they’d do everything remotely. They go to events to network and interact, and getting the environment right is a prerequisite for this to happen.
When deciding on the right place, there are some things that must feature in your priorities list. Most important of all is natural daylight. It keeps people more alert than artificial lighting, simple as that. If not in the lecture space, then at least in the break-out areas.
Next, is space: there has to be plenty of it. It’s never nice feeling cramped, but more importantly, if you pack a lot of people into a small space, the room will fill up with CO2 and make people sleepy. Sleepy is bad. The layout should be simple too. People need to be able to get their bearings fast if you want them to focus on networking.
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One consideration that may not immediately come to mind is picking a venue that compliments the event. A personality match, so to speak. If you’re organising a conference for hipster software developers, a formal Westminster business centre isn’t going to work. And vice versa. Attendance (if optional) will be low and those who go won’t take it seriously. Apathetic delegates aren’t easy to energise.
Amanda Strange, director of conference organiser Smooth Events explains why she always goes for slick spaces: ‘There’s no excuse for shabby venues. I’ve seen a few – some not cheap – and I think, with the huge choice we have in London, you should avoid using them.’
So that’s the stuff you cannot falter on, but there are other little tricks you can use to keep your delegates chipper.
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Have you thought about temperature? Nicholas da Costa, conference services manager at the Royal Society has. He noticed that, at a cosy 23 degrees Celsius, delegates were getting dozy. Fast. So, he toyed with the thermostat a little. ‘Setting the room’s temperature slightly lower than is initially comfortable has worked wonders for us. People may complain at first, but across the day, we’ve noticed greater productivity.’ Go for between 19.5 and 21 degrees Celsius and see what happens.
Having plenty of oxygen is another given if you want to maximise delegate alertness. An increasing amount of venues are now offering air purification systems – useful when there are no outdoors facilities. After a recent trip to Belfast, we found out The Merchant Hotel has one and claims it pumps 30% more oxygen into rooms.
Even with an optimum environment, you can still lose your delegates to distractions – Facebook, you swine. A new initiative by ITA* called Unplugged Venues sees the event specialist offer an ‘electronic crèche’ for delegates’ handheld devices. It’s not always appropriate – people tweeting about your event is a good thing – but when you need delegates to really concentrate, it’ll come in very handy.
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Wake up and smell the coffee

Sure, caffeine will give delegates a kick up the derrière in the morning, but you’ll need more than that to keep them bushy tailed ‘til home time. Often used as the cure-all for lethargic delegates, coffee (or tea) isn’t the answer to daylong concentration. Sure, there’s a temporary boost, but then, when it wears off and stops tricking the brain into thinking it’s not tired, comes the ‘crash’. Also, caffeine is a diuretic, so too much tea and coffee will dehydrate delegates by forcing them to visit the facilities a lot – a double no no. Ideally, good-quality hot drinks should only be offered twice a day: once in the morning, and then immediately after lunch. So, now that they’re not pinging on uppers, you need to make sure everyone stays hydrated. Having clean, cool water to hand is essential for maintaining concentration levels. If one of your delegates gets a headache because they haven’t had enough to drink, then it’s curtains for productivity.
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With drinks done, guess what’s next? Amanda Ursell, an independent nutritionist and consultant for event caterer Ampersand, says: ‘When I first looked at food in events a few years ago, I was shocked at the kind of sleep-inducing stuff being served up to high-powered people at important events. You need to give delegates a sporting chance of staying awake.’ Sugar-loaded muffins and biscuits will set your delegates on a blood-sugar rollercoaster: sugar, up, down, sugar, up, down. They’ve got to go. Start the day early and make it clear that breakfast will  be provided. That way, you can control what everyone eats first thing and get them all starting off on the right foot.
The best breakfast you can offer will include plenty of protein and a few slow-burning carbs: poached eggs on sourdough bread, for example. Combine that with tomatoes, which add fibre and sate you without making you feel heavy and tired. Alternatively, serve porridge or muesli. They also release energy slowly (low GI) throughout the morning. Ursell is an advocate of the little and often approach and advises a mid-morning and afternoon snack, on top of regular meal times. Fruit and nuts are a good option, offering sweetness and more of that crash-free slow-release energy.  At lunch, getting the right ratios of carbs and protein is important. Ursell says: ‘People tend to want something familiar, so a platter of sandwiches is fine, but serve them open – to reduce carbs – and with high-protein fillings like tuna or turkey.’ And don’t forget that sourdough or multigrain bread.
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As for pudding: no pudding – just fruit. ‘Even with the sweetest fruits – mango, pineapple – you’d have to eat a lot to experience a blood sugar surge,’ says Ursell. By the time lunch wears off, it’ll be time for a few more snacks, mid afternoon. Go for more mixed nuts and dried fruit. And it’s not just the food you need to think about at feeding time. Seating arrangements are also vital to stimulate delegate interactivity. Round tables have got to go: you can’t talk across them. Go for long and thin ones.
Chairs should be comfortable but armless and no more than a foot apart. Ask your caterer to serve food on platters, so it can be shared out, family-style, at the table. All of this will break down regular boundaries and promote interaction. Watch the delegates energise themselves.

Food dos and don’ts

Nutritionist Amanda Ursell talks us through the best and worst foods you can provide to your delegates:

Best

  •  Eggs - Eat them with some low GI carbohydrates in the morning and you’ll stay fuller for longer. Poached is best.

  •  Blueberries - They increase blood flow to the brain and there is evidence to suggest they can improve brain function up to 3-4 hours later.

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  •  Dark chocolate - As a snack It has a different fatty acid from milk chocolate, making it harder to digest and therefore you stay sated for longer.

  •  Mixed nuts with dried fruit -  The low GI of these foods means the energy will be released slowly across the day.

Worst

  • Pastries and muffins - Fatty pastries leave you with that post-Christmas lunch feeling. Sitting in your tummy, all heavy, they make you slow. Rather just be watching TV.

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  •  Plates of biscuits - They’re full of fast-release carbs that leave you needing more and more. If you have more and more, you’ll just feel dopey.

  •  Mayonnaise -  It makes sandwiches very high in fat. The combination of fast-release carbs (from the bread) and the high fat content brings you down.

  • Alcohol -  Serving wine or beer at lunch will affect delegates’ concentration and leave them feeling sluggish by mid-afternoon.

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Wake up and jump around

Try and squeeze as much fun stuff into the day as possible – it’ll keep your delegates sociable, spritely and engaged No one can concentrate through a solid day of lectures. You need to break it up. It’s commonplace to organise a breakout session in the afternoon, but if you really want to keep delegates’ energy levels high, scheduling multiple sessions throughout the day – even if they’re short – is best.  In the morning, try something that gets the blood pumping. Hiring a fitness instructor – some venues have them in-house – to take your delegates through 10 minutes of stretching and teambuilding exercises is a good idea.  Take it a step further by asking groups – this can work for up to 200 people – to pair up and use each other to lean on while stretching: it’ll work as a good icebreaker and all that exercise will make it easier for people to concentrate later on.
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To keep your delegates energised throughout the day, you need to keep them on their toes. One way of doing this in the afternoon break is by surprising them with something unusual. We spoke to the team at etc.venues who said they work with a company associated with Guinness World Records. ‘They come in with an official adjudicator and delegates get a shot at a world record.’ Why not try building a pyramid of paper cups in the fastest time ever? Even with all of this advice, a hectic day of conferencing can leave delegates feeling a little frazzled. Before sending them off, it’s a good idea to try and wind everyone down. They’ll leave relaxed and with a clear mind on the content of the day. Tranquil exercise, such as yoga, is an option. You can hire one teacher to instruct everyone, or a team to guide several smaller groups. Just make sure everyone’s got a mat. Alternatively, some simple non-hippie meditation – again, best from a person, not a video – is effective and can be wrapped up in 10 minutes.
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Get creative

Techy event supplier Luma has something fun for breakout sessions. Its YrWall digital graffiti board allows delegates to virtually spray-paint their design onto the wall and then print them off on T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia. Jude Cunningham, an account manager at agency Effective Event Solutions, recently booked it for event. ‘We used YrWall in the catering area, so during breaks, people could have a go and print off their designs,’ she says. ‘We fixed the company logo on the screen and allowed delegates to make what they wanted – teacups were popular. ‘I think it had a positive effect on the day. It gave delegates a bit of headspace: a proper break. Taking mental breaks is important so delegates are energised for the next part.’  

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Wake up and Listen

  Picking the right speakers can make or break an event. Interaction is the key to getting people where you want them – on the edge of their seats There are two sorts of speaker: ‘motivational’ and ‘down to business’. The first lot, you don’t have to worry about. People will listen because they’re interesting – they do what it says on the tin. With the second lot, you need to get creative. Start by planning the day properly: serious speech, fun breakout session, lunch, inspiring speech and so on. A professional speaker worth their salt can keep hold of the attention of any crowd, but just in case, here are some things to remember when you want all eyes on the stage.  The standard format of delivery – the speaker speaks while the delegates listen – needs to be reconsidered. Simply put, you need to turn what has always been a monologue into a dialogue.
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Before your speakers even go on stage, they should interview five to 10 members of the audience to get a proper grasp of what will work. Content, but also tone. Achieving the right balance from your speaker, in terms of the tone of his or her delivery, isn’t always easy – particularly for aloof English crowds. The speech should inspire and energise, but overdo it on the Hollywood and it’s likely to produce an anti-climatic effect. Good preparation is key. Keith Ferrazzi, a professional speaker and MC at conferences, says the priority is to get the audience interacting. Often, the first thing he’ll do is poll the audience on something, anything, and remind them what they’re doing is a two-way thing. To give people the confidence to interact, speakers need to create a sense of empathy within the audience. Ferrazzi suggests it will prompt people to take risks – i.e. talk out loud. This can be achieved through vulnerability, so, in the first 15 minutes of a talk, your speaker should get personal. Next, he or she should prompt the audience to do the same with the person next to them. Now that a open and collaborative tone has been established, the conversation can be brought back to business.  

Tech to the rescue

Although we’re interested in getting people away from distractions, there are instances where attention-seeking technology can prompt engagement. A number of companies are now providing hand-held devices that allow delegates to anonymously communicate with the speaker, typing in questions or voting on key subjects. The infomation from the audience can then be collected and presented on stage. This makes it easy for delegates to get involved but also, using the information, improvements can be made to the presentation in real time. For example, during a Q&A session, the speaker can ask the audience to type in what they most want answered. The most popular question is then used.

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This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, autumn 2013.

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