You Gotta Have Heart
A convention…meeting…conference – whatever you may call it – is only as valuable as the attendees’ experience. Your meeting can be more meaningful if you elevate it –make it something that somehow changes your members – something they won’t soon forget.
The only way you can expect your audience to walk away from your event transformed is to take them on some sort of journey. That journey is your event’s dramatic arc and, when executed well, it will affect your attendees’ emotions.
So, what do you want them to feel? That should be your first question. The answer can be anything: supported; included; motivated; challenged; entertained; riled. If you can answer this question strategically and definitively, you are well on your way to crafting an event with impact. And everything plays its part, from your keynote speakers to your videos to your signage to the music you play – it all influences this journey.
This is the event’s dramatic arc.
It’s a term very familiar in film and theatre. And, I contend that anytime you have a group of people, surrounded by other people, experiencing something you’ve created, you’ve got theatre. So it makes sense to approach the experience in the same way. That is, create a dramatic arc.
Tale as Old as Time
At this point all this talk of dramatic arc may seem like Greek to you – and it is, actually. It’s a paradigm that dates back to Aristotle — as old as drama itself. It’s been widely used by Shakespeare, Dickens, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling. It drives movies from romance to horror to comedy to action – even Indiana Jones had to find his lost arc! That’s because it works. And it can work to transform your next event.
There’s one key thing to remember: As an event producer, you are a storyteller and a compelling dramatic arc is the backbone of any good story. The more you see yourself as a storyteller and your event as a narrative, the better the experience can be for your attendees.
Getting to Know You
So, what is dramatic arc? In its purest form, it’s a pyramid with the plot consisting of five elements: exposition (the introduction); rising action; climax; falling action and denouement (the wrap-up). It may also be a roadmap to an engaging event. If you can shape your audience’s experience – have them feel what you want them to feel when you want them to feel it, you will succeed in motivating them, stirring them, changing them. Keeping the dramatic arc in mind is a tremendous way to help shape your event.
You need not map your meeting faithfully to this arc – but it’s helpful to see the big picture and produce your meeting toward this goal: How are you leading the audience to feeling? How are you leaving your audience changed? This is the difference between a forgettable story and a great story and could be the difference between a marginal event and an essential one.
And it begins the moment they walk in the door.
Another Openin’, Another Show (The Exposition)
Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start!). Your event can capture attendees’ attention the second they arrive. This is your first impression – your exposition. What sort of event is this? Is it a vacation?
A business meeting? Is it educational? A pep rally, celebrating your industry? This can be immediately established upon entering the Convention Center or ballroom or theater. It’s about setting the right atmosphere through signage, music, décor. An opening general session provides a perfect opportunity to establish the meaning of the meeting. What are we here to do?
How often do we see a CEO or host take the stage, step to the mic and rather weakly welcome his or her guests? First impression blown! You can seize this moment to set the tone. A video, an opening act, a well-crafted welcoming address all provide the audience with guidance – exposition — to set their expectations and let them know what they are there to do. And once you’ve captured their attention, you can take them on a journey.
You Can’t Stop the Beat (Rising Action)
So, you’ve set the stage through exposition. The audience knows why they’re there and what you’d like them to do. Now you can build on that groundwork so that the arc doesn’t fall flat. Try to keep in mind how one moment flows to the next, both in the general sessions and in the overall event – keep the action on the rise. Speech after speech after interminable speech and you’re left with only words, words, words. You have a great opportunity to craft your sessions’ rhythm. Perhaps, after an opening number or the welcoming address, you can engage your audience with a video – something that reemphasizes the exposition. If your story is about the power of your industry, a video highlighting individual member’s impact might support the story. If you’re celebrating a changing industry, keep the innovations coming – on video, on stage – show, don’t tell. The rising action should help keep your meeting energized and have contrast. Make them laugh before you make them cry. The right videos can help serve this purpose. They do not merely convey information, they help turn the page, shift the mood – even cover an entrance or an exit. The rhythm of your meeting is like its heartbeat and it will keep your event alive.
You’re the Top (The Climax)
If you’ve set expectations (exposition), and built on the story (rising action), you’re most of the way there. Now, you can capitalize on your attendees’ emotions. This is the climax. Here is the point in the event when you can get your audience to do what you want them to do. If your event is about leadership and taking charge – this may be the time to bring out the right keynote speaker – the person who embodies your message. If your event’s story is about solidarity, you may bring audience members onto the stage in a striking visual representation of working together. For the events that are seeking to entertain, here’s a time for your biggest party, your headlining band or act. And for those emphasizing community action, now is the time to act on your promise; take your attendees into the community and make a change. The appropriate climactic moment depends heavily on the setup and the story you have chosen to tell. It should flow naturally from your rising action and be the culmination of everything you’ve done so far.
After the Ball is Over (The Falling Action and Denouement)
Your audience will need a release. You’ve gotten them to pay attention, told them why they’re here, built on their expectations and stoked their imaginations, now you can reward them. This may be the moment to bring in some humor – to let your audience relax and applaud. If you’ve begun your session with a song and you’re story is about industry solidarity, maybe it’s time to reprise it and ask the audience to join in. If you’ve played an industry video early, this would be a good time for the outtakes reel. Even your parties can be structured with a denouement in mind: You’ve had your headliner, now you can have a less formal, going away shindig. Again, the falling action need not be taken literally – it should not be a downer. You can still end on a high-note as long as you’ve completed the journey. And you have some tricks in your toolkit to give your story its shape.
The Sound of Music
Music is a great way to help shape the story. My colleague, Bob Sprague, explored this more fully here [link to Scoring with your Event]. Music, whether live or canned, goes a long way toward creating the rhythm and cluing your audience in on what to feel and when. And, again, it’s about the arc. Try to shape your event’s music so the atmosphere in the expo hall motivates movement. The songs in the lobby should not steal the thunder from the music during the session. It’s all part of a whole – movements in a symphony.
There are elements to every meeting that are done because… well…because we always do them. They’re tradition. Sacred cows, we call them, and they’re awfully hard to slay. But, if they have to stay, we can consider how they play into the dramatic arc. Where does the Board Recognition fall? And how does it help with your audience’s journey. If we’ve chosen to inspire, can the board bios be used as inspiration? If we’re determined to entertain, might we intro the board in song? It’s amazing how the most mundane of ‘gotta do’s’ can be done well with a little creative thought and an eye on the arc.
Let us Entertain You
Whether your event is serious or educational, it can, and should, be entertaining. That entertainment doesn’t have to be frivolous or even flashy. Entertainment can be poignant or rousing. Whatever its aim, it ensures your audience’s consistent attention and, therefore, is key to creating an impactful meeting. Entertainment will help you in developing the event’s dramatic arc. A live performer or an act – or even an entertaining video – creates the important contrast that keeps your event alive and your audience progressing on a journey.
A word about humor: It’s good. Even in the most serious of stories, humor can provide a breath of fresh air. Hamlet had his Polonius. Titanic had its…iceberg? Anyway, don’t be afraid to use humor, even if your event doesn’t feel funny. It’s an opportunity for calculated balance – to set up the more serious message and make it stand out. Just like entertainment, humor, when used appropriately, will go a long way toward shaping your arc.
Try to Remember
Everything has its place in the arc. The event components discussed here represent a few tools, but you should scrutinize every element – staging, lighting design, signage, graphics — for how they may best fit in. They all contribute to shaping your story. I know that this seems like a lot more work for an event that’s already daunting, but it will pay dividends. You will find that as you begin to look at an event as a story and each element as a part of that tale, the answers will start to present themselves. And, most important, the impact your event will have on its attendees will be palpable. You can transform your audience – send them home different from when they arrived. It just takes some pragmatic work and a dramatic arc.