Using the power of story to forge an emotional connection    

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By Ben Moorsom

With the IMEX focus being on purposeful meetings this year, it was apparent, after attending many sessions and talking with all sorts of folks in our industry, that if we’re going to engage our audiences we must be really strategic with events and meetings.

When we build experiences, we can better shape event design and flow in order to improve many areas of an event, including engagement, retention, restoration, understanding, energy and beyond. Neuroscience and psychology can play a significant role in the overall success of an event and the positive influence to the return on investment.

I sat in on a number of sessions that were relying on technology to help promote engagement. Apps such as sli.do were being used to generate audience feedback, to drive the presentation flow, and to engage with attendees in a more dynamic way. In most cases, they seemed to be working. But why? What is it about these tools that are working to get people engaged and interested?

Information Overload

We know people are distracted. I’ve written about this topic before. We’re all suffering from what’s been called “cognitive backlog.” Essentially, if you picture the brain as a glass with all sorts of beverages being poured into it, at some point the glass will become full and start to overflow. Our brains are at capacity and can’t possibly hold all the information being poured into them.

That’s why the science behind The 10-Minute Rule, written by Dr. John Medina, makes sense. As Medina says, “Before the first quarter-hour is over in a typical presentation, people have usually checked out.” Between the natural rhythm of the brain that seems to shift focus every 10 minutes or so and all the technological distractions we’ve become addicted to, attention has become a highly valuable commodity.

The brain can only hold so much information and once full, information will begin to spill out. Therefore, the brain is like a dam and as event professionals, we need to relieve pressure and manage flow.

Engaging Your Audience

One thing science has shown us is that storytelling is a proven way to capture and hold people’s attention. The more we’re able to use stories to forge emotional connections with our audience, the more likely they are to remember what we tell them. These engagement apps when used effectively are taking storytelling one step further. Beyond the way you tell a story, another element we now must keep in mind is whose voice is being represented and whose is being left out?

I would argue that when it comes to business communications, one-way storytelling, whereby the presenter presents and the audience listens, is no longer the best way of doing things — at least not all the time. What’s missing from this type of sage-from-the-stage presentation is two-way dialogue. The goal, in moving beyond traditional presentations, is to bring to the forefront the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of others, and let them fill out your story in unexpected and invaluable ways. The best ideas and the greatest inspiration, we’ve found, tends to come from co-creation and collaboration — even creating the perception of this.

Think about it, when you hold a meeting, train a group of people or engage your customers or employees, are you talking at them or communicating with them? You will be surprised how many of us still talk at people. The difference is more significant than you might think.

Communication: A Two-Way Street

Why do you think social media was so easily integrated into mainstream communications and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast? These platforms not only encourage individuals to tell their own stories through writing, photos and curated content, but also welcome, and promote, dialogue, comments, sharing, and engagement. For the most part, humans are social creatures who live for feedback and thrive on the feelings of connectedness they get from engaging with others. Harness that in your own communications strategies, make it known that you welcome, even encourage, dialogue, and suddenly your stories will become increasingly powerful.

This is what apps like sli.do, Pigeonhole Live and Crowd Mics are accomplishing with meetings and events. They are allowing for real-time, mobile Q & A sessions and audience interaction — making the audience voice part of the presentation, rather than an afterthought.

In the event business, we typically take an audience poll before an event, and use some of that information to guide our presentations, discussions, and events. Or worse, we poll the audience after the event when it’s too late to really impact the outcome of the current event. What I believe is most effective is to allow our presentations and meetings to be led, in part, by the audience.

Keeping Options Open

What many find counterintuitive about this type of presentation is that it seems to require less work up front by the presenter. Not true. In fact, as a presenter the way you prepare is different. You may not be spending time building slides, but like a presidential debate you need to spend time preparing yourself for all the questions that may come your way. No longer can you rely on a deck of perfectly crafted slides and speaker’s notes. If you’re going to involve your audience in your presentation you’re going to have to leave more blanks than you may be comfortable with.

A carefully crafted presentation or story, where you answer all your own questions, doesn’t leave any room for dialogue. Write the outline of your story and leave lots of space for the people you’re meeting with or presenting to, to fill in the blanks. Let your story evolve as your presentation or meeting unfolds. This transforms audiences into participants. It’s a dance.

An audience-guided presentation may look something like this. Start with a prepared introduction on your topic. Then consider pre-selected categories that your audience can vote on or rank. This will help drive which topics you discuss first, or at all. You can have slides related to those topics ready — if you want. Or, after the introduction you could throw to a live Q & A where a digital wall reveals the questions to the audience. Audience members can vote for the questions from fellow audience members to push them on the list of interest and priority.

In doing this, you’re leveraging the power of choice. You are giving your audience voice where they feel like their questions are being heard and answered. Engagement increases because the outcome of the presentation is no longer dependent on the presenter. It is dependent on the co-creation of the presenter and the members of the audience. The presenter only facilitates the dialogue and provides their insights on the topic the audience is curious about.

Ben Moorsom is President and chief creative officer at Debut Group, an agency that specializes in corporate business communication and events across North America. Since 1997, Debut has pioneered new ways of delivering content and has designed and developed the art of Neuroscaping events. For more information on how Ben and his dynamic team of communication and production veterans deliver better results by producing bold creative that is strategically grounded, emotionally engaging, and flawlessly delivered to meet any clients budget visit Debut at www.debutgroup.com.

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