As part of running a business school and venture capital firm, I have to organize a wide range of meetings and events. These range from relatively intimate investor meetings to multi-day conferences with hundreds of attendees. Big or small, the most important thing about event facilitation is always the same: it must surprise and delight. If you don’t create genuine WOW moments, attendees won’t feel engaged—let alone bother coming back next year.
That’s why I try to craft events that engage people on multiple levels. I try to address all their senses, not just their intellect. And there are a few event facilitation techniques that can help you do just that.
1. The best location is an unusual location.
When you can, it’s best to host your conferences and events offsite. Why? Because taking people out of their everyday environment jolts them out of tired old patterns of thought.
We take this approach to an extreme: we once hosted a conference on three small islands near Okinawa. The participants had to make short boat trips to move from event to event! In October 2015, we pushed the concept further by hosting a multi-day conference on board a cruise ship on the Seto Inland Sea. The closing event was held at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, a beautiful World Heritage Site. That’s about as far from an everyday office environment as you can get. Wow!
2. First impressions matter, so get the optics right.
Oscar Wilde famously said that only shallow people don’t judge by appearances. An element of visual surprise in how speakers present themselves always helps put the audience in a receptive frame of mind.
At a conference where we hosted a discussion on security in East Asia—a hot topic with China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea—the speakers included a US Navy admiral. Before the admiral had said a word, his blindingly white uniform, cap, and medals had created a strong sense of anticipation in the room. (He was also a good speaker, I should add!)
I sometimes dress up in an old-fashioned formal black kimono called a hakama for our events. It’s a form of visual shorthand that sends a message: today is special.
3. Eliminate irritation by running a smooth operation
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is known for wearing the same gray T-shirt day in, day out. It’s a conscious decision on his part. Zuckerberg doesn’t want to waste any of his considerable (but finite) brainpower on the frivolous question of what to wear. He wants to keep his mental powder dry for the big business questions.
In a similar vein, we don’t want any of the attendees at our conferences wasting their intellectual or emotional capital worrying about silly stuff like where a discussion is being held or when it’s going to start. To eliminate any such confusion in advance, we print thorough and easy-to-follow programs; we position staff strategically around the venue to give guidance to anyone who looks lost; and we ring bells, like in a theater, to announce when events are about to begin. Most crucially, we make sure that everything runs on time and no speakers overrun their allotted time slot (the No. 1 source of irritation and frustration at conferences).
4. Cleverness consumes calories.
Japan is a gourmet country, and we set great store on hospitality. Good food is an important part of any social event, conferences included. A full-day conference demands plenty of concentration. Speakers and attendees need to take in plenty of calories to keep their brains ticking.
Why not turn the catering into another WOW opportunity? At a recent investors’ meeting for my VC operation, we ordered in fresh sushi from Tsukiji Fish Market with Dassai sake to drink. Dassai, I should explain, is the brand of Japanese sake that President Obama served to Japanese Prime Minister Abe on his recent state visit to the White House. It’s not expensive, but it’s very hard to get hold of. Serving something special is another great way to surprise and delight your attendees.
5. Lighten the mood with frivolity to generate energy.
A one-day conference usually consists of four or five one-and-a-half-hour sessions. Staying mentally focused for the entire day is a challenge. To help participants avoid burnout, we always try to provide more lighthearted and slightly left-field events for lunchtime entertainment.
On one occasion, we had a comedian who performed rakugo (traditional Japanese storytelling-based comedy) in English. Another time, we had a young Harvard-educated executive from licensing company Sanrio explain how he had propelled the international sales of Hello Kitty merchandise through the roof without spending a cent on advertising.
Our longer conferences always conclude with a last-night party. Sometimes we make them costume parties, and everyone turns up as manga or anime characters!
6. To yourself be true: dress down and speak out.
Because of Japan’s salaryman culture, the dress code at most conferences here is rather formal. Dark suits abound. While I recognize that formal attire is sometimes necessary, personally I think that a more casual dress code breaks down barriers and promotes the sort of open and frank discussion most likely to result in WOW insights.
These are my six tried-and-tested techniques for creating WOW moments. But perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “What’s this got to do with me? I’m not in the business of organizing conferences. Who cares?”
In fact, these six techniques are relevant to leaders everywhere.
You may have to organize seminars, webinars, or presentations to communicate your products or services. For any of these, you want to grab the attention of opinion leaders, be seen as thought leaders, raise your company’s profile in the stakeholder community, generate online buzz…
And crafting WOW moments is the best way to achieve those goals.