General sessions are the stars of a conference—plenty of lights, camera and action. However, because they’re also an opportunity to reinforce a message or educate and motivate participants, it’s important to avoid being all show and no substance. Here’s how to pack a punch with purpose.

Know your audience

Before putting pencil to paper on a production blueprint, planners need to understand who the audience is. Demographics, such as age, gender and job title provide clues to what might resonate with an audience. Surveys and behavioral data get closer to the truth, but advances in artificial intelligence (AI) go even further. Platforms, such as Affinio, analyze first-party data and social media connections to build audience personas, which can help planners settle on themes, speakers, even “moods” for a general session. 

Select a speaker

Choosing a keynote speaker is a delicate task. “Keynotes can set the tone of the meeting and express the brand of the company,” says Thom Singer, CSP, professional speaker and master of ceremonies. The best way to select a speaker (even with a recommendation or the help of a speakers bureau), he says, is to have a conversation “to unpack the person’s experience, the way they customize their message, whether they are easy to work with or that they have the right personality. Speaking is an art form and therefore, it’s subjective,” he says.

Add the wow

Even with knowledge of the audience and an amazing keynote speaker, general sessions differ markedly from breakout sessions and other programming. They’re designed to dazzle. Some of the ways they wow audiences include giant LED walls, micro LED technology, mood lighting, music, graphics, powerful projectors and, sometimes, special effects like fog or speakers accessing the stage on a vehicle or from the ceiling.  Here’s a helpful resource to make sure all the bases are covered.

Involve the audience

While general sessions can be entertaining to watch, they’re more memorable if audience participation is baked in. Not too long ago, the notion of giving audience members devices—clickers and keypads—caused every budget alarm bell to go off. Today, attendees can involve themselves in the fun with their own Smartphones and tablets using an audience response system. And if a little fun is what’s needed to spice things up, planners can festivalize their general sessions with LED wristbands that flash different colors to the beat of the music.

Segment the seating

Sure, some general session attendees like to sit by the door or in the front row, but those seats are limited. Why not divide the seating up into sections so that birds of a feather (people from the same local chapter, individuals born west of the Mississippi, those who love PCs vs. Mac computers) can sit together? It’s a great way to foster interaction among guests (during and after the general session) and makes people feel like they belong to a tribe. Planners can orchestrate segmented seating using humans holding signs, a pre-distributed map and color-coded chair covers. 

Continue the conversation

Sometimes, a keynote speaker is so compelling, listeners want to talk about it. Ideally, the breakout sessions are intended to extend the general session theme, but some organizations like PCMA have experimented with Afterchats—small-group gatherings immediately after a presentation at which the speaker answers questions or continues the learning. With a general session crowd, Afterchat opportunities can be reserved in advance or offered as a reward to select individuals.

A next-level general session is a combination of many smaller elements. While mind-blowing audiovisual elements can help, a great keynote message and the ability for the audience to be involved in the experience is crucial. General session experts, like the Solutions Architects at SmartSource, see so many activations every year, they always have great ideas to share.

Stay tuned for details on our latest custom creation of a 90ft LED wall for the IAEE Expo! Expo! 2019 General Session.