On the night of the 66th Annual Tony Awards celebrating great theater here in New York City, I wanted to take this opportunity to share a few lessons that corporate event planners can learn from some of the best theater minds on our planet. So let’s take these lessons from the flip side.Below are 12 of the most common corporate event planning errors which damage the experience for both the audience and the speaker.
1. A Long Lagging Opening Speech by Someone from the Organization
Imagine if the Tony Awards tonight began with a long speech by someone from the American Theater Wing instead of the festive film take off from The Book of Mormon and the actual cast singing on stage? The American Theater Wing rep always makes his or her appearance much farther into the evening, once the show has gained momentum and once our attention is hooked.
2. A Wide Center Aisle
Imagine if the Beacon Theater or any brilliant theater space wiped out the center orchestra seats and replaced it with a gigantic center aisle? In any theater, the premium seats are always center orchestra. People pay big bucks for these. And yet, time and again, event planners create a wide center aisle right in front of the stage. Huh?
3. A Wide “Moat” or Gap Separating the Stage and Audience
In theater, the premium seats are not only those in the center but also those closer to the stage. Often, though, meeting planners set up a huge “moat” that separates the speaker from the audience, and that moat serves to do just this: SEPARATE the speaker from the audience and vice versa. This physical distance creates an emotional and psychological distance…not ideal for connection, transformation, and learning.
4. Lack of Proper Lighting
Imagine if there were no lights here at the Beacon Theater and the producers just relied on the house lights. As a corporate planner you don’t need hundreds of colored lights — it IS expensive — but you DO need to light the stage. Take a sliver of your budget and set up a few lights to illuminate the people on stage so your audience can actually see them.
5. Too Much Space Between Chairs
There’s a reason comedy clubs pack the audience into a tight space; and there’s a reason that theater seats (both movie houses and proper theaters) are tightly set. Yes, there’s a dollar value attached; more bodies means more money. But there’s an experiential reason behind this plan as well. A tightly seated audience creates an emotional and powerful human experience. Tables and distance disperse energy. Imagine if everyone at the Beacon Theater tonight was seated at big round tables (wedding table style) which is how the majority of corporate events are set up. Not so good. If you need to serve meals, do it elsewhere. If people need to take notes, they can do it on their laps. The value gained by removing tables and setting up your space theater style FAR outweighs the value gained by having a surface on which people can place their glass of water, pad and pen.
6. Meals During Speakers or Speakers During Meals
Even Robin Williams would have trouble competing with cheesecake. Humans love food more than they love watching and listening to a speaker. What happens when you try to do both is that you end up with a “half way” experience – half as good a meal; half as good a speaker/audience experience. Choose one or the other. Don’t do both.
7. Extra Chairs & Empty Chairs
At the Oscars and the Tony Awards, you won’t see an empty seat. There are professional “seat fillers” who actually fill in the gaps. How can you accomplish this at a corporate event? Set up fewer chairs and ADD them as people arrive. 5% less than you think you’ll need is a good idea. Often, by the final day of a conference, there’s been a certain amount of attrition – often as much as 40%. Event planners would be wise to remove chairs in the general session room to accommodate this loss or at the very least, cordon off the back rows until they’re absolutely needed. Empty chairs are not good for morale — for the audience or for the speaker. When I worked in comedy clubs and off-off Broadway, we used to set fewer chairs than we knew we needed so that audience members would see the production crew adding chairs as people arrived. The subliminal message to those already present and those arriving was, “Wow, this is the place to be. We’re in the right room. They even have to add chairs!”
8. Cutting the Speaker’s Time
Imagine if just before Neil Patrick Harris went on tonight, he was told backstage that his time had been cut by 30%. Can you imagine him having to re-write his act minutes before he went on? A speaker’s “performance” is a carefully orchestrated experience. Cutting 15 minutes out is not an easy task…and cutting it out at the last minute is even harder. Stick to the time. Keep your executives to their limit. If they’re the type of individuals who goes over, tell them they have 10 min. instead of 20 min. Buffer. Plan for it. You’re the pro. Set the parameters. Or…set up a cue that everyone agrees to, one which indicates that a presenter’s time is up. It’s what the Oscars and the Tonys do with orchestrated music that comes on when someone’s speech goes over the allotted time. In comedy clubs, we have the “red light” – literally, a red light that the comedian can see but the audience can’t. Figure out your own appropriate cue. It’s better than you standing at the back of the room rolling your eyes, clutching your printed agenda and time sheet and whispering to the speaker, “I’m so sorry. Could you still end on time? Can you cut your speech down by 20 minutes?”
9. Stage Too High
If you look at the Beacon Theater’s stage — or at any Broadway stage — it is set just high enough for the audience to see the performers but not so high that audience members are cranking their heads back to look up (except for those seated in the very front row). The stage should almost connect the performers/speakers/presenters to the audience. (See point # 3) Avoid overdoing the height. The goal is visibility AND connection.
10. Lack of Music
An event is…well, an event. Too often there is dead air in a room at corporate events as people enter. Music should be playing — even at a low volume — as people arrive. This perks up the energy. It also means audience members aren’t whispering for fear of their conversations being overheard. Music creates a mood; a shift in tone; an experience. And isn’t that what you want?
11. Lack of a Bio Break
Often, I get onto the pre-event conference call and the event planner explains the agenda. “OK…First the President will speak for 50 minutes. Then the VP of Marketing will speak for about 45. He’s pretty dry. Then YOU go on for your 75 minutes.” Wow. Really? Not only is this a recipe for disaster in terms of energy and flow, but this also means that people will be coming in and out during the speaker’s stage time because human nature is…human nature. A break isn’t lost time. It’s found time.
12. Lack of Adequate Time for Audience Members to Get to the Next Scheduled Event
When it comes to corporate meetings, more time sitting in event rooms doesn’t mean more learning. People need time to check their emails and messages; catch up with their colleagues; go to the bathroom; and most importantly, process what they learned. This can’t happen if agenda items are scheduled back to back. It makes the audience rush. It puts them in a state of anxiety. And their experience of YOUR event will be one of stress. One of the most effective conferences I was honored to speak at — the Health, Work & Wellness Conference — schedules in 20 min and 30 minute breaks. It is brilliant. Rather than rush from one room to the next, participants have a chance to connect, discuss what they learned, and process the experience. Isn’t that the point of a conference?Make your next event a Tony-worthy production. Even on a small budget, everything listed above is completely do-able. These 12 tips will go a long way in making your event an outstanding one. Stop planning meetings and setting up rooms the same way every one else does it.Instead, show your client, production team, audience and guest speaker that your CMP status means you truly are a pro.