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Scottish Water’s recent events were held in the round, bringing employees even closer to leaders Scottish Water’s recent events were held in the round, bringing employees even closer to leaders

WHAT A TIME TO BE LIVE

They're not cheap. There are faster and easier alternatives. They take up months of planning. And the scope for disaster is high. Live events sound like the stuff of IC nightmares  but they are an essential cog in any employee engagement wheel.

 

14th August 2019

Few music lovers would argue that streaming an album is a more stirring experience than watching a singer or band on stage. Reading a play script at home is unlikely to move you in the same way as a night at the theatre. It’s about absorbing yourself in the moment. Imagine then, a comms plan based only on emails, intranet stories or videoconferencing – all of which have their place in the channel mix, but none have the same emotional or sensory appeal of a live event. 

Obviously, you can’t get your workforce together for every announcement, but in times of change, challenge and growth, nothing else unites people in reassurance or celebration like hearing, seeing and, yes, smelling leaders and peers.

In just a few seconds, a handshake, a smile and eye-to-eye exchanges can do more to build strong internal relationships than weeks of group discussions on a social network.

“Just being together – to network, to chit chat – bonds people,” says Jemma Peers, commercial and client director at creative communications agency Top Banana. “That bonding is as important to your event as the content. It’s hard to build trust over email or Skype.”

Face-to-face comms has had to evolve, however. Billy Boughey founded Elevate Experiences in 2012, having seen a gap between what brands aimed to do and how those companies expressed their intention – usually poorly – in live events.

Billy set out to “break through the fourth wall”, which, in theatre terms, is the imaginary partition between actors and the audience.  

“Your event is not about what is happening on stage, but what is happening in the audience,” he says. “Successful events are an experience. They need energy. They shouldn’t be something you attend. You want your employees to undergo something, so they become clearer in their roles and they connect the theme of the event to their work.”

The content of live events today is certainly more thoughtful than, say, 15 years ago, when organisers were less focused on making a connection with delegates.

“Now, we see more people building a story,” says Jemma. “Gone are the days of listening to people talking at you. There is a greater emphasis on what we want audiences to think, feel and do. There’s an investment in making events more experiential, interactive and opinion-led. The best events make employees feel special.”


1. PRE-PRODUCTION

“Start with what you want the outcome to be,” advises Billy, “whether it’s for people to be more inspired or equipped with information, or you want to make more money. Work back to think about what energy you want to create, the community you need to help you and how you’ll connect them to the goal. The outcome of your event is always more important than things like who’s speaking or the time and date.”

During planning, keep your objectives in mind and don’t get distracted by ambitious creative brainstorming, which may generate a fun teambuilding challenge to briefly bring people together, but ultimately won’t align behaviour with long-term goals. 

Top Banana starts planning each event with a workshop to evaluate the client’s needs. “We ask them what they want people to think, feel and do – and then question them as to why they are not doing something already to bring out those emotions and actions,” says Jemma. “If we don’t know that, we can’t fix it or do something different.”

At Elevate, Billy considers three parts of a delegate. “First, think for their mind. What information do you want to transfer? How do you want them to think differently? Second, plan for their heart. How are you inspiring them? A lot of people don’t know if their presentation or event is to tell people something or inspire them to do something specific. There’s a big distinction. 

“Finally, prepare for the body. Think about employees’ physical needs. Where are the toilets? Is there wifi? Will you provide a PDF download of the presentations?” 
 


Event planning at Elevate Experiences, where the starting point is always the intended outcome


Realistic logistics

So where do you start? Large events and conferences take serious advance planning – from finding venues available on your preferred date to booking slots in the chief exec’s diary. 

“However long you think it’s going to take to organise, add more time,” warns Martin Fitzpatrick, communications and engagement business partner for B&Q. “We start planning for the annual conference almost as soon as the last one finishes. The first conference that
I organised, I started two or three months before the event, and it was the worst experience…”

You’ll have sorted the venue early and you won’t forget to plan content, but overlooking the small details can have the biggest consequences.

“If you have overnight stays, finding hotel rooms for people can take a long time,” says Martin. “You need to capture people’s dietary requirements. Travel arrangements can take weeks. You might get name cards printed, but forget to order lanyards and then discover the supplier’s delivery time is four weeks. Production times can be significant. You’re relying a lot on other people.”

You also need to plan around the limitations of your organisation’s technical capability. If your company’s default software is Microsoft or Google, can you achieve what you need in a live setting using those tools? If you are live streaming the event, do you have the bandwidth to reach 1,000 people back at HQ? What about 10,000 people at multiple sites? Make sure you’re on good terms with your IT team.

 

2. TOUR DATES AND VENUES

Where will your live agenda take you? A residency in a single location is easier to organise, but may require your audience to make a journey from out of town. Maybe you’ll hit the road, which will allow you to give your messages a local flavour and will make attending easier – but think of all those venues to book and set up. 

 Scottish Water covers the whole of Scotland and live events are a critical part of the channel mix. Since the organisation was established in 2002, the internal communications team has organised all-employee events every two to three years. 

“Many of our locations are quite remote,” says Ruth Findlay, head of internal communications. “Many are treatment works, depots or sites that might only have a handful of people. Many employees don’t have opportunities to network on a regular basis, so live events give them a sense of being part of something bigger. It’s a visceral experience that you don’t get with other comms media.”

Scottish Water’s live strategy has evolved since the inaugural event, which saw all 4,500 colleagues head to one central location in Crieff – “a significant amount of logistical work”, recalls Ruth.

“The benefits of having a single event is that you get a good range of people, from all geographical areas, coming together. The flipside is coordinating thousands of people from the length and breadth of the country. At that first event, we had people organising coaches, pick-up points, and flights for people flying from the islands.”

Two years later, Ruth’s team changed tack and began organising multiple nationwide events. And ahead of the most recent all-employee events, overwhelmingly colleagues said they wanted even more local context – to be able to meet people from their area, in a smaller environment, to talk to directors and senior leaders, and hear how things are being impacted in their specific communities.

“The issues for employees in Orkney, for example, are not necessarily going to be the same as in Glasgow,” says Ruth, whose team organised 21 live events to run over a three-month period. “We learned a huge amount by taking a local approach.”

 

3. CAST AND CREW

Your audience will want to talk about challenges and ideas with their peers, but your leaders will likely be the headline act. Employees want to know that those at the top have a handle on the future direction of the company. They want to hear it from the horse’s mouth – but your star performers don’t always need to be centre stage, chorusing down to the front row. 

“When talking about change, we find the greatest impact comes not from epic keynote speeches, but from campfire sessions,” says Jemma Peers of Top Banana. “That’s where you hear leaders talking from the heart about why they’re committed to the business and its people.”

Include an external perspective. Invite speakers or panellists who will disrupt the way you think about doing things or speak objectively and authoritatively.

Martin Fitzpatrick of B&Q says: “You can say your own customer experience is brilliant until the cows come home, but it means nothing. Get industry analysts or actual customers to give a viewpoint on your journey and what
you should do next.” 

When crewing up, remember that live events are all-consuming affairs. It’s not for every internal communicator.

“It’s a big, intense process,” says Scottish Water’s Ruth Findlay. “You’ll find it difficult unless you find it rewarding. Some people are naturally adept at managing the range of skills you need to have, from supplier management and planning to creative and innovative thinking.”

Getting specialist agencies on board can lighten the load and help you reimagine your ideas into something that has impact. 

Billy Boughey of Elevate says: “All businesses have a way of doing things, and when you’re deep in it, it’s hard to see different ways to get your points across. The best agencies listen, try to understand what clients want to happen and turn those messages into innovative ideas.”

 

4. REHEARSALS

No amount of preparation will stop a power failure or a presenter tripping over on stage. More planning won’t prevent a traffic jam from holding up one of your presenters on the M5. But practising will help make the performance as near-perfect as possible.

Invest time in rehearsals with leaders – reviewing scripts, speaker coaching, running through the narrative. A leader who is a charismatic orator in front of smaller teams back in the office may suffer first-night nerves in front of a big crowd.

“Some people will need deeper coaching in the techniques to cope on stage,” says Martin Fitzpatrick. “It’s part of the internal communicator’s job to figure out who needs what level of support.”

Preparation precedes success, advises Billy Boughey. “Get the run of show – a minute-by-minute account of the event – down to a granular level. Take into account things like the time it takes to transition from a presenter to the video and how long toilet breaks really take. Make sure the video you’ve been sent to include is the same length that the contributor told you it would be. 

“Once, I forgot to tell a speaker they only had 30 minutes on stage, and he went on for an hour and a quarter – and into lunch, which was cold by the time we got to it.”

 

5. THE SET-LIST

The traditional internal event is dead. Large conference suites filled with rows of employees shifting uncomfortably in hard plastic chairs while listening to a parade of C-suite speakers for six hours are a thing of the past. Now, agendas are less prescriptive, with simultaneous sessions putting employees in charge of their learning, enabling them to craft their own day. IC teams are breathing new life into the format, with a mix of interactive, experienced-based sessions that use different media to convey messages in surprising and memorable ways. 

Kellogg Europe has been running Team Talk for six years. Filmed live in Dublin, the quarterly events update all employees on business strategies, results, brand plans and more. They are, says Anne Marie Kiernan, senior manager, internal communications, “like an in-house Sky News programme”. 

“It’s a dynamic mix of live presentation and video content. An anchor outlines the format of the show and then different members of the extended leadership team report on performance or do special features on key business themes like retail disruption, changing consumer expectations or Brexit.  We even used it recently to launch our global opinion survey.  

“There has been plenty of challenge to do it as a pre-recorded video, but our leaders and employees think it’s more authentic and compelling when it is live.”

Team Talk has got more sophisticated over the years. “We try to move the dial in each new programme,” says Anne Marie. “For instance, in recent months we’ve focused on nurturing employees’ storytelling capabilities, so as to include more of their own personal accounts in the overall content mix.

“About half of our workforce are millennials – digitally savvy and highly adept at using both a camera and editing apps on their smartphones. Instead of always spending money on professionally produced videos, we’ve trained people to vlog and produce their own powerful content. It’s allowing us to show what is happening at a grass-roots level in different parts of the business.”

Anne Marie coaches presenters to avoid language and terminology few people will understand. “We ask leaders to simplify their narratives and think about what they want the audience to think, feel or do differently as a result of their presentation. We like to apply TED Talk principles to our work – big visuals, bold statements and no complicated bar charts. For instance, we do the financials like a weather forecast. It can be difficult to get everyone to relate to financial terminology, but everyone understands what sunny, cloudy and stormy means.

“That’s been a big journey for our leaders and presenters, who have often been over-reliant on slides that contain all their content.”

 

Not the same old story

Scottish Water’s most recent all-employee events also bucked the trend of conventional storytelling. Each local session was conducted entirely in just one room – with breakout areas around the edges – and, for the first time, in the round.

“We kept within one space to make sure everyone had a consistent experience and because smaller local venues dictated it,” says Ruth Findlay. “Sitting in front of a presenter in the round, the delegates were never more than four or so rows away. It was intimate. That can be daunting for people who have not presented that way. There’s a lot of physical movement and engagement involved. Our executive leadership team worked extremely hard on their delivery, handovers and how they would respond to the audience. Employees fed back positively about how cohesive our directors were as a team – how normal, authentic and approachable they were. It felt like a conversation.”

Nowadays, employees expect to be closer – physically and emotionally – to their leaders, communicating on a human-to-human level, rather than boss to worker.

How can you break down that fourth wall? Billy Boughey says authenticity must trump polish. 

“People want to see something that’s real versus over-produced. They’ll support something they’ve helped create, so incorporate co-creation into your event – brainstorm or invite questions. Open up the hood of things that aren’t going well. The best events land with a level of honesty. How do you lead with authenticity? Fall on the sword and let people know.” 

 

Down to experience

The most impactful events are experiential, absorbing the audience into the content or pushing them out of their comfort zone, rather than having information fed to them. This can be anything from teambuilding through circus skills to something a little more dramatic. Top Banana once devised a fake kidnap plot, with 60 crew members, ex-policemen, and clues hidden around the local area. 

“Think differently, but pick the right idea and unpack it properly,” says the agency’s Jemma Peers. “It can’t be just a one-hit fun experience. You need to build the concept into the rest of the agenda, and make sure there is something for people to take away and you can follow up on it.”

Scottish Water once created pods with bespoke games to depict parts of the organisation – such as a giant Monopoly board themed on one business function or physical activities around hitting targets. “It was a bit like a trade fair,” recalls Ruth. “Employees had books that got stamped each time they visited a pod. Nothing was forced, it didn’t feel terribly corporate and you could still network. People loved it and it won external awards. Since then, we’ve kept our events as interactive as possible.”

At B&Q’s most recent event, a huge 80-metre, eight-foot-high timeline mapped out key moments in the company’s history, in society, in customers’ lives. Delegates had to walk past it, through a tunnel, to get to their seats. 

“We wanted them to see the amazing things we’d done and what the future looked like,” says Martin. “In the evening, we dressed it up, and people could take photos in front of the year they were born, and share them on Yammer.”

Get leaders involved in interactive concepts. At another event, B&Q leaders were seated in a darkened room to hear voice recordings of various experiences of working for the company. 

“We had a voiceover read out complaints and lines from exit interviews – and our leaders had 10 minutes of hearing when we are at our worst,” explains Martin. “Then they went through to another room and watched videos of when we’re at our best. The third stage asked them to think about what they are going to do about what they’ve heard – the good and bad.

"A piece from the stage wouldn’t have been impactful. Events should stir emotions. And don’t be scared of bringing out difficult emotions – surprise, anger, injustice…”

Put time on the schedule for fun, insists Billy. “Building your team is underrated. It’s a lot of money to put on an event, and it can feel like an afterthought to make people smile. An event is an incredible opportunity to improve mental health. Smiling team members are better than frowning team members.”

 

6. MARKETING ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Make the most of your enterprise social network (ESN) to engage people, whether in the build-up to the event – at Kellogg, Anne Marie Kiernan posts sneak-peek videos from rehearsals – or live-blogging during the day. 

 Often at Kellogg, around big events, a junior member of staff is appointed conference storyteller and will vlog about their experience. Their reward is a free pass to the company’s big event, where they’ll gain insight they might not otherwise be exposed to in their day job. 

At restricted-access events, such as a leadership event, Kellogg encourages senior managers in the room to share on Yammer, to give the wider employee base a window to what is going on. 

“Sharing at work isn’t always a natural instinct,” says Anne Marie. “A lot of leaders are active on social media outside of work, but not necessarily within the workplace. 

“To encourage them to share at a big event, we use an event app. It has an inbuilt social wall that becomes like a live conference feed. It’s projected in the room, allowing presenters to adapt their presentations to what’s being said in real time. We also feed certain content out from the app to our ESN for all employees to see. The skills and experience leaders get from using the app can boost their Yammer behaviour when out of a conference setting and back on the job.”
 

Anne Marie Kiernan of Kellogg Europe prepares for another Team Talk


7. REVIEWS

Don’t wait too long to get the reviews in. Find out what delegates thought worked well and what didn’t.

Billy Boughey of Elevate uses different feedback platforms – he recommends Typeform and BambooHR – and suggests anonymous surveys offer the most useful feedback. But for a common thread, it’s a good idea to use the same software or channel you’ve used for other elements of the event.

And when should you pose the question? At the end of the event, while it’s fresh in delegates’ minds, or do you give people time to reflect? 

“We generally wait a few days,” says Martin Fitzpatrick of B&Q, “but no more than two weeks. You’ll always get the odd comment about the subjective stuff – choice of food, staging or timing. We try not to get hung up on those and spend our time identifying the bigger themes in the feedback that we can work through with the team, the board and sometimes the presenters.” 

And before you’ve cleared up after the wrap party, you’re probably already thinking about how the next event will measure up.

You can’t be complacent, says Anne Marie. “Once you’ve got it down pat, don’t assume you can sit back. We always think about how our next event is going to be bigger and better. Never settle.”

“You have to keep doing things differently,” agrees Ruth Findlay. “But be cognisant of what your audience can handle and the journey they’re on. Even if you prefer a high-tech event, think about whether your delegates, and the infrastructure, can handle that. It’s got to feel fresh, but it also has to be deliverable and relatable. Keep striving to improve. You’re only ever as good as your last event.”

 

Course of events: Top 10 tips for a great live experience

Seek help. Get as many hands involved as possible. Ask your marketing or PR team for advice. They may only have done external events, but some processes and logistics – sending invites, equipment – will be the same. 

Be clear around who does what – who owns or signs off which task or content. 

Set up event apps for delegates to download on their smartphones, or pre-install the app on supplied phones, so they can pose questions to panelists, see the agenda, feed back, etc. Set up a tech support bar
at the venue.

Don’t oversubscribe. Check your venue’s maximum capacity and your budget for the number of goodie bags, meals, hotel rooms… 

Save money and train people to produce their own videos. Identify people who are creative on their personal social media channels.

If you’re going to live stream the event, check in advance your HQ or the venue has the correct bandwidth.

Get energy going in the group – even if it’s just a Mexican wave. Make it clear this isn’t a traditional sit-in-your-seat event.

Ensure there are ‘wow!’ moments that people will share with those who didn’t attend; the next time you plan an event, employees will want to know about it.

Post-event, don’t just dump a summary toolkit or selection of slides on managers. Dripfeed shareable assets through different media, so everyone in the organisation gets content from the conference. Send a highlights video to attendees.

Measure your success three months after the event. Ask for the three things people remember most. Are they the same three messages you wanted people to remember? 

 

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