Getting the ROI out of events


Ever attend a conference and skipped a session?

Ever slept through a session, caught up on email or did work?

What can you recall from the last conference you attended?
Did you ever think that an event was a waste of time?
Are you at risk of people saying the same thing about your association’s events?


Why? Because everything was optimized for the convenience of the presenter.


Take the lecture for example.

Typically, the speaker decides what they want to talk about and a committee selects the topics.  The audience is considered but not actually consulted because it is too difficult for the presenter.  The presenter writes down what they know about a topic, the  lecture is prepared and delivered as a script so that all the material is covered and the presenter isn’t caught off guard.


What’s the problem with lectures?

Dr. Hermann Ebbinghaus said we forget 80% of what we hear in an oral lecture within two days and 90% within a couple of weeks.

How would it make you feel if 90% of an investment of time, money and energy is lost within two weeks?  And yet, 100 years after that discovery the lecture format still dominate conferences.


We put up with it like a school of guppies searching for tiny morsels of food.


While we may not have had much of a choice, the younger generations do.  They are quick to whip out a smart phone or a tablet and check out of the conversation.  We might be alarmed that the lecture format is dying off but among Generation C, it’s dead already.


They are sharks that don’t have tolerance for boring or low value experiences.


Today’s audiences don’t have to take content on the presenter’s terms.  Smart phones and the internet have enabled us to get the content we want, from whatever source we want, whenever we want, wherever we want.


So what can we do to increase the value of our events or at least to stay relevant?


Recent advancements in neuroscience and cognitive psychology suggests there are ways that we can increase the value and return on investment of our events


After over 150 interviews and thousands of hours of research with some of the best minds in the world, some patterns emerge.


It’s hard to recap 1000 hours of interviews into 2 pages so let me just give you the highlights look what I found. (Contact me or visit to see the sources, sample interviews and details).



What is wrong with the standard conference format?

If all we are is Talking Heads in front of a slide deck, remote video technologies make it is easier, faster, cheaper and more efficient to watch a video than to attend a live event.


So what do we need to do?


Has anyone ever asked you what the purpose of conference is in general?


I submit that the core purpose of any professional meeting is to change the way we behavior or think at some time in the future when the topics covered become relevant.


If we fail to change people’s behavior or thinking, then we run the risk of conferences becoming simple networking and entertainment events.  And for some, that is what many of them are.  That might be sufficient, but our attendees, their bosses and our sponsors want results.   If the results are apparent or if they are short lived, it makes it hard for them to justify the costs putting our events and our organizations at risk.


What causes us to forget?

  • Boring presenters.
    According to neuroscientists at Duke University Institute of Brain Sciences, our brain is wired to look for patterns as well as interesting and extraordinary things.  Things that the brain deems uninteresting or unimportant are actually filtered out before we are conscience of them.  I taught a 3 course on Brain Friendly Communication for trial attorneys and kicked off a success pitch  the US Joint Special Operations Command to get them to experience the limitations of our perception of reality.  (Founder of Duke University’s Center of Decision Sciences, Dr. Scott Huettel offers some advanced techniques like “nudging” and others if you are interested.)
  • Logistical and technical problems.
    Senior staff at the Meeting Planners International and the National Speakers Association estimate that one out of six presenters at the national or international level will encounter some issue that distracts a speaker from their A game.  Past President of the National Speakers Association, Rick Jakle, explained to me that EVERY speaker leaves the podium with three speeches- the one they planned, the one they gave and the one they wish they gave.
  • Poor visual aids.
    Just about every conference I have gone to had slides that were almost completely illegible towards the back of the room.  Even with perfect vision, it is hard to see much more than the title.  Another tendency is to provide way to overload the audience with data.  What most presenters don’t know or ignore, is that we consume information better in small sips verses drinking from the fire hose.
  • Not obviously relevant
    Obvious issues but rarely considered are the answers to the  “So what?” questions: Why should I care, how is the information going to change my life, what are the key things I should remember and what actions should I take.  Too often, we get speakers that can’t and don’t answer those basic questions.

After 25 years as a speaker, coach and judge, I could write an entire thesis on each of these and several other topics but here are some basic ideas.



What can we do?

Make events more “brain friendly”


  1. Before the event
    Don’t just promote, ty to prepare them by engaging them earlier.
  • Prime the attendees about the topics – Poll the audience to involve them

(In several of my conferences, we actually have attendees that have registered early vote on presentation proposals)

  • Offer suggested pitches or email templates to get their boss to pay
  • Plan for failures – have backups of everything including equipment and even speakers.


  1. During the event

Make the learning experience more compelling.  Forget passive learning, make it a feeding frenzy of ideas by:

  • Add activities that promote discussion of key take-aways and their applications.
  • Feed their mind with low/no sugar energy. Caffeine is ok
  • Give their body a break – Take longer bio break 2 hours after food.
  • Show them you care
    1. Make new comers feel special
    2. Offer job boards to help job seekers
    3. Don’t make attendees have to ask where and when things are. Make it obvious.
  • Make networking more purposeful instead of haphazard.
  • Consider putting table tents with key issues or topics on lunch tables manned by a volunteer expert.



  • Hold Contests that refresh the content and keep the attendees engaged

Most Creative Memory Map and/or Most Complete Memory Map and Best Key take-aways

(International President of Toastmasters and runner up in the World Championship of Public Speaking, Dr. Dilip Abayasekara thought memory maps were so valuable to presentations, he wrote a book on it)

  • Send attendees a “Thank you letter” template that they can send to their boss with take-aways
  • Follow up a few months later with “Best Success story” contest and high light the story on your website.


These techniques will also help your marketing efforts tremendously and will help members increase their return on their investment.



Our members are our clients.  Increasing the value to our members will ultimately make our associations better.  My goal in every event I host, emcee or plan is to try make the event the most valuable that they have ever attended.

After all, we aren’t the only fish in the sea.

Our success depends on what is caught, not what is taught.

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