Great Opening Sessions Light a Fire


It's the opening general session of a major conference.
What does that session need to do for those in attendance? For the sponsoring organization?

I've been thinking a lot about this after delivering the keynote at a fair number of opening sessions this year.  Too often general sessions feel like generic sessions, defaulting to a very tired template: Welcome. Announcements. Parade of insider talking heads. Sponsor thanks. Some awards. Keynote speaker. Dismissal.

Great opening sessions require a far more strategic and intentional design, one that embraces their significant role in an event's rhythm and the attendees' experience of value.

I'd like to suggest that a great opening session is an accelerant. It takes the natural kindling of participants' desires—to connect, to learn, to conduct business, to find solutions, to celebrate—and turns it into a roaring bonfire.  Sponsoring organizations need to consider
  • this mix of potential participant needs and aspirations; 
  • if some are more valued by their attendees (hopefully, a data-driven insight); 
  • what general session formats and components can accelerate participants receiving real value for each of the desires being addressed in the session design; and
  • how every single component of the session design and logistics can be tweaked or reinvented to be a greater accelerant.
Every. Single. Component.
Every. Single. Decision.
Designed, not defaulted to standard practice.

A few examples:
  • Accelerate community-building by sectioning off seating (by geography, functional responsibilities, organizational size, et al) so people can opt to be near like-minded colleague.
  • Accelerate learning by having multiple speakers addressing core topics or critical issues in shorter formats (IGNITE, Pecha Kucha, TED, et al).
  • Accelerate both recognition and learning by honoring accomplishments in a way that both celebrates the award recipient, but also makes explicit what other attendees can learn and apply from their efforts.
  • Accelerate connections by facilitating introductions at the onset and having participants join with a few others to discuss a non-threatening, but compelling question. My current favorite:  What is an experience that has significantly influenced your idea of what it means to be a good professional?
  • Accelerate learning by having a reactor panel of industry pros who comment on and engage with the thinking of a traditional opening keynote speaker if you have one ... connecting the speakers ideas to specific practical application opportunities.
  • Accelerate solution-finding with a running slide deck as people arrive, one that spotlights common challenges and organizational resources or member solutions. Or post a common challenge and let people text or Tweet a solution with responses displayed in real-time.
The possibilities are endless if you take the time to apply a simple, but powerful principle: design your opening general session to be an accelerant for the value participants seek.