When was the last time you felt truly inspired and energised by the opening at a conference? How about a closing - did it give you goosebumps?
Hosts and organisers agonise over so many details of a conference or gathering, but tend to overlook the power of a purposeful opening and meaningful closing.
We’ve all experienced the ingredients of a successful book or movie. It often starts with setting the scene, where some sort of tension is introduced, followed by a surprise or two, then a decision, and finally, an unexpected climax.
Done right, you're left thinking “whoa, what just happened?”.
All-consuming, unexpected moments followed by the opportunity to reflect are what makes any experience truly memorable. Psychologists term it “random rewards”. It’s the reason a quick check of social media can have you sitting there for an hour or more - the unpredictability hooks your focus.
Why aren't more conferences designed similarly? Why not deliberately ‘engineer’ such highs and lows?
James Wallman, founder & ceo of World Experience Organisation takes this idea one step further when thinking about experiences, “There are 'three people' you’re designing an experience for: the anticipating self, the experiencing self and the remembering self."
Openings are crucial for the anticipating self. Closings are key for the remembering self.
We’ve definitely seen 'at-event' openings done right. The charismatic scene-setting presenter, the inspirational plenary, the motivational keynote - they set the tone for what’s to come, and get the pulse racing. This part of conferences is often well thought out, albeit a little formulaic.
We like to take it one step further and start with 'pre-event' communications that draw participants in, and have them engage with the purpose of the event before it’s even begun. That way you not only set expectations around what’s to come, but you start to feed the anticipating self, meaning participants arrive primed for the experience.
Closings are a different matter altogether. We rarely see good ones. It’s as though hosts expect participation will have dropped off, so why bother. In turn, participants don’t expect to be inspired by closings, and drift off to the bar or the airport (or sofa). As Dick and Emily Axelrod say in their book “Let’s Stop Meeting Like This” - we need to ‘attend to the end’.
We cannot stress this enough. Closings are as important as openings, if not more so. You can build momentum, but once you lose it, it's hard to regain. The siren call of mobile phones and urgent emails will usually win. Instead, we should seek to close with intent, by designing with the end in mind, or as Wallman calls it “endineering”.
At UC, we use the end of an event as an opportunity to reflect on what was covered and accomplished; collective silent reflection can be incredibly powerful. You should also use closings to re-commit participants to each other and to the outcomes.
What tangible takeaways are we leaving with? Who’s doing what, when, where and how? Let’s close with a sense of elation, rather than deflation.
Lastly, an event or gathering doesn’t need to end when the room is cleared or the zoom is closed. If you’ve nailed your opening, closing and everything in between, there’s a precious opportunity to stay connected with your tribe, community, stakeholders, leadership team… whoever it is you’ve gathered. But that’s a topic for another day!
(To be clear, at UC we’re not quite old enough to know the Beatles, we’re simply au fait with pop culture 🙃)