Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

How to Use Storytelling to Make
Meetings More Meaningful

Your attendees may be having a great time zipping from keynote to breakout to reception as they check off items on their overloaded schedules. But when they get back to the office, will they retain anything they’ve learned, much less begin to use it to improve their work? Sadly, all too often they do not.

Thankfully, we now know enough about how people’s brains work to build agendas that will lead to participants actually changing their behavior based on what they learn at events. Start by streamlining that agenda to reduce the cognitive overload that can stress attendees out and shut down their ability to learn, said Sourabh Kothari, CEO and cofounder of IntentWave (pictured), during a session at the 2019 Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) Convening Leaders in January. “From an attendee’s perspective, more is not better.”

Instead of trying to cram in every possible session you think attendees might want, take a step back and think of your meeting as a narrative. Meeting planners are like movie directors, and meetings, like movies, have a beginning, a middle and an end. They also have a cast of characters, the most important of whom is the hero — the attendee. Or rather, the future version of that attendee he or she is striving to become, he said.

Act 1: Hitting the Right Keynote
That’s why keynotes should not be about “shock and awe,” where it’s all about the headliner and a “wow factor” that gives the audience a short-lasting dopamine rush. Instead, look for keynote speakers who make your audience the hero by helping them achieve that future version of themselves, said Kothari. “Think how Morpheus saves Neo [in The Matrix movies], and Obi-Wan Kenobi literally dies for Luke [in the Star Wars franchise]. Without Dory, we never find Nemo [in the movie Finding Nemo]. A good speaker makes [the audience] feel larger than life,” triggering the serotonin release that comes with a sense of pride and social status. “Invest in people who are invested in your audience, not the wow factor,” he said.

Because every good narrative has a villain as well as a hero, you need to be explicit about who or what is getting in the way of attendees achieving that vision of their future self. “It’s not enough to just talk about the results of the latest study on blah-di-blah,” said Kothari. “You have to state what the problem is before jumping to the solution.” But just as keynoters should demonstrate empathy for the audience, they also should show empathy for the villain. “No blame, no shame, no guilt. You don’t want to create negative emotions in the attendees that make them think they can never get to where the keynoter is.”

Act 2: Breakout Breakdown
“Your breakouts are the supporting cast, the dwarves and elves that help your hobbit get to the mountain [as in the Lord of the Rings movies],” Kothari said. While breakout speakers should know their content, it’s equally important for them to help people connect with each other and with the content. It’s especially important now, “because we are very fragmented as a species. We are not making time to connect with each other. It’s become awkward for people to talk with each other — how did that happen?”

How do you bring people together? Networking events are fine as far as they go, but to create deeper connections, help attendees to apply the new things they’re learning together. “To learn, people have to do things, not just hear about them. Have people apply the models” to a real-world situation. “Think about having a demo for every breakout. How can they do what they’re learning?”

Act 3: Bringing It Home
Closing keynoters should build on the narrative arc attendees have been journeying along during the event, said Kothari. Close the conference by leading the audience to discover what they need to do to move forward. “Your closing presenters need to nail leading them to this best new version of themselves going forward.”

Taking the Show on the Road

To help meeting professionals and others better understand their own brains — and literally “change their minds” — Kothari, who until recently served as an advisor to PCMA’s Digital Experience Institute, is coproducing a new series called MIND Conferences, the first of which is scheduled for March 23 in Los Angeles, with events also on the books for San Francisco, New York and Chicago. The goal is to help attendees achieve a better version of themselves through learning from behavioral experts and working interactively to envision how they can use what they learn to change their lives. — Sue Pelletier

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