Disclaimer: Part of my job requires me to educate at industry functions. In a past life, I was a contract player at an improv/dinner theater in Amsterdam and did corporate entertainment across northern Europe. I’m not proud to say that I have spoken/joked through 300-some-odd meal functions. I even have performed in “evenings of new works” at a Starbucks and a live music venue (although I plead the ignorance of youth).
So before you read any further, realize I’m pretty biased. But here are the three reasons why I’m convinced having anyone speak while people are trying to eat is a terrible idea.
No. 1: People attend meetings and conferences for networking and education.
So don’t screw that up.
I understand why you may be tempted to blend the two. But you’re not going to create some kind of magical meetings Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup by doing so. Instead, you’re going prevent your attendees from enjoying either option.
People want to gab over a meal and meet new people. Speakers want attendees’ full attention. No one can talk and listen at the same time. And it’s hard to talk over all that clatter.
In short, the only secret recipe you’re creating is one quick way to annoy people. So for God’s sake, at least wait until dessert before the program begins.
No. 2: People need space and time to process great thoughts.
At a three-day conference, you should let people eat and connect with each other at least once a day without being subjected to some talking head, because they need time to discuss what they’ve been experiencing.
Dr. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, told me that their findings suggest the human brain can only process three big thoughts a day. Let the meal functions be a place where people can debate and discuss those new concepts.
People need to talk about their ideas with other people. That helps them identify what’s relevant to them, how they can apply and adapt it to their unique situation. It’s a necessary step if you want attendees to transform information into action. If they don’t have a forum to do so, then you’re helping reinforce negative meeting stereotypes like this one.
No. 3: You don’t want the speaker (or the entertainment) to hate you
I have to be honest: When I did corporate improv shows in Europe, I almost never met the planners. But I often cursed them.
As the “talent,” I typically sat backstage (or off-ballroom in an unused meeting or hotel room), nibbling on a cruddy one-slice-of-cheese sandwich while the attendees noshed on prime rib and sloshed down fine wines. When it was “go” time, we’d bound onstage and energetically do our stuff for an audience who was mostly annoyed that we were interrupting their good time. By the end, we might have won them over, but it was hard going because the people who were having a really good time continued to do so over and through our act.
After returning to America, I covered a MPI PEC-NA conference (RIP) for Plan Your Meetings and got to hear Tim Sanders exhort an entire audience of meeting professionals to treat the staff as well as they treated their attendees. My former broodje kaas-eating former self wanted to stand up and cheer.
I went back to PYM and insisted that we do just that. Our speakers and entertainment always eat the same meals as our attendees. We treat them with respect. And one of the ways we respect them is we don’t force them to speak while people are trying to eat. I encourage you to do the same.
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