A typical annual trade association conference or franchise convention, circa 2016:

The opening session is off to a late start. You fear this is going to push the entire agenda back where everything else will get squeezed or run late. To make matters worse, this is going to set a bad precedent for the rest of the sessions throughout this three-day event.

In the conference program every attendee was handed along with their name badge at registration, it clearly states that the opening session was scheduled to begin 9 minutes ago. However, the majority of your audience members are still milling around in the lobby, refilling their coffee cups, networking with peers and meeting new faces. They are completely ignoring the banquet captain who has been walking back and forth in the lobby ringing chimes for the last 12 minutes like a teacher calling her 2nd grade students in from recess.

A few people have meandered in to claim a seat in the back of the room while the front 8 rows of the ballroom remain empty. Those in the lobby occasionally peek in, waiting for something interesting enough to happen on stage to draw them inside.

audience watching theater play

Valuable minutes continue to tick away as your frustration grows. “Why is this happening?” you wonder.

The short answer to that question can be summed up in a word: Conditioning.

Today’s audiences have been conditioned to agendas like yours and they know how to avoid your emcee’s ‘hello’ and her reciting of housekeeping details, which, of course, will be followed by the mind-numbing opening welcome address from this year’s President. Then there’ll be some awards, another welcome from the mayor or town council member, and a few more announcements.

As a professional speaker of 30 years who’s attended and/or spoken at over 2,000 conferences, meetings, and conventions, this is no exaggeration of how most large meetings unfold. I can also report on how today’s best meeting planners are overcoming this truancy trend to get their people jazzed and enthused from the first minute to the last.

1. They stick to the advertised time, no matter what. I belong to a large evangelical church in Colorado. Prior to each service, thousands of people gather in the large narthex to greet each other, get coffee, and drop their kids off for the youth service. But the church service always starts on time. Always. And it actually starts the very second it’s supposed to. There is a huge countdown clock projected on the front screen of the stage. The numbers of the clock are so large that you’d have to be legally blind not to see them. Five seconds… four seconds… three, two, BAM! The contemporary rock band blares their first note as people jump to their feet to raise their hands in worship singing. The audience knows the service will begin on time, and no one dilly dallies or they’d miss something big. (Click to see this 8 sec. video showing how effective this is.)

That leads to my second point…

2. Great general sessions always begin with a bang! Creative meeting planners leave the welcome speeches, new officer induction ceremonies, gratuitous awards, housekeeping details, etc. to a bare minimum only accommodating those that are critically important to everyone in the room. When they do make room for these pieces, they cleverly weave them into the session’s entertainment and content portions, or they leave them until the very end. Brilliant meeting planners even go as far as to make the delivery of these kinds of announcements fun and wildly entertaining so the audience actually looks forward to them.

3. General sessions are held to a max of 90 minutes. It’s cliche’ but true:The mind can only grasp what the derriere can endure. People tend to get restless after 90 minutes, and they almost always tune out or worse, walk out. The best sessions break after an hour and a half and give their audience a bare minimum of a 15- to 20-minute break before the next breakout session or shared meal. (Audiences of more than 250 require at least 30 minutes to break.)

ON POINT – If you find that your meeting’s general sessions are habitually delayed, here is the simplified formula for reversing the trend and re-conditioning your people to adhere to the conference schedule:

Get ’em in, WOW the bejesus out of them right from the start, then turn ’em loose!