how to engage employees with conferences that inspire

posted by Kay De Garay Sep 03, 2018

Imagine it’s 1963, but not the one you remember or have seen on TV. No, in this 1963, we're in an alternate reality, where desktop PCs and the internet had already been invented. (Stick with me here.)

You flip the switch with a loud click and wait for your giant flickering box to power up, unaware that kids in the future would barely recognise the domed glass as a PC screen - and what’s this?

You’ve got mail.

The subject line reads: I have a dream

Ugh, spam. You hit delete on your clunky keyboard...

...and there goes Martin Luther King’s profound appeal for reform - never to stir the masses, never to make history, never to change the world.

Ok, that’s an extreme example.

But the point is that for great change to happen, we need to be moved by overflowing emotion, inspiring vision and perhaps most of all – a memorable presence. After all, emotions are contagious.

Big change demands the face-to-face experience, not only for social changes, but also for organisational changes.

When about 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by non-verbal cues, it’s no wonder that conferences play a vital role in employee engagement.

But do business conferences always manage to capture their employees’ hearts and minds?

Well… not always.

And here’s why:

We know the salesperson’s mantra that people buy people, yet we don’t always apply this principle to our workforces. Leaders need to be able to sell their ideas to their employees in a way that forms emotional connection.

So, if leaders are distant and faceless, how can they expect their people to follow them and believe in their ideas? And if leaders in a large organisation appear faceless, its employees probably feel voiceless too.

Sure, the basis of a business conference is to convey the key business messages.

But there are few things less inspiring than passively hearing about figures for hours. Even if the day ends with a thanks, you’re all great, it quickly translates in employees’ minds as a thanks, but now go and make us some more money. Without conveying genuine feeling and appreciation, employees are left feeling undervalued.

To create an inspirational conference that genuinely engages your employees, focus on how you can show appreciation for your people and their talents.

Ask these 3 simple conference strategy questions:

  1. What should bringing your people together achieve?

You probably already know at least some of the key business messages and objectives you want to communicate.

But remember, you are taking your employees out of their day-to-day routine and they’ll usually be more short-term focused on their immediate goals.

So, the conference should help them come up for air and see the bigger context.

Set the business’ GPS:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • By when? How are we going to get there?

Obvious, but this sets the scene for the two next questions, that are most often neglected: Your Why and Their Why.

Let’s look at, Your Why - the Business Why - first.

  1. Why do you want your business to head in this direction?

You probably have a myriad of strategic reasons aligned with your mission statement, that boil down to more growth, more stability and ultimately - greater revenue to do what you need to fulfil your company goals.

Now, as much as you might like this to be reason enough for your employees to be excited and raring to charge into a new, prosperous future for you, it probably won’t be.

People are more concerned with their own daily tasks and the impact they have in their own microcosm of work, leisure and family life. As nice as it would be, you can’t expect your employees to be as invested in the overarching business goals as the CEO is.

So, here’s the other Why you need to ask.

  1. Why should your employees care?

This is the Employee Why.

To get your employees to resonate with your message, give them the opportunity to make an emotional connection to your business objectives.

Effective ways to do this are:

  • Choose a meaningful theme or story that the conference agenda centres around. This works best if you can draw from stories that go beyond business. We’re nosy – other people’s personal triumph stories pique interest. One of our clients is an industry-leading facilities management company that excels at employee engagement. They have been using “Be Intrepid” as a theme for the past three years to focus their sector leaders on a continuing goal to be adventurous and bold, like the explorers of bygone times.
  • Involve them by asking their opinions.
  • Before the conference, ask questions as part of the sign-up process, like about how they’re feeling about work or specific issues they want to address. Then you can create an opportunity to discuss these issues at the conference.
  • During, it might be a team-building exercise or workshop where teams from mixed departments can come up with solutions to problems they are facing together.

One warning about team-building exercises though – they work best if they support the conference message. Sure, building a balloon tower together is fun, but if you don’t tell them what the activity represents, you’ve lost a chance to make a physical memory connection to your message. And employees are left thinking, “What was the point?”

  • After the conference, find out what they thought and quickly. Send out a post-conference survey the same day or first thing in the morning. The fresher the conference is in their minds, the more likely they are to give accurate answers and respond at all. Keep the message alive with a campaign that runs on the company intranet and keeps people involved throughout the year.
  • See it from their perspective – this conference is for them, so make them feel like they’re part of something bigger and more amazing than they realised. That way, their personal motivations can become more aligned with the business ambitions. Let them know that while you want them to share and participate in your vision that their personal why is also respected.

Sadly, the Employee Why often gets forgotten, missing a huge opportunity for engagement. It’s the emotional connection that is so powerful and effective at making people care.

We know innately how vital the human connection is in business, one-to-one. But when it comes to addressing a large group of people and having to show strong leadership, we sometimes forget how to be human. Sometimes, it’s just nerves.

But like the great speakers of history, if you let empathy and meaning take the lead, you can genuinely inspire hearts and minds that will carry the torch for your vision.