The business sessions of corporate and industry events have always valued interactivity, the dynamic question and answer or open discussion sessions that signal true audience interest in the topic under discussion. Today, in addition to the common desire of event developers for discussion-rich meetings, there is also a new and compelling reason to select the most interactive format: The demand of the Millennial generation that the corporate organizations display a high level of organizational transparency. At a time when both the general public and companies' own employees are questioning corporate purpose, leadership, and social role, hiding behind the lectern is simply the worst thing an executive can do.
In the business conference setting, interactivity means listening to the audience and answering questions. Significantly, this implies that speechmaking, the traditional form of information delivery at business events, becomes secondary. The right meeting format for a group desiring a high degree of interactivity is one that features a much reduced level of speechmaking, replaced by a schedule of onstage dialogue and audience-inclusive conversation.
The Alternative: BusinessWeek's Discussion-Driven Format
Such a format already exists, however it is not widely applied. Called the "discussion-driven" conference format, meetings making use of this method reduce or even eliminate completely the lectern based speech, delivering all the information of the conference in the context of onstage discussions. This technique is perfect for corporate leaders who wish to come out from behind the lectern and present themselves as 'accessible,' 'listening,' 'friendly,' and 'human.' For this reason alone it is likely that more business events will now be shifting toward an all-discussion format.
One of the longest-running success stories in corporate events, the conferences of BusinessWeek magazine have utilized principally this format in developing more than 200 CEO-only, CFO-only, CIO-only, industry-specific and topic-specific conferences. The method is particularly good for positioning senior corporate figures in front of significant constituencies, but BusinessWeek adopted the 'all discussion' approach across the board, using it as widely and variously as other conference groups apply the usual speech-based format.
"BusinessWeek has completely abandoned the old 'podium parade,'" says Scott Shuster, BusinessWeek’s longtime editorial director for conferences. "McGraw-Hill had brought me in to create a whole line of BusinessWeek-branded senior executive conferences, as well as to serve as the onstage chairman of each event. With my background in broadcasting (I was coming from nine years as an ABC News correspondent), I viewed the traditional speech-based format of business events as ineffective and pretentious. I am still surprised that the majority of business conferences use an onstage method that largely prevents audience participation, often results in restlessness and boredom, and frequently delivers embarrassing missteps and flops onstage. The quality of the speech-based event is at the mercy of every speaker sent to the lectern. This lack of control is a guarantee that all meetings will be uneven in quality. I wanted meetings that were riveting throughout, never boring for an instant, that afforded the option of audience participation at any moment, and that avoided flops 100%. My colleagues at BusinessWeek have created a completely new kind of business magazine: I took for myself the goal of matching their achievement by creating a completely new kind of corporate event."
In his 15th year chairing BusinessWeek gatherings, Shuster refers to his now well defined onstage technique as the "discussion-driven" conference format. "It requires a lot of work on my part to prepare for these industry-specific discussions, but by taking on the task of securing the moment-to-moment quality of the meeting, I lift a lot of work off the shoulders of the executive speakers, and am also in a position to steer the event on a real-time basis. Every session has a dynamic, 'anything-can-happen' feeling about it, yet at the same time is in fact tightly controlled. My role as discussion leader enables me to ensure the highest level of editorial quality on a minute-to-minute basis throughout the conference.
A Conference Without Speeches? How Does That Work?
At most BusinessWeek meetings and other conferences chaired by Scott Shuster there are no speeches to write and no slides to prepare. Executives never go near the lectern. "Conferences that send every executive to the lectern are operating on a false premise," says Shuster, "The idea that every executive can deliver a speech well enough to impress a 21st century audience, and by that I mean an audience that is used to the utter perfection of presentation that they see on television. It is not fair to ask that of our CEOs, executives, and managers. It always seemed wrong to me that everyone who had something to say at a business conference had to stand up and say it in a speech. I really wanted to offer an alternative.
"So instead of sending speakers to a lectern, at the beginning of each session, I ask the next individual or group of discussants (panelists) to take seats onstage. They come forward directly from the audience, where they have been sitting with everyone else, preferably mixed in all over the room and not at a special table. I think that's significant in that it demonstrates to the audience that the discussants who they are about to see onstage (often it's the CEO) are 'just like them.' As the discussants step onstage I introduce each one, focusing on the prominent position or achievements that have led to their appearing before this group. I take care to position each speaker as an achiever in their field, smoothing the way for them before they ever open their mouth.
"When everyone is seated, I sit down myself and lead a relaxed, 'around-the-dinner table' sort of conversation. Whether it's a panel or a one-on-one interview, my approach is always completely at ease, cheerful, and invariably enthusiastic. A tedious or dour style onstage will prompt stiffness in the audience and you won't get any participation (questions) out of a group like that."
Periodically Shuster leaves the platform to move about the audience, encouraging audience participation through questions or reactions to comments being made onstage and by other audience members. The format is perfect for emphasizing organizational openness and transparency. "It really is a far cry from the tense setting of the lectern," says Shuster.
For the keynote, the plenary, the working group, the roadshow
Company- and industry-oriented conferences can make use of the discussion-driven format in various ways. Some event producers prefer to feature only one in-depth CEO interview, or one panel discussion on a central issue confronting the group, and they will do this in one or two prominent keynote sessions. For example, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which holds an annual Washington conclave of small business owners, has Scott Shuster chair an all-discussion opening keynote session on the central topic of the meeting, entrepreneurship, and then reverts to a speech-based format for the rest of the conference.
Some clients have Scott chair all the plenary portions of their event, placing him in the role of moderator or conference chairman in addition to discussion leader. Scott opens the meeting, and runs the entire gathering from start to finish, introducing all speakers and conducting in-depth subject-specific interviews with every person on the program. This is Scott's usual role at BusinessWeek conferences, as well as for clients such as American Banker, Microsoft Corporation, IBM, EDS, Hewlett Packard, the government of Turkey, the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, Marsh & McClennan, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lipton, and others. At many of these meetings there are no speeches at all, the entire event being conducted as a series of discussions.
Meetings that feature tracks of working groups will usually have Scott chair the plenary sessions as described above, and then have him stay on to lead one track of breakout sessions. For example, at the California Building Industry Association's annual trade show for homebuilders, Scott chairs a plenary panel of industry leaders and consultants, and then leads a day of discussion for the all-CEO track.
Scott also often chairs half-day regional gatherings ('roadshows') that enable a company's executives to address their local customers, distributors, or employees in a series of cities. Scott has done this repeatedly for Microsoft Corporation, as well as for insurance giant AIG, interviewing CEO Maurice Greenberg live before audiences of more than 1000 commercial insurance brokers in five cities.
For the managers and executives onstage at Shuster's 'discussion-driven' meetings, the conference related workload is nil. They have virtually no pre-event preparation to do at all. A five-minute telephone conversation with Scott some days prior to the event is usually enough. "That was an unexpected benefit," says Shuster, "but there is no question that using this format reduces the challenge of preparing to speak at a business conference virtually to zero, and this has an enormous impact on the conference development process. I have one client who told me she used to have to contact 30 or 35 executives in order to find one who would agree to speak. Now, she finishes her executive speaker bookings in one third the time because most of her first-choices say 'yes.' It's easy to convince people to speak if all you are asking them to do is show up and be themselves. My only instruction to the executives and managers onstage at my events is to 'come to the meeting and bring your brain.'"
A Format Whose Time Has Come
The discussion-driven format was already growing in popularity before the corporate community was hit with scandal, crisis and so much social questioning of the corporate role in the nation and the world. Now the need to project openness and transparency at corporate and industry events will drive its adoption even more rapidly. Says Shuster, "I'm happy to see the all discussion format getting attention now, because it is the silver bullet for conferences that need to undertake a repositioning or even just a reassertion of their longstanding openness and transparency. It's obviously a good choice for a CEO interview in keynote, but it is also true that the further down the organization this format is applied, the more open that organization will appear to be to employees and constituents. The all-discussion format is a vast improvement over speech based meetings, it has proven its versatility at BusinessWeek, and I think it's just a matter of time before most events are conducted in this manner. It's a better way to run a conference."