- Executive Toolbox
- Career Center
- About Us
Most conferences kickoff with an opening general session.
Why? What’s the point? What’s the purpose of a general session?
Back to presentation basics
What’ the purpose of a speaker for any presentation?
Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate says it best: "Presentations are most commonly delivered to persuade an audience to change their minds or behavior."
At its basic level, presentations are to persuade. Some may say that presentations are to inform. I typically respond with, “Inform for what reason?” Usually the presentation is to inform listeners so they will respond accordingly. Yes, it’s still about persuasion.
Faith organizations know that membership gatherings are all about persuasion. They have weekly services to inform and persuade congregations to act and behave differently.
Faith organizations kickoff their conferences with an opening general session. They know that the first gathering sets the tone for their event and even the coming year. They carefully construct the opening general session to engage their community. Their leaders know something about human behavior and how to get an audience to respond emotionally.
Who is the general session for?
Who is the general session for? Is it for the organization’s leaders? The speakers? The audience?
I’ve planned many general sessions for a variety of organizations from trade associations to outdoor rallies to fundraisers to nonprofit charities to faith organizations.
They all have one thing in common: the general session is for the audience! It’s all about the audience.
If conference organizers can comprehend that the general session is for the audience, they will plan things differently. If the focus is on the leadership sharing information, the audience is forgotten and the general session usually fails.
The general session is not about the speaker. It’s about the audience. For that reason, it’s not the audience’s responsibility to change their mental state and adjust to the speakers of the general session. It’s the speakers’ responsibility to tune their message to the audience’s needs. Skilled presenters know that they need to adjust their frequency to the audience so that their message connects.
When the message resonates on a deep level, the audience responds with self-organizing behavior. And that’s often what conference hosts want, self-organizing behavior.
However, choose the wrong speakers or spend too much time on association business in the general session, and the opportunity for self-organizing behavior is lost.
8 purposes of a general session
1. Motivation. Rarely is the goal of a general session discouragement or to be a hindrance to the audience.
2. Set the tone for the event. That’s why many conferences start and end with general sessions. They bookend the conference experience. The first general session sets a tone for the entire event. The closing general session reinforces the conference experience and sets a tone for the remainder of the year.
3. Share information. This one can be tricky. If the information being shared is not meaningful or important to the audience, the message is lost. Then the general session serves as a sour note at the start of the conference and rarely is the negative experience forgotten.
4. Education and learning. Many organizations say their general sessions are to educate members. If it is truly about education, some specific things must happen or the general session just ends up being about transferring information from the speakers mouth to listeners’ notebooks.
5. To create a memorable experience. Most organizations want their general sessions to be memorable. Often, they are memorable for the wrong reasons.
6. To emotionally connect with the participants. General sessions go wrong when they create negative emotions with audiences.
7. Entertainment. Some general sessions are designed to entertain. When entertainment is the goal, I think there is the missed opportunity to reach audiences on a deeper level as well as for self-organizing behavior.
8. Self-organizing behavior. This can happen with intentionality from the conference organizers and the speakers. Having a debate on stage rarely leads to self-organizing behavior. It’s more for entertainment.
Jeff Hurt is education and engagement director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Read the entire column at his blog at Midcourse Corrections, where this column appeared originally.