Skip to site content
The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Rules of Engagement

If you want people to not only attend your conferences but also return year after year, you need to deliver an experience that engages them from start to finish. Here are some ways to foster engagement, from building excitement and interest through varied promotional marketing to choosing speakers who grab interest and give audiences what they need to know.


Stir up excitement

Building engagement starts long before the conference. From Instagram and TikTok to postcards and podcasts, strategic planners send messages in a mix of formats to promote their conferences. Planners won’t need to create much original content thanks to a wealth of promotional marketing materials that meeting venues, hotels and destinations are happy to share. For meetings in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, the convention services team at Experience Grand Rapids could supply save-the-date refrigerator magnets or a video about the city. The team at Visit Jackson, in Mississippi, could share its digital visitors guide or Soul Sessions podcast, where local personalities, like restaurateurs and historians, sit down for a chat. There’s also plenty of material to push out to attendees about speakers, whether it’s the speaker’s own promo video or perhaps a podcast. (A great resource for finding speakers, by the way, is the Find A Speaker feature at, a service of the National Speakers Association.)

Serve up speakers who deliver

As a conference attendee, there’s nothing more deflating than an educational session with a promising topic that doesn’t live up to its billing. Speakers who not only know their stuff but also how to deliver it will keep conference attendees engaged. In a column for Harvard Business Review, Deborah Grayson Riegel says the best speakers put the audience first. Instead of seeing a presentation as a chance to show what they know, they address what the audience wants and needs to know. Seek speakers who have shown they are attuned to their audience’s hopes and fears and don’t just talk about what they want to talk about. The Hamilton College’s Oral Communications Center has this advice for booking engaging speakers: Look for those who tell stories, relay personal experiences, ask provocative questions and lay down challenges.

Get the audience involved

There’s something about sitting in a hard chair in a long row that makes us a little less than sharp. Good speakers have techniques to rouse the crowd. To ensure your conference keeps everyone engaged, look for speakers who are lively and interactive. Humor is always welcomed, and a funny anecdote or an on-target cartoon will always wake up the crowd. Speakers who ask for a show of hands on a pertinent topic not only get the audience moving, but they also show them their opinion matters. Bringing an audience member or two on stage to participate in some fashion also elevates everyone’s interest. As Matt Abrahams, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and host of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, said in a recent column, “Engaging your audience by asking a question, taking a poll, showing a video or using an analogy before introducing yourself sets an energetic tone.”

Appeal to the senses

Meetings are sensory experiences, and engagement is closely tied to what an audience sees, hears and feels. Think of all the times you’ve been distracted or distressed by a screeching microphone or by ear-pounding “background” music. As Julia Charles Event Management pointed out in a recent post on LinkedIn, “Sound can be the make or break of your event.” And of course, there’s also lighting and room temperature to consider. Lights that are too bright or a room that’s arctic also aggravate an audience. So, pay close attention to your crowd’s body language — stop, look and listen, and then quickly move to correct any sensory issues. In creating an engaging environment, also consider seating configurations. Does the arrangement that was chosen fit the size and type of session? Could you work with the venue to tweak a typical setup and shake up attendees a bit? Instead of a typical classroom configuration for a seminar, maybe try a U-shape to promote more interaction among attendees and the speaker. Or get your board out of big chairs at a long table and into some couches and chairs for a more relaxed and perhaps more creative planning session.

Keep engagement going

When attendees leave the last session, give them a chance to continue to engage. Have them walk out of an afternoon keynote session and into a space like the towering glass-walled pre-conference area at the Grand Wayne Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Perhaps the speaker could be convinced to hang around and talk shop with attendees as they relax on the comfortable curved couches positioned to look out on the city’s streets. Have roving waitstaff greet attendees with a signature drink, with or without alcohol, and a few appetizers they can enjoy as they sit together or stand at high tops. Associations might want to take a page from the networking idea used by many chambers of commerce and disperse longtime members into the crowd to serve as “ambassadors” who introduce new members to old and find other ways to help attendees make connections and engage with one another.