‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’. That well-worn quote from As You Like It applies to the events world as well, as everyone who gets up on that stage, whether they are a keynote speaker, MC or simply there to welcome the delegates, is part of the show.
“With a conference it’s one take, we don’t get another shot at it,” says Barry McLeod, event director at CMA Events. As an MC, host and event facilitator with more than 20 years’ experience, McLeod knows both sides of the coin better than anyone, and that a live event or conference is “a form of theatre”.
“When you have a good conference organiser that has liaised with the speakers and themed it properly then it is gold,” he says. “The thing is it doesn’t ‘just happen’. You can’t say ‘this is the theme just do it’. You’ve got to discuss it with them to get the right outcome.”
Getting that outcome can be a challenge for organisers who are time poor and have to liaise with the multiple touch points who are behind the event.
“Sometimes with the amount of people involved in conference committees it can get quite muddled on who to bring in,” he says. “For an organiser to drive that through, it is quite a skill set.
“There is no point having a list of speakers all talking about the same thing. A good organiser, along with a conference committee, will make sure it follows a chronological order that keeps it interesting and flowing. Know the key points you want delegates to take away from the conference and make sure they are fulfilled. Make sure the speaker being brought in is answering all those questions and ideas.”
The latest iteration of TEDxSydney wrapped recently, and is a perfect example of an event that lives and dies by the quality not just of its speakers, but of their ability to put across their ideas. The annual event has the advantage of having ample time to find the right line-up of speakers through its curation process, but as Fenella Kernebone, head of curation at TEDxSydney, says “sometimes speakers think they have a great talk, but what they have is fantastic essay”.
“Sometimes speakers really nail it with their scripting, outline and pace, and sometimes they don’t,” she says. “They may get close but it takes a lot of work to get there in the end, so you are looking for a speaker that has the passion and drive to do the work and get their ideas on stage and make it as succinct, authentic and powerful as a possible.”
And that takes practice, lots of it. The team of curators do many one-on-one rehearsals with their speakers before Kernebone sees them for a round of dress rehearsals before the show.
“The more a speaker practices their talk the more true it becomes, and doesn’t sound like they are trying to remember whatthey have to say. The audience is comforted by the fact that they are speaking to them rather than just reading from a card.” However, Kernebone says that “their talk is their talk.. nobody is writing it for them… In terms of shaping their content our job as curators is to help them craft their message as best as possible”.
It’s not just the speakers that get coached for the night, everyone who steps on that stage including the presenters goes through a rehearsal process. “Everyone needs to rehearse,” she says.
“It might be that you get coaching or do an improve workshop, and acting workshops are great for this. There are all these other ways of doing it that can give you experience of what it is like to be in front of an audience. It doesn’t just have to be the traditional speaker coach that tells you how to stand, and where to put your hands.”
One organisation that has helped more than its fair share of Australians develop their ability to perform in front of an audience is the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). The likes of Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Mel Gibson have seen their performing skills sharpened at NIDA, but plenty of lesser known Aussies have benefited from the same calibre of training through its Corporate division.
“We use techniques to support people to be stage ready like we would with actors to get them ‘stage’ ready for any kind of event or public speaking forum,” says Vanessa White, head of NIDA Corporate.
“We have been involved with conferences almost from inception delivering seminars and keynotes supporting the objectives of event managers and conference organisers to engage people through practical workshops, where people actually walk away having learnt something, but also where their outcome is met – whether it is networking or getting them to engage with something.”
A recent example was the Semi Permanent Sydney event this year, where NIDA Corporate held a series workshops for attendees.
“Part of our design process involves us asking organisers ‘what do you want your audience to do, think or feel differently?’ And we basically tailor the seminar to what that objective is,” she says.
“We look to support the conference and its themes, and the audience. We really want to answer that question, ‘what’s in it for me?’”
The facilitators are often NIDA alumni and use the same techniques they learnt as students but framed in a way that makes sense for someone outside of the entertainment world.
“People understand NIDA and the role we have played in the performing arts realm, and that connection is also clearly made with NIDA Corporate,” she says.
“You are teaching performers to get up and feel confident on stage and feel that it is the first time they have done this naturally. But behind that is a lot of training and support.
“We talk frequently about what it means to have presence and gravitas which is a common thing people feel is a natural ability. But actually for many it’s a trained ability. You can learn these techniques.”
Curating the right line-up for an event or conference is more critical to the outcome than ever, which brings us back to Bill Shakespeare. To avoid having an event becoming a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, it pays to put in the effort.