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?
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.
Eight Purposes Of A General Session
So what is the purpose of a general session. Here are eight purposes of most general sessions.
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 attendees.
General sessions go wrong when they create negative emotions with audiences.
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 entertainement.
The ASAE General Session Speaker Debate
Lately some ASAE members have been discussing the purpose of an opening general session. ASAE announced that their 2012 Annual Meeting opening general session speakers are Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Karl Rove.
According to ASAE’s online conference marketing,
We felt it was important to have one of our general sessions focus on the upcoming election and the current and future state of politics because public policy and advocacy are front and center for many of our members. The political climate, election results, and the pulse of the electorate impact how ASAE members will position their issues in Washington as well as at the local level. It’s important to educate our members about these how issues may affect their organization.
ASAE’s goal in securing Carville and Rove is to educate. To educate ASAE members. Their intention is to help ASAE membership understand the political advocacy process.
I believe there is a difference in information, education and learning. I believe that ASAE’s goal is to help their members learn about advocacy and respond accordingly.
Some ASAE members have questioned whether these two men are good educators. They distrust one or both of these political pundits and think that they will polarize the audience along partisan lines. Both men are about persuading people to believe their party is better. They are not about education or learning at all. They are about political persuasion and getting people to vote for their candidate.
Some would say that those members that disagree with these speakers should just come into the meeting with than open mind and the right attitude. I say it’s the speakers who should change their frequency to the audience’s needs and realize that they are seen as polarizing individuals.
This is a clear example of where the intentions are good. The goal of educating members about advocacy is pure. Unfortunately, the implementation is questionable at best. Some perceive it as tainted sensationalism. Some see it as brilliant strategy. Regardless, the membership is already divided.
Some ASAE members say that the purpose of a general session is to get butts in seats. Some say that the decision to secure these two speakers is to get national and international press coverage and to show that ASAE is a political player. Some say ASAE’s intention is drama, sensationalism and entertainment.
While ASAE states that their goal is education, rarely do ASAE’s members say that Carville and Rove will be there to educate. There is a disconnect between ASAE’s goal to educate and the speakers, partisan political pundits. I find it strange that speaker bureaus would pitch these men as educators of political advocacy. I understand that they can discuss strategy for their political party. I don’t understand how they can be seen as educators of advocacy. We need bipartisan discussion, not rhetorical debate.
In my opinion, ASAE is missing a major opportunity. Regardless of how they frame this discussion, they are setting a tone for their conference by polarizing some members. Sure, Carville and Rove will motivate some members. There is the strong likelihood that they will discourage others. Just the fact that ASAE does not see this choice of speakers for an opening general session as divisive already discounts some members’ feelings and beliefs. That alone would be reason to reconsider.
A Better Way
A better alternative would be to have these two speakers during concurrent breakouts so that attendees had a choice of sessions, especially for those that are not interested in political debate. Or ASAE could offer another major session at the same time as the general session that talked about the collaborative process of political advocacy minus the political rhetoric.
Regardless, it would be in ASAE’s best interest to offer some alternative to those that don’t want to attend and to demonstrate that they are listening to their membership.
And if you still believe learning and education can occur with these two men, you’ll want to read my next post about risk communications when trust is low and emotions are high! The scientific research proves differently that education and learning cannot occur when trust is low and emotions are high.
What do you believe is the purpose of an opening general session? Do you think that ASAE’s choice of Carville and Rove as opening general session speakers will achieve the goal of educating members? Do you see one or both of these speakers as polarizing individuals?