Why Conference General Sessions Should Be More Like The Olympics

Beach Volley

The 2012 London Olympics were an interesting diversion from U.S. politics, the scorching heat and a questionable economy.

They captivated our attention as we rooted for our countries, the underdog and individuals that had overcome great odds.

Even when an athlete from another part of the world broke some amazing record, we united with our support and awe. Their win was the water cooler discussion in the office and the buzz of Twitter.

Being More Olympic-like

So why aren’t conference general sessions more like the Olympics?

Why can’t the opening general session unite the crowd around a message, an issue, hope, beating the odds or some other unifying feature? Why can’t it set a tone for what is to come next in the conference experience?

Why can’t general sessions bring a crowd to their feet as the unanimously cheer for the underdog regardless of their home country or personal beliefs? Why can’t conference organizers put as much attention to how the audience will respond to the opening general session as they do to hand-holding and coddling their sponsors?

There Is An I In Team

The Olympic athletes prove there is an I in team!

They come prepared to compete. They spend long lonely hours fine-tuning their skill. They work hard at staying fit as they master their field. They keep their eye on the goal as they build muscle memory and self-confidence.

Sometimes that “I” is what puts them over the top and raises them to a new world-breaking level. Sometimes that “I”–the fortitude, drive, passion and intention–brings them back from defeat and humiliation.

World class athletes perform for 10 seconds, 60 seconds, maybe even a few minutes. Yet they spend countless hours working out, running sprints, torturing their body, practicing steps, training their muscles, eating the right foods, and doing one more weight-lifting set even when their competition and colleagues call it a day.

Why Audiences Connect With Olympians

Audiences connect with Olympic athletes because we too have those lonely efforts and long hours of work where we keep going without a team cheering us. Many of us spend countless hours making our bodies and brains come into submission as we work hard to perfect our craft without our track-suit coaches shouting from the sidelines.

We rethink our strategies and plans as we feel “good enough” is just not “good enough.” We find ways to improve some process or procedure.

We put the “I” back into our employer teams.

Conference Organizers Need To Be More Like Olympic Athletes

Too many conference organizers think that the key to a successful general session is hiring the right speaker and then planning is done. Too many meeting professionals think that sending the speaker backup information about the organization and audience will lead to a great audience experience. It’s way more than that!

Very few organizations pursue the gold medal audience experience of the opening general session. They leave it to chance.

Very few dedicate their passion and time to crafting something that will move an industry forward. Very few take a personal drive to try harder, risk failure and strive when no one is looking, especially when it comes to the general session.

It’s time for conference professionals to put the “I” back in team so the general session crowd unites, stands to their feet and walks away with an emotional experience that changes their future. It’s time to dedicate more hours to perfecting that opening general session experience.

Why do so many organization leaders think that general sessions and conference breakouts only require securing a speaker and that’s it? Why don’t conference organizers commit more time to crafting a unique opening general session that resonates with the majority of the audience and brings them together?

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  1. brad kent says:

    Jeff, good stuff. Good to see you at ASAE. Sorry we did not get any 1 on 1 time.

    This analogy is one I like, and at the same time, think it’s a brush that is too broad.

    Re the Olympics, I think if we had 4 years to focus on one thing, we would have amazing performances…or more amazing. I think at times, we try to focus on too many initiatives in ONE year, and thus we get “muddled” results. As leaders, we need to help our teams by not having the “issue du jour”. Like world records, something is only impossible until somebody does it…like setting a world record.

    You are always a voice pushing beyond impossible, and I admire that. The part I think is too broad is “very few organizations pursue the gold medal”. In our work at Freeman, and mine in the industry, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced greater energy and acceptance for “change” in attendee and exhibitor engagement and experiences, education, etc. You have been a “Coast Guard Cutter” for many of us through the “icefields of awareness”. But, I think Awareness was the necessary first step, and Acceptance needs to follow, and I think is. Finally, once Accepted, Action is then the resulting next phase.

    Thank you as always for making me be more aware, always.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and commenting. Wish we had more time to spend at ASAE as well. Appreciate the words about being a coast guard cutter for ice fields of awareness too.

      Good point about broad brush strokes. I actually deleted a paragraph from the post about annual world championships in sports which would have possibly given it less broad brush strokes. Every non-Olympics year there are world championship competitions for athletes. These athletes compete annually and know their rankings and how they compare to the competition as well as what to improve. Yes, it’s true that’s all the athletes focus on and perhaps you bring up a good point. More organizations need someone focused totally on the customers’ experience at conferences, events and education. That would make a huge difference!

  2. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    For me, the Olympics tie in real emotion – which most (industry and other) general sessions don’t .. unless they “pull heart strings” with the speakers who have different abilities and have climbed mountains. But that’s a false emotion — not one to which we easily connect and often experiences that make us feel guilt for kvetching about getting up early.

    The room sets are the same – that is, bad. The darkness is remarkably off-putting (not to mention risky) and doesn’t allow us to see others and there is no encouragement to connect in positive ways.

    It’s sorta like the way-too-loud receptions where we are to “network” but we can’t even hear ourselves thinking.

    But I digress which I do so naturally.

    @Brad – you’re right – Freeman is trying to make a difference. And I think not enough groups are listening. You know that I have pushed this envelope for so many years and others have done so .. and seem to not keep their jobs bec. they tried so hard. @Jeff – you have done it .. Jeffrey Cufaude has .. others too.

    Will we still be saying this in a year? 2? G-d-forbid, 10?

  3. I like to say there’s no “I” in team, but there’s certainly a “me.” 🙂

    It’s certainly a challenge to maintain excellence and exhausting to keep pushing yourself to the limits every day, past exhaustion, past when everyone else gives up in order to achieve a fleeting goal. I think that kind of work ethic is almost like the “call” people in religious or social work talk of having – it can’t be taught.

    And I think what makes it even harder for people in our industry to keep pushing is what Brad points out: We don’t have one single goal we can focus on and pursue. We have a mad decathalon’s worth of activities and projects to juggle and execute simultaneously and flawlessly without break, without praise.

    My dad used to tell me that there are three kinds of people: Those with natural talent, those who work hard enough to acquire that skill and the superstars. The superstars are the ones who naturally are gifted, but work just as hard as those who work to acquire skill until their talent shines as hard, crystalline and brilliant as a diamond.

    The Olympics was a fabulous reminder how breathtaking it is to see real superstars take the stage. Thanks for encouraging our peers to do the same.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I like what you said, “We will be saying this in a year? in two years? In ten years?”

      Yes, Freeman is pushing the envelope too. As are others. I didn’t want it to sound like they are not. On the other hand, I go to a lot of general sessions every year and yet the envelope-pushers are still not the norm. I’m not satisfied with average experiences, especially when I pay $1,000-$1,500 to attend!

      I pushed the envelope for many, many years. Readers seem to forget that I’m not pushing anything that I didn’t do myself in the field. For seven years at one organization, my salary was directly related to the overall average score of all my general sessions, breakouts, workshops, education programs, etc. If my general sessions did not deliver an award-winning experience for my customers, my bank account felt it! If more conference organizers had their salaries directly tied to their customer satisfaction (or exceeding their customers’ expectations), we would have very different general sessions, breakouts, etc.

      Just like Olympic athletes and their coaches, we would dissect what worked and didn’t work after every meeting. Not in one meeting but in multiple meetings. We were very serious about quality improvement. We would look at customer feedback and discuss what caused the audience to connect or disconnect. We made the time to discuss and perfect our service of creating a stellar experience. We were intentional about it. Remember, my paycheck depended upon it!

      I’m always grateful for your perspective and continuing the conversation.

      @Kristi & @Brad – Are you saying that conference attendees should not expect award-winning experiences at conferences? Or are you saying that conference organizers have too much on our plates to focus the attention needed to deliver award-winning experiences? Or are you two saying something else?

  4. I do think there may be too much on our plates, and that will only increase as the economy continues to drift sideways. I doubt the organizer of TED has much to think about besides making this year better than last year. Whereas the people planning 80% of the events in corporate America usually don’t even have “meeting planner” in their title. They’re an admin or assistant who’s got a million other duties besides planning events.

    That’s why when those non-titled planners are able to create something exceptional we should celebrate it and talk about it more than TED. They’ve had to fight a lot harder and climb a lot farther to get where they got.

    Day-to-day life in corporate America is filled with plenty of meetings, deadlines and demands that eat away at the space people need to discover, process and explore new ideas. It’s not that people don’t want to try something different. I think they may be falling back on what’s standard because they don’t have the time to plan for the new and make sure they’ve crisis-proofed it before it goes live.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thank you for elaborating on your perspective. I totally agree that too much work on anyone’s plate can be overwhelming and cause one to default to what we’ve always done. That’s unfortunate for sure.

  5. Tanya Clark says:

    Great article Jeff! Hope you don’t mind my sharing. Conferences are a spectator sport. Organizations should set the bar high. Having good, responsible partners that are committed to excellence, can really help to divide that full plate into manageable portions 🙂

  6. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Many of us have pushed (and pushed and pushed) the envelope – whether internally or externally – with groups. I remember the first “in the round” session I helped a group do in the ’80s and it was fabulous! It (and Open Space among other things) were suggested to industry associatons and to other clients. Some did a bit; most feared change.

    And speaking of the Olympics .. the social media aspect which sorta ties into this .. or not; it is interesting. http://sites.nielsen.com/london2012/the-socialympics-ignites-london/

  7. Traci Browne says:

    Good discussion Jeff…as always.

    While I do agree with many sentiments here about people being busy and not having the luxury of their conference being the only thing they have on their plate…I will also add the gazillion dollar budgets to pull it off are another thing missing…

    But I think the main thing missing when it comes to conference is strategic vision. Sure, many events pay lip service to this concept…they mistake strategic vision for “theme” or they spend about 5 percent of their time focused on it.

    Our industry favors tactics over strategy. Sessions focus on “how to” instead of “why”. The industry loves to jump on bandwagons instead of coming up with something different. How many times do we have to hear about “TED style” sessions? Someone goes to a peer conference and now everyone needs to do this. Or even Open Space…it’s the same thing…we’re chasing fads instead of asking our audience what they need.

    I’m not talking about surveys…but taking the time to study your audience…read their industry publications both on and off line. Ask the right questions and then ask some more to get to the heart of the answers.

    Until we recognize the fact that creating an “Olympic Like” event requires skills that are far beyond those of an operational meeting planner we’re going to see the same old boring meaningless events trotted out year after year. And I’m talking more about our industry events or events put on by people who’ve been raised by this industry. There’s some cool stuff taking place by folks who don’t have a clue what a CMP is.

  8. Joan Eisenstodt says:

    Fist-pump YES! to you @Traci!

    Where are facilities – traditional (hotels, conv. centers, conf. centers) and non- on this? If they continue to use the rooms:space nonsense, what happens? Among the traditional facilities, which ones “get it” in practice not marketing?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding more to this discussion. I like what you said about strategy and tactics. Very good points that we need to remember!

      I’m fist-pumping in the air with you regarding Traci’s comments. Good stuff from her for sure.

  9. Kati Quigley says:


    Great article! It’s funny, I wrote a PCMA blog about the Winter Olympics that was similar. What you say is a great analogy for what we do. The details behind the scene that get the athelete to that spotlight are rarely seen or thought of but the most important. People don’t think about the action that the cameras don’t record. You also don’t witness the athletes that don’t medal but give an inspiring performance from a lifetime of work and exhibit pure joy by just competing in the Olympics. We, in events, need to focus on building a strong strategy/foundation for our events and always keep our focus on the end objective, not just the trendy flashy elements. In the end it’s about substance that will deliver results.

    Thanks, Jeff, as always for pushing us to be better in our industry!

    Take care,

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