Many think of work and play like they do oil and water -- the two don't mix. But injecting a bit of fun into a meeting is an excellent idea, says corporate comedian and emcee Harry Freedman.
"A boring meeting can be likened to a near-death experience for everyone involved," he warns. "Unfortunately, the longer a conference goes on, the greater the loss in productivity, attention span and content retention."
Humans instinctively work and function productively and with less stress if they know, enjoy and trust the experience and individuals they are interacting with. The problem is that in a hectic world -- and within a packed meeting agenda -- there are often few opportunities to add fun and relaxed interaction into the mix. In a 2017 Harvard Business Review survey
of 182 senior managers in a range of industries across the nation, 62
percent of respondents said corporate meetings miss the mark on bringing
attendees closer together with fun and engaging experiences.
It's important to make the most of any opportunity for fun, it seems. According to the Journal of Business and Psychology, "Although a sustained happy mindset is optimal, even a very brief episode of fun can boost productivity." One JBP study, Examining the Energizing Effects of Humor, found that watching a funny video before doing a work-related exercise boosted participants' performance by 12 percent.
The results suggest that just a few laughs make us more engaged. So if you aren't taking the idea of fun seriously, it's time you start.
Avoid Forced Funtime
When it comes to filling out the meeting agenda, Wayne Turmel, co-founder of Remote Leadership Institute, says there's a difference between incorporating fun activities -- interactions that make the event enjoyable -- and "fluff"-- activities designed to make attendees feel better but which don't add any value in the process.
"Fun is allowing time within event sessions for attendees to make jokes or digress for short periods of time in the interest of helping people feel relaxed and comfortable with each other," Turmel explains. "Communication and productivity flow better when attendees know how to approach other meeting-goers at a comfortable level, and nothing reveals more about someone than what they find funny or enjoyable."
But it's crucial to understand one's audience, as activities designed to force fun can easily fall flat. "Fluff is mandating something like an ice-breaker exercise that has no
bearing on the overall meeting goal. Fluff is distracting and
counterproductive," Turmel adds.
Heather Matusiak, senior account executive for Destination Concepts Inc., notes that fun can be as much about levity as it is increasing audience comfort level. "Many times, conference material is heavy," she points out. "Extensive training on new processes or corporate updates are tough to digest and might leave attendees feeling like they have an impossible mountain to climb. Infusing meaningful fun gives attendees a chance to switch gears, take it down a notch or recharge after a heavy day of decisions, content or information overload.
"What fun should not be is thoughtless, or something that doesn't enhance the attendee experience," she continues. "It should be relevant to the meeting purpose and culture."
Fun the Right Way
The theme for ASAE's 2019 Annual Meeting in Columbus, Ohio, was to learn and play with purpose. "From the colorful designs of the main stage to content covered by speakers and throughout the ceremonies and sessions, attendees were compelled to consider new and exciting ways to do business within their own associations," said Susan Robertson, CAE, interim president & CEO. Some tactics ASAE used to deliver entertainment:
- Adding a massive ball pit to the trade show floor
- Featuring performances by the Ohio State University marching band and cheer squad
- Giving attendees the opportunity to unicycle across a tight rope inside COSI Science Center
- Sharing insight from children on how to have fun (they suggested attendees start playing tag on the trade show floor)
- Hosting express talk sessions on collaborative subjects, such as "Tips for Surviving Networking Events for Introverts"
"Fun is an important element in learning and retaining information," sums up Robb Lee, ASAE's chief marketing and communications officer. "It's a way to contextually connect an individual to an experience in a memorable way. We related the concept of fun to our annual meeting to access the enjoyable aspects of learning in combination with the connections attendees make when they reconnect with colleagues and explore new relationships."
Following are more fun considerations for planners to keep in mind as they design their next meeting's agenda.
1. Communicate a Good Time
Leading up to ASAE's annual meeting, all communication channels consistently provided messages and visuals that were elements of the overall Play with Purpose campaign.
"From emails to the onsite book to signage in the exhibit hall and learning sessions," says Lee, "we intentionally pulled creative aspects through as many areas as possible to deliver the idea of playing with purpose."
2. Connect to the Destination
Matusiak suggests tapping into the meeting destination's resources to deliver an enjoyable experience. "When we plan events in Orange County, Calif., we utilize the famous Duffy Boats out on Newport Harbor for the exact reason of throwing some fun into the conference mix," she says. "The little cocktail cruisers instantly bring the intensity levels down -- guests sit back, relax and get to take in the sites of the gorgeous yacht harbor."
She adds that Destination Concepts Inc. strives to take groups out of the meeting environment, off-property and into a new space, usually during late afternoon and before dinner, to mix up the dynamic. "Attendee minds are cleared, tensions are loosened and the relaxation and fun begins. It is a nice surprise for most folks and certainly does the trick. And Duffy Boats were born in Newport Harbor; they are indicative of the destination and are a local favorite."
3. Induce Hilarity
Planners shouldn't overlook the possibility of hiring a corporate comedian as a source of entertainment for events. "A professional comedian or corporate entertainer can handle transitions between different speakers and lead movement breaks in a different style than what attendees might be used to," suggests Chris Linn, corporate comedian, entertainer and sleight-of-hand artist. "Comedians and emcees aren't just for speaking sessions; they can often take a lot of tedious programming tasks off of the planner's plate, allowing them more time to focus on other aspects of the conference and adding some lightheartedness to otherwise overly serious situations."
Nothing brings people closer together than laughter, adds comedian Harry Freedman. When you laughter into the mix, he says, "Strangers instantly connect, coworkers become closer and barriers of rank disappear. There's a glow that remains and fosters better communication and cooperation."
Nic Marks, founder and CEO of employee happiness-tracking platform Friday, agrees that some form of laughter is key. "Happiness is a highly functional emotion for human beings," he points out. "It helps us be creative, seize opportunities and mobilize energy to do tasks." He adds, "In the workplace or conference setting, happiness helps us build better relationships, gets the creative juices flowing and increases innovation."
Know the Limit
The risk in hiring comedic relief for a corporate event comes in the talent selection, advises Freedman. A good corporate comedian knows how to create and perform material that is both safe and funny. "Even though there are some very funny comedians on the market, be wary, as many often rely on raw language and material that won't fit a corporate crowd," he advises. "Consider a comedian's experience as well as their skill. As you always should, practice due diligence when vetting any potential meeting speaker."
Linn cautions against negativity. "It is always important to remember that you want the event to leave a positive impact on your attendees," he says. Avoid negative humor -- any joke that is at the expense of another person, organization or group of people. "Race, gender, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religion and disabilities are definitely topics that should always remain off-limits."
4. Fun with F&B
For ASAE's 2019 Annual Meeting, Lee says the team worked with the catering staff at the Greater Columbus Convention Center to incorporate the meeting's colorful branding into the food.
"The catering team made letter boards that added a bit of humor and fun into the F&B displays," says Lee. The ASAE team collaborated with the catering team to conceptualize and then bring to life fun food serving styles and displays, many of which included pops of color and whimsical designs.
For additional inspiration, check out the Northstar Meetings Group article, 5 Ways to Make F&B More Fun.
5. Play Off the Meeting Theme
"Our recommendation to planners is to not overlook any aspect of their event when trying to tie in the theme," says ASAE's Lee. "Creating ways for attendees to interact or engage that ties into the theme is a great way to make every event memorable." He recalls a specific example from the annual meeting, in which one of ASAE's Alliance partners remade their activation with fun in mind and brought in vintage video games.
Another option if resources allow, says Lee, is to add a gamification element to the event app. "Why not create a bingo game with your exhibitors?" he suggests. It's all about facilitating engagement, networking and success in a lighthearted manner.
Destination Concepts' Matusiak suggests doing a "gut check" before making any final agenda decisions. "I ask myself, 'Would I like this idea? Would I enjoy it? Is it interesting enough? Does it further the message, brand or theme?' If I answer yes, then I know I'm on the right path." Trending ideas, like Instagram-able photo ops with a custom hashtag or an interactive coloring wall, says Matusiak, are great opportunities to foster fun and theme-related relationship-building on the trade show floor.
"Humor can be a powerful tool for cultivating additional enthusiasm around a new product rollout or a new work program," adds Freedman. It might help attendees to feel more comfortable with the otherwise potentially intimidating introduction of change.
6. Enjoyment with CSR
Bringing corporate social responsibility to the agenda in a fun and meaningful way can make the experience even more memorable. "Having guests participate in painting a custom surfboard to be donated to a youth organization is a great example of a CSR option," suggests Destination Concepts' Matusiak, "especially for a group who is creative, socially aware and willing to give back to the community."
As with any fun initiatives, a social-responsibility project works best when thoughtfully prepared, specifically related to the meeting destination and of particular interest to the audience, Matusiak adds.
For more on bringing the attendee experience to the next level, check out Northstar Meetings Group's Attendee Engagement resources.