Why Do We Start Conferences With General Sessions?

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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?

Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate says it best,

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.

1. Motivation

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.

7. Entertainment

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?

16 Responses to Why Do We Start Conferences With General Sessions?
  1. Joan Eisenstodt
    April 2, 2012 | 1:16 pm

    Jeff,
    Thank you for writing this.

    For me, opening general sessions are a place to feel, again, part of the whole of an organization, to bring together people who may see each other only once a year or only know each other virtually, to be entertained by having my senses engaged and my brain positively activated, and to set a tone for the rest of the meeting.

    I think Rove, Carville, and moderator Michelle Bernard, are all polarizing; in particular Karl Rove and his current activities with the SuperPAC and funding, ethically questionable at best,are questionable choices given the recent passage of ASAE’s revised Standards of Conduct!

    To others, this crew is “ho-hum” because it has no immediate value. If the session is delivered typically (see photo with your blog) it will be even more of the same old stuff.

    Before I read your blog, I was on a conference call for ASAE on which the OGS was brought up for discussion. I asked what the educational objectives were and was told that because 85% (I think that was the number)of ASAE’s members have lobbying/legislative arms, that because the 2012 election was the most important in our lives (echoed by someone else on the call), and that we need to know what the agenda will be for the future, this session was important.

    I think people will look around the room to see who is applauding or booing which speaker and it will carry through the AM. Sad when we could all use some cohesion.

  2. Jeffrey Cufaude
    April 2, 2012 | 1:41 pm

    My memory doesn’t recall if concerns were expressed for past Annual Meeting general sessions which deployed similar individuals. I have vague recollections of one involving Carville and Matalin, but I believe there have been a few other similar programming decisions.

    Both you and Joan has aptly noted some of the potential divisiveness these two individuals bring to the community. And I concur wholeheartedly that if the goal was to educate people about potential consequences of the next general election, a very different design with very different speakers would serve the attendees far better. These two tell us what they think ad nauseum, so I really doubt there will be any revelatory moments in Dallas. Nor do I think as high a percentage as has been cited really want this topic (regardless of who is speaking) to be the emphasis of one of two general sessions at an Annual, but I'd be happy to be proven completely wrong by data that suggests otherwise.

  3. Philippa Gamse
    April 2, 2012 | 3:22 pm

    I was talking to a friend who has been working in the political arena and consulting with organizations around political issues for many years. You’d know her name, but since I don’t have permission to quote her, and I’m writing this on the spur of the moment, I won’t write it here.

    She has been on programs with Carville and Rove, and says that folks might be pleasantly surprised – they realise that people don’t want to watch them tear each other apart, and that they’re much more measured, and much more interesting in this type of venue than they are on cable TV.

    I’m not saying that I personally agree with the choice, but perhaps we should revisit this conversation after we’ve seen what / how they present.

  4. Jeff Hurt
    April 2, 2012 | 6:36 pm

    @Joan
    Thanks for sharing your views and furthering the conversation. I believe it’s critical that more people share their thoughts on this issue, especially if they strongly support or oppose these speakers. Wow, and 85% of the members organizations have lobbying arms–that’s huge. However, it does not mean that 85% of ASAE members are actually involved in government relations or advocacy. That’s where I think the thought process turned south.

    @Jeffrey
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m with you that if education is the true goal, then a different type of session with different speakers would better serve attendees.

    @Philippa
    Thanks so much for adding your perspective and sharing what your friend said. What I think is unfortunate is that there are already people who have said they will not attend the general session and possibly the conference this year due to these speakers. It’s very difficult for some people to be logical when they have low trust in the speakers and high emotions. I’m sure the conversations will continue after the 2012 OGS and it will be interesting to watch how this unfolds.

  5. Lara McCulloch-Carter
    April 3, 2012 | 5:15 am

    Jeff,

    I have more of a question than a comment. Is ASAE an international association? I raise this query as a Canadian who has been to many ‘international’ conferences that have left me feeling irrelevant (my counterparts in the UK, Australia, Asia, Europe, etc would likely concur). The two pundits you mention may be familiar to me as a country sharing land mass with the US, but they would add absolutely no value to me as a Canadian.

    This point may be mute for ASAE as, despite searching on their site, I could find no mention of reach. Just another perspective to add to your list…

  6. [...] Why Do We Start Conferences With General Sessions? – General sessions should be designed for the audience, not the leaders or organization. This article lists 8 purposes for a general session. [...]

  7. Stefanie Reeves
    April 3, 2012 | 6:25 am

    As someone who does government relations for her association, I always felt GR was an afterthought at ASAE annual. Out of over 100 sessions, there would be 2 dedicated to GR. If it’s one of the domains to be mastered to become a CAE, why ignore it at your largest meeting? That said, I’m truly conflicted about the OGS. On the one hand, here’s ASAE finally giving advocacy a spotlight. On the other hand, at a time where people are fed up with the partisanship (myself included), I wonder if having partisan speakers was the best choice. Elizabeth Weaver Engel mentioned Gwen Ifill as a good alternative in her post about the OGS. I think Gwen would’ve been an excellent, nonpartisan choice especially as a woman of color. Hopefully, she will be considered the next time ASAE wants to focus on advocacy in its general session.

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  9. Sylvia Dresser
    April 3, 2012 | 6:55 am

    Another function of a plenary session speaker is to entice people to come to the conference. In this case, speaking for myself alone, it has the opposite effect! I cannot visualize or imagine how this session will create positive energy and excitement for the conference.

  10. Jeff Hurt
    April 3, 2012 | 10:18 am

    @Lara
    ASAE is now global so I totally agree with your thoughts about providing American-centric speakers. If they are wanting to attract a global audience, they need to think more strategically about speakers who provide a global perspective. Thanks for bringing up this point too.

    @Stefanie
    Thanks for reading and providing your views as well. I agree with you that GR is often an overlooked topic at ASAE conferences. I’m not against it at all. I just think there is a better way to provide education about political advocacy than they are currently offering.

    @Sylvia
    Thank you for adding to the dialogue. I agree that some people think marquee name speakers attract people to conference. The research VCC and Tagoras did this past fall actually demonstrated that famous people do not cause people to register for an event. I do think you bring up an interesting point that these two speakers may have the opposite effect and cause some people not to attend.

  11. Joan Eisenstodt
    April 3, 2012 | 10:24 am

    @Stefanie – YES! I concur. And there can be an awareness of GR expressed in other ways. Gwenn Ifill would have been superb — and doesn’t appear to have any agenda when she speaks. She would have been a smart choice.

    I still think that all these speakers are being put forth bec. they are sponsored.

    And women of the world: do not be confused when you hear that Michelle Bernard has a “women’s foundation” — read more about her in a variety of places to learn more about her agenda and the agendas for which she’s worked. Just because she is a commentator on MSNBC does not make her Rachel Maddow!

  12. Sylvia Dresser
    April 3, 2012 | 2:43 pm

    @Jeff – I wasn’t thinking so much of marquee name speakers, but topics that I can’t get elsewhere. Although, the best keynote I EVER heard was by an astronaut, and if you had told me I would have been blown away by his talk, I would not have believed you!

  13. Joan Eisenstodt
    April 3, 2012 | 3:12 pm

    One of the best capnotes I ever heard was by Loretta LaRoche — laughed until I cried and learned about stress and what it does to one’s body. And I thought that Tony Hsieh from Zappos at PCMA was outstanding.

    I want to feel good from an OGS or C(losing)GS — I don’t want to feel anxious or guilty or left out — just good and w/ ideas I can take away — and it seems so rare.

  14. Dean West
    April 4, 2012 | 7:39 am

    This is great. The more I hear people’s complaints about the OGS speakers, the more motivated I am to attend. At no time have have I witnessed such real and actual interest in who is speaking.

    Well done ASAE! Keep up the good work.

  15. Jeff Hurt
    April 4, 2012 | 8:52 am

    @Slyvia – great point that we like to hear something unique that we can’t get elsewhere. Glad you clarified for me!

    @Joan – I am with you that I want to feel good after attending an OGS or CGS. Actually, emotions are critical to learning. Provide the wrong emotional stimulus and learning can’t happen.

    @Dean – Thanks for reading and sharing your enthusiasm for these two speakers and ASAE’s 2012 OGS.
    As a researcher yourself, I hope you’ve read the next post about how learning cannot occur if emotions are high and trust is low. It’s a scientifically proven fact. While for you, these speaker are a nonissue, for others’ it is an issue. I land on “What’s in the best interest of everyone involved?”

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