Have you been to a conference where the slides are difficult to read? What about an event where there aren’t enough charging stations to resuscitate your iPhone? Production -- the audio/visual, lighting, staging, live streaming, etc. -- is undoubtedly one of the most important elements of planning a tech conference.
Production makes the content of your conference come to life, but beyond that, it creates the atmosphere and aesthetic of your event that is rooted in your brand elements. Get this part right, and almost all other details of conference planning are forgivable.
I sat down with JT Naughton, president of Four Moon Productions to learn more about how to make your next tech conference an A/V slam-dunk.
You've produced some of the largest tech conferences in the industry. What are some of the key elements during the planning process that help separate the good conferences from the best ones?
Let the creative ideas flow. No matter how far out and whacky they may seem, the creative process is the most fun part of the entire event. For example, here is this empty venue that can be turned into almost any desired vision. Eventually ideas stick, and tangible plans start to form.
Second, embrace the fact that everyone has a powerful device in their pockets called a smartphone. It can take pictures, record videos and instantly share those elements and opinions with the world. Make sure you provide the branding, the lighting, and the “wow” factor that your attendees can share (for the right reasons). If free advertising is the best kind, make sure your logo is somewhere in that advertisement.
Lastly, as much as your attendees are there to learn, they also want to be entertained. Put smiles on their faces through sound and vision. Give them that bass and those moving lights, and they will walk away with a well-rounded experience that they’ll be sure to rave about.
Walk us through the planning process from the production side. How early should event marketers and planners bring you in?
The earlier the better. We prefer to be part of the site selection process. This can help our clients realize what they are up against. Is it a union property, and if so, what are the rules/policies? Are the bones of the property able to support rigging? Do the chandeliers hang eight feet off of the ground? Can we move the column that lives in the middle of the room? Is the dock three miles away?
There are so many little details that can affect the look and feel of the conference and budget. It is best to be armed with as much knowledge as possible before pulling the trigger on a venue.
There's always pressure to get speaker slides submitted weeks before the show, when we all know in reality, getting a CEO to send her deck over anything less than day-of is probably unlikely. What’s the reality behind deck submission deadlines and why does it matter?
You’ll have more success herding cats. Collecting speaker slides is the most common challenge our clients face. From our perspective, having presentations in hand, before we walk on site, is a rare dream come true. We are then able to preview the presentations and make sure they are legible, contain no spelling errors, and are formatted correctly. A presenter can then walk on stage with confidence, knowing the slides will be ready to go.
The reality is that we typically get the slides on the day of, or minutes before the presenter walks on stage. When this happens, we typically find errors and are scrambling to correct these errors before presenters walk on stage. It can get pretty chaotic. It’s paramount that our graphics technician is a person who strives in stressful situations. The graphics position, alongside audio, is one of the hottest seats in the room, and the most visible from an attendee perspective.
In the end, our goal is to plan for the worse and avoid it at all costs. Getting slides early is a giant step in the right direction.
Production is one of the biggest line items in the conference budget. What are some key considerations that can help mitigate unnecessary spend and get the most value out of our investment?
The more communication, the better. This is where getting the production company in on the planning process early will help mitigate preventable risks. Get them to the venue. I would also suggest running dates by the production company. Working on a holiday can really hurt from a budget perspective. We also recommend avoiding Sundays, for the same reason.
Change is inevitable, but to give another example, the sooner an agenda is developed, or a scenic concept is realized, the better chance we have of controlling numbers. As the conference approaches, the less resources are available, driving demand and in turn, cost.
Finally, provide the production company with a budget number, early on. This will give an idea, from the beginning, if the budget and the vision are on the same page. Then plan on adjusting accordingly.
We've all been to conferences with audio/visual issues. Sound engineering is more art than science as different presenters have different styles and require different equipment to support. What are some of the things to think about when it comes to ensuring our speakers are comfortable and everyone in the audience is engaged to the content being presented?
Similar to the graphics position, the audio position takes a special kind of person to make audio sing. There are so many challenges from frequency hits, to mic placement, and nervous presenters… the list goes on and on.
A lead audio technician’s best friend is his audio assistant and the stage manager. The audio assistant is responsible for placing mics in the best possible position on a presenter’s shirt/blouse/blazer. Speaking of which, it is never a bad idea to address recommended clothing with presenters before they show up on site. Buttoned shirts are our favorites if we are using lavalier mics. Bonus clothing comment: we recommend that presenters not wear dresses or skirts if they are sitting.
The stage manager is also a key ally, and is the last person a presenter talks to before he/she walks on stage. The stage manager explains the layout of the stage, what to expect once on stage, and how to speak so that all can hear. He/she should also have a bit of a calming effect, as naturally most people are nervous before they walk on stage. Once a presenter realizes that the entire audience is in their underwear, they calm down a bit.
Audio is funny in that, for presentation purposes, if your audience doesn’t notice audio, it is working well.