Make a Lasting Impression: 7 Ways To Capture Audiences at Your Next Event

How do you create an event that engages your audience and makes a lasting impression? And how do you do this when there are literally thousands of events, announcements, tweets and headlines competing for people’s attention every day?

Attention has become the fundamental currency of the modern economy. It can also be a magnet for new business, boost awareness of brand and help you grow your client roster.

Both art and science play a role in cutting through distractions to create a meaningful experience for your audience. To master the art of “grabbing,” you have to understand the psychology behind capturing attention, tapping into the sensory triggers of sight, smell and touch, and generating excitement and anticipation. This goes beyond simply creating an appealing environment for your guests and serving great food. It’s about maximizing the impact of your event so it stays with your audience long after they go home.

With this in mind, here are the top tips to capitalize on the psychology of grabbing and how to make it work for you:

1. Use the Power of Participation to Build Your Brand and Engage Your Audience

While technology has given us the ability to connect every minute of our days, it’s the face-to-face connections that have the most impact and influence. That’s why the effort and expense of having a bricks-and-mortar customer event or conference is so worthwhile. It’s a proven opportunity to build loyalty, improve relationships and cultivate a buzz around your client’s products and services. Ideally, you want to take full advantage of the potential for this kind of face-to-face interaction and make it an essential part of the programming.

Research shows that we interact with and pay more attention to brands, events and people that allow us to participate and experience something. Let your audience do something before, during and after the event to build that long-term attention and relationship. This is “experiential marketing” giving your audience the chance to try something first-hand or interact directly with someone in person, whether that person is a special guest, the company’s CEO or someone sitting next to them at the table.

The experience should be something novel, such as carving an ice sculpture or testing a new video game with two players at a time. Bring in an element of fun and engagement. Instead of a lengthy panel discussion, follow a shorter discussion with small-group audience workshops where a panelist joins each group. Consider partnering your client with other businesses to create a unique hands-on experience at your event. Educate your clients that events are an investment in their brand. Real-life experiences shape opinions and preferences much more profoundly than what we see in advertising or hear from friends and colleagues. You want your clients to make the most of this opportunity.

2. Develop a “Parasocial Relationship” with Your Audience

Parasocial interaction is an intriguing communication theory that explains how people relate to celebrities, bond with them and consider them friends as if they have a two-way relationship. Cultivating a personality for your event can give it greater status and more appeal.

To form this kind of relationship with your target audience, you want your event to be personable and make the attendees feel special about being invited and participating. Is there a prestige factor to being there? Is there an opportunity to send questions to the speakers ahead of time?

You can extend this connection with social media: Smart events have their own custom apps and Facebook groups so people can connect before, during and after the event to build ongoing, long-term attention. Choose a unique and memorable hashtag that has a meaningful connection to the event. If your event is about sleep research, you might try #sleepdeepevent, for example. Include your hashtag as part of the branding on all of your event materials.

3. Plan a Disruption Trigger to Command Attention

One of the best strategies to keep people alert and engaged at your event is to violate their expectations. Do something they wouldn’t expect and didn’t see coming. Late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon is a master at this one, because he’ll readily say something or break into song that is designed to provoke an immediate emotional response, usually laughter. Or he’ll ask a guest to participate in a game or contest that has nothing to do with their talent.

While you might not have the budget to invite Fallon as a keynote speaker, you could have a confetti canon shoot out into the crowd, or a helium balloon mass drop, impromptu rock band performance, or servers circulating the crowd at one point with cups of espresso. Align with something that suits your client’s target market and their budget.

4. Give Your Clients Tips on the Rules of Engagement

If your clients use the event to present monotone, bullet-point slideshows, they’re going to lose people. Encourage them to be short and pithy—the less predictable the better. When we speak, we have roughly 60 seconds to capture our audience’s attention, establish credibility, orient them to our topic, and motivate them to listen. It’s that short a window, so don’t let them waste it on a string of thank-yous or housekeeping issues.

Advice could include:

  • Starting with a provocative quote, a rhetorical question, or relatable story. We’re hardwired to enjoy and learn from stories—characters, plots, dialogue, conflict. Lessons learned draw us in and remind us of our own lives.
  • Making the presentation authentic, drawing upon the personality, strengths and knowledge of the individual to share what they know. Emotions can be the fuel to make a talk more effective.
  • Showing an inspiring photo or short video that relates to the topic. Images, instead of text, on slides can be far more effective. They increase comprehension, engage the audience’s imagination and make the message more memorable. A prop or visual aid can also inject some humour and drive home an important message.
  • Nonverbal expressions like posture, pose and gestures convey power and dominance. Encourage your clients to stand tall and strike a power pose, hands on hips, beforehand to feel more confident about presenting. While you don’t have to be an extrovert to deliver a great presentation, practicing in front of friends will help your clients get comfortable delivering the material.

5. Help Your Clients Make Panels and Moderators Effective

If your event is formatted as a panel discussion, the moderator is the key to success. Remember, the moderator is not supposed to be the centre of attention. It’s their job to facilitate thoughtful discussion among other people and keep the conversation going, interrupting someone if they’re starting to ramble.

Advise your client to take the emphasis off the moderator and focus on the content. An effective moderator can listen intently and keep the discussion lively and moving along. Ideally, panelists should bring some contrasting views to the table and have some of the moderator’s questions and any agenda formatting sent to them beforehand to prepare.

Ask panelists and moderators to spend time with other attendees before and after a presentation. Remembering that people often attend events to network and meet influencers!

6. Utilize the Psychological Effects of Colour and Smell to Enhance the Experience

The setting and design of events influences our automatic attention to sensory inputs, such as colour, sounds and smells.

Colour is the No. 1 influencer. In fact, we judge a brand’s perception by colour within the first 15 seconds. Brighter colours, like reds and oranges, are in high contrast with their surroundings, and are associated with excitement and vitality. Black exudes sophistication and confidence, while white, pink or yellow conveys sincerity. Find ways to incorporate the colours that work for your event and brand personality.

When it comes to scent, the principles of aromatherapy can heighten the attention at your event. Mint and citrus can be stimulating, while the smell of lilacs is calm and comforting. The brand association can carry forward. If someone smells lilacs at your event and then somewhere else at another time, for example, they’ll remember your conference.

7. Create Desire and Deliver with Short-term and Long-term Rewards

This important strategy is about brain chemistry, and offering tangibles and intangibles to motivate the audience. You want to orchestrate an event that taps into people’s feel-good dopamine responses and reward systems. Dopamine in the brain creates a desire for something pleasurable—and you want to make that kind of favourable connection to your brand and your event.

The visual, instant gratification rewards at your event, like food, drink, and takeaway gifts are important. Have a special themed cocktail served at the opening reception. Encourage your clients to think of gifts that are unique and customized, as opposed to a pen or T-shirt. These immediate dopamine triggers can lead to the long-term rewards of the satisfaction of learning, of mastery, of purpose—that all play into making a real, long-lasting impression.

The psychology of grabbing is layered and complex—but powerful. It goes well beyond the event itself, as you’re thinking about the event personality and brand in broader terms. The goal is to get people to remember your brand, event, and people who were there, to keep their long-term attention and relationship.

about the author

Freelance Contributor Karen Hawthorne worked for six years as a digital editor for the National Post, contributing articles on business, food, culture and travel for affiliated newspapers across Canada. She now writes from her home office in Toronto as a freelancer, and takes breaks to bounce with her son on the backyard trampoline. Connect with her on LinkedIn.