As we head into the heart of Decision 2012, the corporate world is getting a free education on how to conduct powerful Web-based company meetings and events. Because whether you like politicians or not—and most of us don't—you have to hand one thing to them: They really know how to connect with others and drive two-way conversations anywhere a group of people gather.
How they do it is how you can do it, too. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know how to approach their audiences and win over hearts and minds.
Use their proven techniques to engage and persuade your audience. Here, we'll focus on employees at a company town hall event, but these approaches would work well with members of a nonprofit, for example, or a group of customer evangelists or fans, and other relatively informal gatherings.
Speak to individuals rather than crowds
One thing politicians tend to do better than anyone else is give each person in the room or on the webcast the feeling that they have our best interests at heart. How? They don't speak to us as a group; rather, whenever possible, they speak to us as individuals.
Or at least it appears that way. Often they will offer a particular person's story that relates to a point they want to make, or they'll go down into the audience and ask someone how she feels about a topic.
Use the interactive features of webcasts, such as chat questions or even live audio discussions, to make each presentation feel personal. Prepare a story about someone in the company (if it's a meeting of employees) who's done something good and tell it—then ask that person a question.
The more you can be a real person to your audience, the more they will get on board with what you're saying.
Roll up your sleeves—literally
No matter what their day-to-day activities, corporate leaders are generally seen (and photographed) in suits. That may be appropriate for most strictly business activities, but in a more informal setting it can build a wall between you and your casually dressed audience—which is exactly what you don't want.
Politicians often wear suits, too, but when want to show they are "of the people" they will loosen their ties, unbutton their top button, take off their jackets, and roll up their sleeves. Some even wear jeans or other casual clothes, depending on the situation.
If you're using video, either prerecorded or a live feed, and your message is "we're all in this together," think about dressing in a way that matches what your audience normally wears.
Face the fire head-on
Politicians are aware that the "hot seat" questions are the ones that can do the most damage to their campaigns. If they duck such questions, they know their opponents will provide answers in their place.
You should open your Web event to questions, and let everyone know ahead of time that you'll answer any and all they have. If someone asks a tough question, provide a thoughtful and sincere answer. If you don't have one, you can say, "I don't know that I can answer that now, but I will find out and let all of you know." Then be sure you do it, either in an email or in a post-event forum, if you have one.
If you that know someone else on the team does have the answer, don't be afraid to turn over the event to him or her. Webcasting makes it as easy as pointing and clicking. Just be sure your expert is prepared to take the reins.
One other advantage of webcasting is that you can have a permanent record of all discussions—not just the topics but the numbers and demographic information about the questioners. By analyzing the data you can spot trends that will help you get out in front of any issues—and be better prepared for the next event.
Strike up the band—and the fireworks
As noted earlier, webcasting technology gives you many more options to create excitement than a simple conference call. If you have a graphics/creative department, get them to create a theme that sets the tone for the online event.
With the popularity of YouTube, there's little doubt that video can really grab attention. It also proves you don't have to do anything fancy. Something simple that illustrates the point will help you look sincere.
Of course, if you do have the budget to do something nicer, you might better appeal to emotions and create a sense of cool, pride, or whatever you need. Even something as simple as having the right music can set a mood and start creating the atmosphere you want.
Use polls to keep you informed—and to help influence behavior
Politicians are constantly polling to see where the voters stand on the issues, what they think of the candidates, and what their inclinations are. You can do the same during your company town hall Web events. One to three polls inserted during a webcast (depending on the length of the presentation) can seek participant input on topics that are important to your organization.
Using polls allows you to see whether the rank-and-file's view is in line with management's, whether the message you're trying to communicate is being received... and answer dozens of other questions. The information gained, especially if a clear majority emerges, can then provide guidance on your communication strategy. That information can also be used to help influence behavior: Perhaps it gives you insight into how you could revamp your message to obtain the outcome you seek.
Polls are also a great way to keep participants active, invested, and engaged. Webcasts, with their ability to track participant behavior automatically, can provide a truer view of how participants really feel. It's the difference between what participants say they want or think versus what they actually do.
The closer we get to the election—in fact, to any election—the more visible politicians become. Endless radio, TV, and online ads and appearances pummel us with the candidates and their positions. Though you may not be able to saturate the media, by recording your town hall event and making it available on the company website you can reach those who were unable to attend in real time and keep the C-suite and management team in front of the company.
Once it's there, you can send emails with links to company personnel to highlight specific points, giving them the time it appears. Or you can edit out that section and display it in a "Highlights" section under the topic. As you build a library of such highlights, you'll gain extra value out of the event while ensuring management remains visible—and transparent.
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The primary job of politicians is to get people to like them (and what they stand for) enough to vote for them. In this day and age, that means being masters of the art of presentation.
This election year, watch the politicians and learn from their examples—both the successes and failures. You're sure to find lessons that can be applied very effectively for your next company event webcast.