If you don't believe that perception is 99% of reality, then hold your next business event in a high school gym and save yourself some money.

The truth is that most company interactions with customers take place via phone or email, so a single event may be your one critical shot. It may determine 99% of the perception that a customer or prospect holds about a company.

Recently, I produced an annual user group for a small software vendor. After the event, one of its executives told me that a key customer from a Fortune 500 company said to him, "I've liked working with your company. But before this week I would have placed you at a 6 on a 1 to 10 scale. However, after coming to this event I feel that your company is a 10." This best illustrates the goal of what I call "business theater."

Despite the importance of events, many companies waste the opportunity to elevate the audience's perception of them. Here are five tips that can help turn an ordinary event into business theater, to help you create the perception you want.

1. Treat general sessions as the Big Show

In my 20-plus years of producing corporate meetings and events, I've noticed that a consistent shortcoming in the planning process, especially among small and medium "emerging" companies, is the lack of consideration given to the "look and feel" of the general session. Time is devoted to the venue, food and beverage menus, guest rooms and activities—all of which are important. But the general session is where you can make the biggest impression with the audience. Remember, people don't come to these events for the food.

When the General Session starts, it's "show time." The music and house lights come down, the booming "voice of authority" announces the meeting host, the stage lights come up, and our host becomes the center of attention as she welcomes the audience. All the money spent on your corporate advertising is wasted if this "production" bombs when an executive looks or sounds bad, microphones squeak, the visuals look poor or production elements miscue.

This is the big show, so imagine that everything counts—it usually does!

2. Hire a producer

Every event has a company employee to manage it. But these events should be business theater, so bring in an expert at the onset who knows how to stage an event for the best possible audience experience.

Your producer must have strategic marketing knowledge and a good understanding of branding in order to maximize your organization's image at the event. Every detail is like an ingredient that must be mixed in the right amount and at the right time to create the desired perception in the minds of the attendees. Even the music should be targeted to the audience. For example, playing Frank Sinatra selections as attendees walk in will not hit the mark with an audience of 25-35-year-olds (unless you are trying to create a certain feel).

The producer is like a master chef and knows how to pull it all together.

3. Weave your brand into the event's fabric

Event branding is more than just hanging your logo at the front of the room. Your branding may be different for different events. A national sales meeting, a new product launch and a user group each requires a branding effort for that particular audience.

When an attendee enters the room, the branding creates an air of importance: something that lets the attendee know that this meeting is special. You want participants to be receptive to your messages, so the staging lets them know that what they will hear is important to them and worth their time. Most important, this branding reinforces the corporate image, so it should be part of each event component.

4. Use the best delivery mechanisms

To make your event stand out, you must provide content or information delivery mechanisms that attendees would otherwise not have access to. Make each production a memorable experience.

AV equipment providers fit into different groups. First, in-house resources or AV rental companies tend to be reactive resources. They are "techies" and are equipment oriented. You will tell them what you need (if you know), and they will say, "Sure, where do you want me to put it?"

Next is the higher-level equipment provider that has a working knowledge of business theater, but probably lacks the strategic marketing knowledge and the added value that comes with it. Such providers may work fine for you if you can act as your own producer and can challenge them with finding the right messaging solutions.

The third type of provider is a production company that specializes in corporate meeting production and has marketing, messaging, creative design and technical expertise. Sometimes these firms refer to themselves as "experiential marketing agencies," and some call themselves production companies.

The bottom line is that they are creating an experience for your audience that optimizes the perception of your company and its products.

5. Minimize problems by practicing

This tip sounds so intuitive that some may wonder why I bother mentioning it at all. However, I believe that most companies do not spend enough time on this task. Most events take months of preparation; the team may be tired and stressed and so may not put time into practicing for the big event. Usually, teams make this mistake only once or twice.

It is essential to schedule enough time into the event plan so that the kinks can be worked out. All presentations should be checked for length and wording, and for the supporting AV equipment. Critical components—like presentations, PCs, microphones and projectors—should have backups ready and waiting in case of failure. Play it safe and live by Murphy's Law, according to which you can expect that anything that can go wrong... will go wrong.

Remember, perception is 99% of reality. So put your efforts into creating the right perception. In a recipe for good business theater, every ingredient is important and should not be left out.

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J. Brent Frost (bfrost@corpmedianc.com) is executive producer and president of Corporate Media Communications (www.corpmedianc.com), based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.