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Why Your General Session Should Serve as the First Step to a More Strategic Meeting

By August 24, 2023May 21st, 2024Projection

In our last post – the first in a series about strategic meeting design – we highlighted the importance of thinking strategically about your event, and how to update the planning process to ensure attendees have a more tangible, memorable and valuable experience with your brand.

With your strategic plan in place, you can turn your attention to execution and how to bring those ideas to life. As you get started, consider: do attendees understand how the speakers and content presented at your meeting all tie back to your association’s mission and vision, and the reason they attended in the first place?

One way to answer that question with a resounding ‘yes’ is to start by designing a general session (or plenary) that integrates those event vision components into an emotive experience that creates a meaningful connection between attendees and your association, and leaves them excited for what they will experience over the coming days.

How to think about the general session

The general session (GS) offers your association an incredible opportunity to communicate the organization’s most important messaging, remind members why they are part of your organization and capture the attention of potential new members. It’s the one time during the year when you have a large and captive audience. The GS is where you should communicate (or reinforce) your organization’s purpose and vision, in a way that connects with your attendees and make them feel part of something important. Consequently, it should be planned carefully, and with insight from the highest level of your organization.

Improving the GS planning process

With such big shoes to fill, the process for planning the GS should be thoughtful and thorough. When the dust has settled on last year’s event and you’ve (hopefully) had a chance to catch your breath, you should start the GS-planning process – around 9 months before. At this point, strategic initiatives should be taking shape for the coming year, making this the ideal time to consider what you need to communicate to attendees, and what your call-to-action should be.

Because the GS is such a vital part of your meeting, it’s important to have the right people in the room. While this list may vary slightly by organization, consider whether the individual in the role below should be involved in the planning process. (And, if the answer is no, make sure it’s for the right reasons.)

  • GS meetings lead / director of meetings
  • Marketing and communications team
  • Executive Leadership (CEO/executive director)
  • Executive Producer (provided by AV/production company)
  • Creative Director (provided by AV/production company)
  • Production Manager (provided by AV/production company)
  • Account Manager (provided by AV/production company

Making your general session matter to your audience

The best general sessions create a shared meaning for attendees. They feel like they have a personal and collective stake in the experience, and in the content. In order to design a GS that truly matters to – and moves – your members, you need to understand why they do what they do. (Ideally that will be aligned with why your organization does what it does.)

Luckily, if you’ve been following your Event Vision Checklist, you’ve done the work to define your attendee personas and journeys, and can strategically plan your content accordingly – content that speaks to that “why.” Keynote speakers, the presidential address, state of the union, CEO update, video content – they should all align and ultimately create a sense of belonging for the audience member. They should leave with:

  • A sense of community
  • An aligned sense of purpose with your organization
  • A moving, powerful experience
  • Better tools to tell their own story and the story of the organization
  • A call to action which furthers your organization’s mission

How the American Association of Endodontists General Session cultivated a sense of collegiality

The American Association of Endodontists (AAE) is a global resource for knowledge, research and education for the profession, members and the public. Its annual meeting attracts an average of 4,000 attendees, and spans four days of general and educational sessions, table clinics, poster presentations and an exhibit hall. During the years of COVID-mandated virtual meetings, AAE’s membership was significantly impacted by the inability to connect in person. Being such a collaborative and interconnected industry, the association’s members desperately missed the in-person annual meeting, and being able to connect with their colleagues from around the world. So, in 2022, when coming back after the pandemic, the meetings team began to think strategically about how to design a meeting and general session that captured the association’s pillar of collegiality.

During planning sessions, which included the meeting team, marketing department, association president, and Projection, they landed on an idea that would build on that pillar in a creative and collaborative way. Building on the fact that the AAE president was a classically-trained pianist, they designed a general session – stage and all – around the Cheers theme song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” Not only did the president play the piano, but they built an entire band of other AAE member/musicians.

Tanya Kinsman, Assistant Executive Director for Meetings and Continuing Education, AAE

Tanya Kinsman, AAE’s assistant executive director for meetings and continuing education, added: “We have to work hand in hand across the organization; otherwise, the association brand and the show brand can become misaligned. My goal each year is to find ways to align the meeting with the overall AAE brand, create a sense of community for our members, cultivate a powerful shared experience and build on the strong pillars established by the association. When attendees leave the annual meeting, they should walk away with the tools they need to do the important work in their own community, as well as a renewed sense of purpose.”

Tanya and the AAE team are a perfect example of how the general session can serve as a gateway to a more strategic meeting; by capitalizing on a large captive audience to thoughtfully communicate the association’s most important messaging and values, they are able to consistently cultivate a sense of purpose and community for its members. When it comes to numbers, AAE has seen increased attendance year over year. And, that’s critical for the association as the annual meeting is a driver for membership renewals, with 2023’s in-person event helping the organization achieve pre-COVID membership levels.

GS planning checklist

In the meetings industry, we all love checklists. With the number of things that need to be done and come together to pull off a successful event, why wouldn’t we? Working with association and meeting planning teams over the years – and being present for exceptional general sessions that have left attendees inspired – I’ve found the answers to the following questions are critical to designing and executing a successful and strategic GS.

  • What is the organization’s mission and vision?
  • How does the meeting support this mission and vision?
  • What are the organization’s strategic goals for this coming year?
  • How does the meeting support the strategic goals?
  • Is there a meeting brand/theme (often already created by marketing)?
  • Why do people come to this meeting?
  • Who is the main demographic of the audience?
  • What do we want them to feel?
  • What message do we want the audience to walk away with?
  • What is the call to action?

Of course, the general session is not the only opportunity to create a more strategic experience for your meeting’s attendees, but it is an ideal place to start. By kicking off the event in a way that sets the stage – literally and figuratively – for the remainder of the event, you can help shape an attendee’s experience not only there at your meeting, but with your brand long after they head back home.


More from our strategic meeting design series

[Part One] The Importance of Thinking Strategically About Your Meeting – and How to Get Started
[Part Three] Beyond the General Session: Designing a Consistent Attendee Experience Throughout Your Event
[Part Four] After the meeting: Keeping brand awareness, momentum and energy going