Event Planners: Captivate by Design (Part II: Attention)

Event Planners: Captivate by Design

Part II: Attention

Nathan Coe Marsh

This is part two of a five part series that applies insight from the world of entertainment to the structure of effective, captivating events. Take a look at Part I before proceeding further.


The Obedient Donkey

A man is in the middle of a park with a sign that says “The Obedient Donkey.” A donkey lays at his feet. He is approached by a woman “You have an obedient donkey?” “Yes, m’am — the Donkey does anything you tell it to do.” The woman thinks for a moment, she says “Donkey, stand up.” The donkey remains lying down. “He won’t even do that.” The man takes a 2’ x 4’, hits the donkey, and says “Please stand up.” The donkey bolts up.
“The donkey does whatever you ask it to, you just need to get his attention first.”

Let’s take a journey into the brain of one of your audience members. Our audiences lead remarkably connected lives; email, facebook, text message. We have no control over what is happening in their internal world. Their attention is pulled by hundreds of continuous distractions: “the room is cold,” “why is little Johnny struggling in school,” “can’t wait for the game this weekend,” “how will I make my numbers this quarter,” “does she still love me?”

We can remove people from their desks; we can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly the group in, provide accommodations, feed them, hire a speaker but to effectively connect with them we first have to grab their attention. They’ll go where we want them to emotionally and intellectually, we just need to get their attention first.

Know your Fascination triggers:

Why do some people and messages immediately fascinate us? This was the question that led Sally Hogshead on the path to her book Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation (a book I wholeheartedly recommend). Hogshead’s research uncovered 7 universal triggers of fascination:


When it comes to launching an event in a way that focuses attention, pulling one of these triggers thoughtfully and effectively is a shortcut to captivating the room.

Brands, messages, and people have fascination triggers that come most naturally to them. This is a powerful insight. Organizing a meeting with high-powered finance executives; work with venues and speakers that exude power: athletes, politicians. A brand with a primary mystique trigger? Build a narrative around the event that slowly unfolds, hinting at secrets and mysteries (this was done very effectively at a high-end magic-themed event I was part of, guests had to decode a puzzle to view their invitation, and the entire evening was built around an engaging story that connected every element together.)

When does the event start?

It sounds like a simple question — but let’s push further. Does it start when they enter the room? When the arrive at the hotel? When they kiss their family goodbye and take the taxi to the airport? When they register?

I hold that the event begins with the first moment of contact with the attendee, and this is the greatest opportunity to grab attention and set a tone for the entire event.

A thought experiment: You are the executive of a company being invited to a Hemingway themed incentive trip to Key West sponsored by a vendor company to whom you give a lot of business. Which invitation grabs you:

  • A card with an attractive design
  • A FedEx copy of “The Old Man and the Sea,” inside the cover is a handwritten note from the CEO of the inviting company that says “You’ve been an important part of our story, as we start the next chapter together, we hope you will join us.”
  • This grabs attention on multiple levels. First, the FedEx delivery activates both the Alarm and Mystique fascination triggers (FedEx is by nature urgent, this had to get to you now, it is different from all of the other you get; but why was it sent and why is what’s inside shaped so strangely). When you open to find the book, the mystique trigger is going nuts. It sends a powerful signal that this event is different and it effectively stops everything else you’re do and grabs your attention.

    Case Study: Making an Entrance

    Here is a case study of one attention grabbing opener to a session at San Diego Comic Con.

    One implementation: The General Session Opener

    It’s 8am on the first full day of the conference. Some were out late the night before, some had difficulty sleeping because they are mentally still in a different time zone. You’ve spent $20-50,000 on a carefully chosen keynote speaker. For it to be effective, you need to grab their attention. A great tool in this arsenal is a corporate entertainer who can perform a 10-20 minute, high energy show to get them laughing together, raise the heart rate in the room, and bring energy, focus, and humor to the morning.

    Next week: Rapport.

    The Best is Yet to come!

    Nathan Coe Marsh

    407.900.3831 | NCM@NCMarsh.com

    Nathan Coe Marsh: 2 Minute Demo

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