How has attendance been at your meetings? Are attendance numbers flat to declining? Do you find that you have to push and pull them to attend all those programs that you have been promoting as “membership benefits?” Are you spending more money than you take in for your programs? Is it taking members longer to register than previously?

If any or all are true, you are not alone. As the economy took a nose dive, so did meeting attendance. There are many reasons for that; tight money situation; employers not paying for travel; greater scrutiny on the return on investment.

Now, this is not an article which will discuss whether the content of your program is meeting member needs. If you don’t know already what your members need in terms of education and programming, a blog posting is not going to solve your dilemma.

But, if you are providing great information but members still are not attending, this article will get you thinking about how to change that.

First, the days of talking “to” members are over. If your non-profit is primarily doing sessions where 1 or a few people talk at everyone attending all day long, then you are using a dying model. That is not to say that there is a place for the lecture method…it just should not be at your association’s meetings.

Regardless of age or generation, people want to be focused and engaged. Social media, television, cable, movies and the internet have changed how we receive information. Instead of being told what to think, your members want to be part of the learning process.

That means ditching the “talking expert” unless it is a keynote speech designed to start thinking and conversations that your organization will be continuing at the meeting.

Should this approach be of interest, how do you do that while not driving up costs? Here are few ideas:

  • * If using a keynote or kick off speaker, why not set up lounge chairs and sofas around the presenter instead of the usual folding chairs? This sets the tone that this presentation is going to be different, memorable and special.
  • * Try using a debate format to make programming interesting. Use this to explore a critical issue by several different speakers followed by small group reactions to what has been said. This helps to bring your attendees into the discussion.
  • * If your organization is facing a major problem that various members may have addressed, try a show and tell format. It can be posters or small exhibit tables or even video presentations where participants explain how they deal with various situations of which other members may be interested. This can also be used to cover core competencies or share important information for new members. EXTRA TIP: Maximize your members’ time by utilizing this format while they are waiting in the buffet line for lunch. It will be another way to engage your attendees.
  • * We have all been to the meeting, usually when a continental breakfast or buffet lunch is served, where attendees are given the opportunity to sit at different tables to discuss pre-determined topics. Why not have “brain storming” sessions where the participants choose the topic at the table instead? Maybe lists of suggested topics on the table are needed, but why always direct what your members want to talk about? EXTRA TIP: Instead of having attendees discuss one topic, have various subject experts/facilitators go around to each table to start new discussions.
  • * Just as people usually watch television by switching through various channels in the course of an hour, your members may not want to go to one session followed by another. Try doing concurrent sessions on different subjects. Repeating key ones may be necessary but your members can do a better job of getting what they want from your meeting this way. Remember, short discussions are in.
  • * There is a reason why Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are still popular after so many decades. People like games. They like to test their knowledge and they like to compete. Keep your meetings interesting by incorporating the same kind of fun. Develop knowledge or association/profession based contests utilizing game formats that your members already know. Have a few prizes to hand out like gift cards or make them gag prizes (i.e., big jar of pickles, etc.) to make it humorous.
  • * Make sure you capture the content regardless of what type of presentation format you use. While professional video can be costly, simple camera or bloggie filming is much easier these days. Post to your website or to YouTube and give your members the links to find them. When non-participants see what they are missing, they may start participating.
  • * Remember to include discussion time and break time. If you have done a good job engaging your members, your meeting attendees will want to talk about what they are learning. By doing this, it will help participants internalize what they have heard and learned. So build that into your program. And yes, break time is needed…to go to the bathroom, to return telephone calls, and to just clear their heads.

Great ideas for energizing my next meeting you might say, but where am I going to get speakers who are willing to utilize these formats? Clearly, not every presenter out there will flourish in all of these different formats. But an under utilized and overlooked place for speakers is within an organization’s own membership.

Look among your members and there are clearly rising stars. These are people who are full of energy and ideas. More than likely, they are more willing to try different things including different ways of presenting. Make sure your presenters are passionate about the topics that you are asking to them to speak about. You may have to work with them to hone their presentation skills, but what a dynamic way to build energy and loyalty toward your non-profit.

Do not ignore the importance of choosing a good emcee. While it is good to have your President or Program Chairman speak, make sure you have some who is comfortable speaking extemporaneously before a group to help attendees know what is going on, how to participate and what is coming next. Otherwise, all the efforts to create a more engaging meeting format will fall flat because attendees will not know what is going on.

So stop pushing and pulling.

Start engaging.

Then watch your members clamor to come to your organization’s next meeting.

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