Have you ever attended a conference where the opening keynote was just a person standing on the stage, speaking to an audience who was simply sitting and silently absorbing the content? Just writing that made my eyes glaze over. 

While this may be the norm for conference openings, it is not the best approach if you want to create an impactful and engaging experience. Designing your opening few minutes for contribution, not just consumption, is crucial. You want to engage the audience immediately. One of the most effective ways to do this is by asking thoughtful questions.

As an example of this, recently, I started a keynote by asking a simple question: “How many of you have connected with one other person that you have not met before you showed up here?” This is a great start because it invites response and participation from everyone. No one should be sitting still and nodding along with you after you ask that question; everyone should have a response. As it turned out, all 3,000 people raised their hands, which immediately made everyone present and engaged in that moment. 

Shifting Perspectives through Experimentation

Once I knew the audience was getting more engaged, I challenged them to shift their perspectives by experimenting with their approach to meeting new people. We tend to ask the same types of questions when meeting someone new, such as “How are you?” or “Where are you from?” Questions like that may be easy to answer, but they don’t necessarily lead to deeper connections.

But what happens if we don’t ask those questions? What happens if we meet each other and we don’t ask the questions that we typically ask? What sort of deeper connection can we forge if we ask something else. Something like “What’s been the best part of your week so far?”

Doing the Math

Another really effective (and super easy!) activity is asking everyone to shout out how many years of experience they have in their fields. It helps to create a sense of community and connectedness among the audience. It also highlights the expertise that each person brought to the conference. In the conference I mentioned earlier, with an average of 20 years of experience per person in the room, there were roughly 60,000 years of experience sitting on that side of the stage. 

Creating Spontaneous Moments

While it is important to have a well-planned opening, some of the most memorable moments of a conference can come from spontaneity, so try to leave room for that. One of my favorite things to do is have the conference organizer give everyone a card from a deck that I provide – either a We! Engage card or a We! Connect Card. I ask the audience a question and have all those with a particular card raise their hands, then I announce that they will all receive a free deck of cards. However, I then surprised everyone by announcing that everyone in the audience would receive a deck of cards, courtesy of the sponsor. The result is usually a spontaneous moment of joy and excitement that lasts for several minutes.

Building Connections through Conversation Swaps

Finally, you can demonstrate how to create meaningful connections by organizing a conversation swap. In just 10 to 15 minutes, you can create 15,000 conversations and connections that may not have happened otherwise. This is a powerful reminder of the impact that conference openings can have on building meaningful connections among attendees.