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To Select The Right Event Theme, Go Above And Beyond … Above & Beyond

If you’ve spent any time at all in or around Corporate America, no doubt you’ve heard this exchange at least once or maybe dozens of times …  

“Well, it’s probably time to start working on the annual meeting.”

“OK, what’s our theme?”

Which is akin to …

“I need to bake a cake.”

“What color icing?”

Landing on the right and perfect theme for your corporate meeting or event is much more than pretty ribbons and bows and eye-catching graphics and sugary icing. It takes thought, assessment, input from key stakeholders, and insightful brainstorming so your theme not only brands your event but establishes a meaningful connection that’s equal parts memorable and motivating.

Here are 10 considerations for the next time you hear someone say, “Well, it’s probably time to start working on the annual meeting.”

Start by closely examining where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re headed.

If your organization is still trying to recover from a less-than-stellar annual performance, a theme along the lines of Simply the Best is probably going to ring rather hollow, if not downright silly. On the other hand, if you’ve made progress and are close to pulling out of a challenging period, kick around theme ideas that speak to progress and continued success. Be sure your chosen theme reflects who you are and where you’re headed; always forward-looking.

Use active, not passive, voice.

By and large, themes are rallying cries or calls-to-action. As such, direct, pithy statements using active voice are more powerful and have more impact than the same message delivered passively. For instance, Turn the Tide! has more chops than We’re Turning the Tide Together. The latter may be exactly what you’re doing but that message is better delivered as part of a speech.

Keep it brief and make it memorable.

As humans, our brains can store just so much “stuff” like a hard drive that’s about maxed out, memory-wise. Cut out “fat words”, those that may be grammatically correct but dilute the message via verbosity. Some years back, Auburn University football coach Gus Malzahn needed to restore team unity that had been damaged by a coaching change. He chose All In. as his rallying cry and theme for the season. Two words, one powerful message … and obviously memorable since a number of years have passed since that season and I still remember it.

Run away from trite and overused themes.

Chances are, you’ve been hit over the head too many times with Above & Beyond, Simply the Best, Unleash the Power, In It to Win It, Plan Your Work + Work Your Plan and so many other themes that have been warmed over and repurposed to the point they’re borderline laughable now. If you’ve seen the same theme used more than once, its shelf-life has probably expired. Burn a few brain cells and seek something new and refreshing.

Bring in a fresh perspective.

When brainstorming, invite someone from outside your group’s area of expertise [i.e., sales, marketing, operations, etc.]. Give them a layman’s overview of the been-there/here now/headed there background and encourage them to help you think not just outta the box but outta the closet that holds said box. You might be amazed at what your receptionist or warehouse manager is able to contribute. You might also bring someone in who works outside your company and your industry for a fresh, unbiased perspective.

Look to social trends, pop culture, entertainment and sports for theme ideas.

Slangy, memorable phrases abound in society, pop culture, entertainment and sports. Listen closely to song lyrics or lines from popular movies or television programming that might just fit the dynamics of what your organization is trying to achieve right now. Scan online lifestyle and sports sites to see if something triggers a fresh new idea. All it takes is a little extra time and a keen eye for the right words.

Select a guest speaker who can bring your theme to life.

Say your selected theme is Build a Legacy! Find a guest speaker who started with next-to-nothing and became a self-made person and is now wildly successful and widely respected. If your selected theme speaks to the concept of teamwork and collaboration, find a speaker noted for creating great teams whether it’s in sports, business, non-profit, etc. Link your speaker directly to your theme. She or he should reinforce your theme and be a key part of its activation.

Remember who your audience is.

If you’re considering themes for a group of financiers or IT professionals, your theme will likely need to be less rah-rah and more logically reasoned than your typical sales or marketing meeting or event. Ask: “What makes this group tick?” If they’re IT-types, there’s a good chance they’re drawn to gaming so Level Up! might work perfectly for them while it would be “blah” to your sales organization.

Activate your theme … before, during and after!

Sometimes a theme revealed on Day 1 of a program is appropriate but, in most cases, a theme can be rolled out in advance communication, as well as reinforced in follow-up communiques. A theme trotted out with pre-program planning materials or info briefs will help seed a mindset and create an air of curiosity and intrigue that can be paid off from the stage onsite. You might also consider a theme that can be woven throughout the year, or one that can be modified slightly for a year or two by adding a fresh tagline.

Speaking of taglines …

Earlier, I suggested pithiness and an economy of words when choosing a theme but there are often times when an overarching theme can be paid off powerfully with an accompanying tagline. For instance, the All In. theme previously mentioned might be brought to life by adding a tagline – ALL IN! $100 Million in 2020. Those six words say a whole lot to a sales-focused audience.

In conclusion …

Themes are much more than mere icing on the cake. Take the time to closely examine your business, your goals, your organization’s culture, and your audience. Treat the theme as you would your brand because it is a brand of sorts. Activate it. Bring it to life in apps, collateral, signage, video/animation, speaker messaging, PowerPoint, amenities, stage-set design, décor, at social events and perhaps even in your free-time activities.

Above all, avoid Above & Beyond. Happy theming, everyone!


Kenneth Jones