Political fever has taken hold and it is event planners who are helping it spread. Politicians it appears are no different from brands, associations or anyone with a message: when they need to connect with their target market events in any and all forms are their medium of choice. 

The Scottish Referendum was one of my inspirational events of 2014 and The General Election campaign in the UK will I am sure have many similar inspirational moments. It’s not quite correct to call a massive political campaign an “event” as they are of course a mix of thousands of different events. However every one of these events churn up into one massive mass participation event on the day of the vote.

From a score of activists squeezing into a local pub in Fife to 3000 plus political campaigners attending a rally in Glasgow political events are taking place everywhere. With all of these events in the month of April it is a great time to be an event planner. There are many new event formats on show.

My first hustings

On April fools day in the Scottish Storytelling Museum I took my seat for my first political hustings. I was aware of the double dose of irony in the date and the location as honest to goodness political sorts took to the stage.

You only hear the word “hustings” at this time of year and it is a format that sits almost exclusively in the political arena. Despite its moniker it is a simple “Question Time” panel discussion lasting an hour or so at The Federation of Small Business arranged hustings which I attended we went that bit longer managing a very interesting two hours.

Five panelists was a fairly manageable number as they answered questions from the audience. But as is typical at a hustings the spice was provided by the audience. From our chairs we acted as the “sixth panelist” not only pitching in with questions but we were more than happy to throw a comment the way of the candidates: “Rubbish!” “Lies!” and the occasional “Aye, easy for you to say…..” are all part of the appeal of this hustings format. The Audience are participants and that’s how I like it!

No folly in this particular political format

What is powerful about this smaller, more niche political format is that it’s plain and simple. At a hustings you see politicians differently. They seem normal even connected to their constituents in the audience. With a smaller audience it is less about sound bites and they all appeared to be answering more honestly. Crucially this format allows the event to be more about the candidates than their parties and it is a format that would dissolve if the audience weren’t involved. It’s smallness is also its strength. There were several rows of potential voters (approx. 70 or so at this particular hustings) and these people are real and important: as voters they will decide which one of these candidates will represent them for the next four or five years.

So it is clearly more about the audience than the speakers. Without that direct engagement of the audience it would be hollow, meaningless, undemocratic. This is all so obvious to the event planner but after only five minutes into the much bigger TV debate the following evening I thought: how can the TV guys get it all so wrong?

The Big Debate ITV

The Big Debate ITV

A discussion not a debate

Last week I covered how the series of leadership debates aren’t actually debates so I won’t go over that trodden ground but safe to say this was definitely a discussion and not a debate.

Seven leaders each made an opening and a closing statement. In between there were questions from the audience and some ducking, diving and mud slinging between candidates. Personally the only way to get through the two hour marathon (which somehow only had time for four questions?) was to follow the #hashtag for glimpses of humour, candour and slander.

The difficult of the hybrid format

The TV discussion brought to the surface many of the issues that we have with politicians but it also raised some of the issues planners have in making our new event formats work:

Lack of inspiring content: Speakers lacked passion in their delivery – to a greater and lesser degree – however every leader’s eyes dropped as they read from their script at some point. There was little “exclusive content” and the same old phrases were reiterated. Time, and time again.

Who exactly should the speakers address?: An issue that all of the leaders struggled with was the “do I speak to the audience at home or the audience in the room?”. This is an issue that we see all too often at our hybrid events. To stare down the camera is a gamble, as one chap on Twitter commented “STOP staring! You are sucking out my soul” To avoid it completely is to suffer a disconnect with those not in the room. Most went for that awkward mid paragraph swivel; their gaze 50% to audience then 50% to camera. Whatever option the leaders choose it looked so mechanical.

Barriers were unnecessary created: Stuck behind podiums there was an obvious disconnect between each other, the viewers at home and the audience in the room.

Mentioning the audience it was as if someone had switched it to mute. The couple of hundred members of the audience were quiet: spookily silent. With neither boo nor applause following any statement the first part of the show felt like a dress rehearsal. What’s the point of having a physical audience if they don’t interact with the speakers?

One woman’s heckler is another woman’s participant

However not every audience member had read the script. During the first half one of the audience dared to speak out. Now as an event planner I structure my events to ensure that those attending feel like they are involved – they are participants. Not so at the Big Debate. Our “heckler” was ejected for the audacity to raise her voice from the audience: back in your box! I felt sorry for that one brave lady.

Heckler or Participant?

Heckler or Participant?

My feelings also went out to the poor camera man and the boom operator. The scene was reminiscent of Scotland’s recent 6 – 1 victory over Gibraltar at the weekend. Like the Gibraltarian centre half and goalie they hesitated, moved towards her, then withdrew, then went back. All the while crying out for some direction! It was cumbersome; a total gallimaufry.

Political formats and follies

It is Spring time and there are many new formats in full bloom. It would be folly not seek out these events in April. These formats offer a lot of opportunity for learning for the year long, full time event planner. Planners should get active and attend and engage with every possible event they can over this period. From the hybrid leaders debates, to local hustings to demos and rallies. These events are rare flowers which blossom only every four or five years. Now is the time to get involved and see those new event formats. The worst that could happen is that you learn a good heckle or two.

Published On: April 7th, 2015 / Categories: Conference Architect, Meeting Design /