Many events are branded with a theme that sounds and looks snazzy on collateral, but how many gatherings actually reflect their theme throughout with marketing, speakers, music selection and experiential elements? Far too often, a theme works great conceptually but isn’t carried out well or successfully executed from beginning to end. Tyler Reagin, president of Catalyst, gives tips for picking a solid theme, then using it as the foundation upon which you build your event.
Keep it simple.
“It’s trendy to have a one-word theme, but if it gives me no idea what you’re going to talk about, it’s not helpful,” Reagin says. He suggests selecting a theme that’s sticky—meaning people will understand the idea behind it without needing an explanation. Keep in mind that while you live and breathe the idea at least 40 hours a week, your attendees do not, so make it easy to “get.”
Let content drive creative.
Make sure your theme matches your mission and lines up with what you want your attendees to do differently once they are back home. It should be action-oriented. “If your theme doesn’t move your attendees or actually matter to them day to day, it’s no good,” Reagin says.
Select speakers who speak the language.
“We used to book speakers based on who had books coming out and then figure out what we wanted them to say, but now we’ve flipped that,” says Reagin. “We ask ourselves, ‘Who has the best voice for this theme?’” Speakers feel empowered when they’re invited to share about a subject they already feel passionate about. He suggests figuring out where in the lineup you’d like each person to share and then initiating a conversation with them about how their message can resonate at that moment.
Cast a wide net to brainstorm.
Once a theme is set, Reagin invites members of his staff and friends of the organization—such as actors and videographers—on a creative retreat to brainstorm ways to incorporate the theme. He shares the vision for the event’s messaging, and then the group discusses how the theme could be applied creatively beyond the content. For a conference themed around courage, for example, the team brainstormed installing an obstacle that required courage at each door of the arena, such as Legos that had to be traversed barefoot.
While incorporating a theme is a way to infuse fun, nontraditional elements into an event, Reagin says it’s important to be purposeful in all theme demonstrations. “You can just do wacky for wacky’s sake,” he says. “I’m all for an idea as long as it fits the journey we’re taking people on.” It’s also important to be a good steward of attendees’ time and resources, says Reagin, treading carefully on the line of creating a memorable experience and spending too much time or money on theme- related extras.