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How Impactful Is Your Opening General Session?

Posted by Nathalie Whitton on Tue, Aug 15, 2017

I recently returned from one of our client conferences and was so impressed with the opening general session that I must share the impact it had on me with you. If you were to ask anyone involved in planning a conference what they would want their opening general session to convey, most would say they want it to motivate people, to share information about what to expect from the rest of the conference. Some want to include an entertainment aspect to create a more memorable experience and provide an ice-breaker for the attendees leaving the general session. Others want to emotionally connect with attendees.


If you’ve ever attended a conference, you know how important the opening general session is. If the speaker is dynamic and holds your attention, you leave the session ready to absorb more information. If the wrong speaker is chosen and you are constantly looking at your watch hoping the time speeds up until it’s over, it has already set the tone in your mind of how the rest of the conference may go. Your general session is extremely important to how your attendee feel leaving that session and whether they are wanting more.

We often discuss in our office how it doesn’t take a huge budget or even hire a production company to put together the elements of an impactful general session. Sometimes making even some small changes to what you’ve typically done in previous years, can impacts your attendees, leaving them feeling excited wanting for more. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to conferences where, if they hadn’t changed the location of the conference you would have a hard time remembering one year from the other.

Let me describe the opening general session of the 2017 ILA Conference recently held in Orlando. While you can certainly find other opening sessions with bigger budgets and present greater hype, this opening general session added just enough attention getting elements and was executed perfectly accomplishing exactly what it set out to do:

Get people’s attention, deliver the conference message and get people excited about learning more throughout the next few days.

Room setup:

Theatre seating for 5000 people set up chevron style to maximize the layout of the full stage with catwalk in center.

Backdrop - simple pipe and drape with three screens. Two on either end with long rectangular center screen in the middle. Center screen used for presentations while outside screens for live feed of the speakers. One podium on the very large stage made with monitor in center displaying the conference logo.

Energy in the room:

Immediately upon entering you were greeted with uplifting music from the DJ on stage. Once most were seated, lights dimmed and a high energy video appeared on the center screen with perfect sound going through the history of literacy, with fast moving photos and music that kept your attention on the screen.



The initial introduction of the President of the Board was done as a voice over from the video presentation. Each speaker was high energy delivering the message of the conference “Re-imagining Literacy”. Each speaker grabbing your attention in a unique way from the previous. So much so, I felt how wonderful it would be to be a teacher! If you ever get a chance to hear the three main keynote speakers, do it. They were all well worth listening to their stories and provide immeasurable inspiration.

Prescious Symonette – teaches creative writing at Miami Norland Senior High School in Florida, where she serves a large population of disadvantages teens. A certified Freedom Writer with a passion for poetry, education and community involvement, Precious was named Miami-Dade’s 2017 Francisco R. Walker Teacher of the Year and a 2016 National Education Association Superhero Educator. She lives by the principle she imparts to students: “Write yourself into existence.”

Enrique C. Feldman – is the founder and director of education for the Global Learning Foundation. He is an artist and educator known for his innovation in combining movement and music with literacy education. These rooted-in-research, play-based, and joy-filled approaches lead to student’s increased desire to learn, to read, and to explore their own curiosity. Learn more about Enrique and his work at enriquecfeldman.com

Carman Agra Deedy – is the author of 11 books for children including the Rooster who would not be quiet! (Scholastic). An award-winning author and storyteller, Carmen often draws inspiration from her childhood as a Cuban refugee growing up in the United States. She has been a guest speaker for both the TED and TEDx conferences and has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. She currently hosts the four-time Emmy-winning children’s program Love That Book!

Closing the Session – The Edgewater High School Drum Line bringing together a sense of community and highlighting the accomplishments of our youth.

Walking out of the general session, everyone was all a buzz of how inspirational and moving the session was. You could literally see the excitement of everyone looking forward to the conference. Great job ILA!!

I felt it important to highlight this particular general session, because of the impact it had on everyone. In a technical sense and in the meeting planning world, ILA hit a home run on this one. Everything was perfectly timed, the colors, the sound, the visuals, were all exhilarating and that’s even before the speakers (which were all successfully fantastic at delivering the message) were even introduced.


How impactful have your opening general sessions been?

Topics: Creativity