As the producer of countless general sessions for large-scale conventions, annual meetings, and events for corporate and association clients for more than 25 years, I’ve had many opportunities to observe what show elements make the most difference. Music tops that list, yet it’s often treated as an afterthought—an unsung hero, if you will—which can lead to unexpected, preventable miscues and missteps.
Here’s what to consider when planning the music for your next event:
Plan Well in Advance
Music might not be the first thing you think about when planning the general session for your annual meeting or convention, but it should be near the top of the list. After all, you put extensive thought into your overall messaging, presenters, videos, graphics, and branding to ensure they’re consistent and tell a cohesive story. As an omnipresent component of your event, why should music be treated any differently?
When it’s well planned and carefully crafted, music can boost the overall experience for attendees and keep the audience engaged. It’s worth taking the time to think it through well in advance of your event.
Make Your Music Matter
Music plays an integral role in the success of your overall show, both logistically and emotionally. If you choose your music wisely, it can not only boost audience engagement by filling in gaps and decreasing perceived “downtime” as you transition from one point to another in your show, but it can help create whatever vibe or feeling you want your audience to experience. Whether your goal is to energize your audience, evoke empathy, or inspire them to support your initiative, music can help set the desired mood at just the right moment.
Keep It Consistent
Make sure your music tells a cohesive story that aligns well with the overall message, branding, and design of your event. I also recommend against mixing genres to avoid musical outliers. If, for example, you’ve been playing classical music throughout your event, it could feel unnatural and disruptive to your audience if your presenter suddenly walks onstage to Bruce Springsteen. Keep your musical genres largely (if not entirely) consistent to avoid interrupting your audience’s experience.
Choose Your Walk-in and Walk-on Music Wisely
Here’s a quick breakdown of the difference between walk-in and walk-on music, along with some advice:
• Walk-in music: This is what your audience members hear as they walk into the room and find their seats. Walk-in music can easily be overlooked, but it sets the tone for what the audience is about to experience. Even if your audience is chatty, they still perceive the music. Consider how you want your audience to feel when they walk into the room, and choose your music accordingly. Avoid any music that will be heard again later, and for goodness sake, if a band is part of your show, don’t play any of its recorded songs during walk-in!
• Walk-on music: This is the music that is played after your voice of God or onstage presenter announces the name of the next person to come on stage. Nothing is worse than the awkward gap that can result from an introduction of someone followed by applause that doesn’t last long enough for the person to hit the stage…especially if they are coming from the audience. Music not only fills that gap, it adds impact to the moment.
It’s very tempting to use a song you know and love (or that the presenter wants) as walk-on music. But to get the best result, avoid recognizable songs, especially songs with lyrics. Why?
Because the amount of time it will take for an individual to get from the audience or from backstage to the stage is often unknown. It can be less than 10 seconds, or it can take much longer. This means that when your presenter has reached his or her spot on stage quickly, the song will have just barely gotten started. You’re then stuck with having to either a) make the presenter stand there uncomfortably while the song’s “good part” plays out, or b) fade out the song before it gets to the part you wanted the audience to hear in the first place.
On the other hand, if the presenter takes too long to get on stage, the part of the your song you liked may have played itself out and you are stuck with the next set of lyrics that may not fit, and then those may get cut off mid-song.
So your best bet is to use instrumental tunes that can last for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, or even more—and then be faded out without any sense of having interrupted the song.
And don’t forget that walk-off music is important if there is a lull between the end of one presentation and the start of the next.
Related tip: If you do choose a song with lyrics, pay close attention to context and meaning. If we go back to our Bruce Springsteen example, a presenter might like the idea of walking on to “Born in the USA,” but not realize that its lyrics are really quite political. In this case, consider editing to emphasize just the chorus and instrumentals. Also, the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” talks about “wine and cheap perfume”—not a great sentiment for the average corporate or association general session. And I can’t tell you how many people have asked to walk on to “Born to Be Wild,” but Steppenwolf’s well-known chorus doesn’t happen until one minute and 20 seconds into the song! You can’t just cue up the beginning of the song and hit “play.” You’ll need a version carefully edited to make it work.
In sum, music has the ability to captivate, energize, and inspire your audience to action—but only if it’s thoughtfully crafted. Take time to plan your music well ahead of your event and make sure it’s consistent with the overall design and message that you want to deliver.
For more advice on how to engage audiences in meaningful ways, check out my 11 Tips for Designing a Captivating Big Screen Presentation or Hal Schild’s 7 Things That Will Ruin Your General Session (and What to Do to Avoid Them).
Scott Babcock is the director of event production at PCI Event Productions, an integral part of PCI, a full-service agency that specializes in audience engagement through event production, strategy, video, digital services, and design.