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Don’t Underestimate the Value of First Impressions

By Jonathan N. Strauss

Think back to the plenary room at your association’s last conference.  What first impression did it make? Did the room showcase the professionalism that is expected from your association? Were you and your volunteer leaders proud when your delegates walked in?

Too often the answer to these questions is “no” and the reasons given often come down to “we didn’t have the budget to do anything better” or “we don’t know how to do things differently”. The successful use of audiovisual technology, including data projection, lighting and sound, can make a big impact when delegates walk into your next conference.

Don’t allow budget or knowledge constraints to get in the way of making your next event look great. The best approach is to choose what you want and to explain to your audiovisual suppliers what you want to achieve. No need to worry about knowing all of the latest technology terminology or concerning yourself with budget at the initial planning stage; simply paint your experts a picture. It can be helpful to your AV suppliers if you share photos with them from another major event and let them know which particular elements you would like to try to duplicate. The multi-million dollar budget of TED won’t likely apply to you, but you can indeed take elements from these large events and scale them to your budget.

Having a clean and professional looking plenary room doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. Here are a few ideas, each starting at $350 – $750 per day:

  1. Backdrop or drapery – Add a theatrical drape behind the stage and add a few LED up-lights to create a clean and crisp backdrop. The benefit of LED lighting technology is that the colour of the lights can easily be changed each day or for each speaker, all with no extra cost. With more people taking event photos and posting to social media, this really helps make your event look professional.
  2. Light up the speaker – Event with the brightest data projectors, it is still common to dim meeting room lights during a presentation which can often leave speakers in the dark. Adding a couple of theatrical lights for the stage can avoid this. This can be done simply from the back of the room on one “t-bar stand” or from both the left and right sides of the room for a softer look and less direct light in the presenter’s eyes.
  3. Custom gobos – Custom gobos allow the projection of a logo or image using a relatively inexpensive theatrical light fixture. Adding an event logo gobo and/or sponsor logos via gobos in foyers and plenary rooms is a nice touch. Remember, these gobos can often be reused, so ask for them back at the end of the event.
  4. Speaker preview monitor and wireless remote – Avoid having speakers use their own computers during a main plenary session as it tends to look messy and causes delays in between presentations. Add a speaker preview monitor in front of the lectern and a good quality presentation remote (Perfect-Cue is the go-to choice for AV professionals) with a computer controlled by a technician at the back of the room.
  5. Video switcher – By adding a seamless video switcher that can store a logo (or PowerPoint slide) you will never end up with a blank main screen or see presenters load their presentation.  After all, who wants to see a messy desktop and someone fumbling around trying to load their presentation? Often called a safety slide, this feature works as a fall-back in the event of a computer problem or the need to change computers between presenters. Where possible, have two computers connected to a video switcher to make things even more seamless.

For less money than the low cost ideas above, add a lectern sign. For under $100, add a sign to the lectern provided by the venue. Generally, venues provide lecterns free of charge and they are plastered with their own logo. Ask your venue contact for the correct measurements to provide a sign with your association or event logo that will fully cover that of the venue. Like with backdrops, this helps with social media photo-sharing in that it promotes your association and/or event.

To keep presentations looking great, make sure to specify with speakers which format their presentations must be in. The traditional 4:3 format (think tube TV) has gone by the wayside so insist that speakers provide presentations in 16:9 format (think HD TV). Nothing looks worse than a 4:3 presentation on a modern 16:9 screen.

Adding one or a combination of these suggested additions can all add to the first impression of your event. Remember to ask your suppliers, including the venue and AV company, what low cost or no cost ideas they might have to help you.


The following chart is an excerpt from “In Any Event: A Guide for Designing Successful Association Events” by Jonathan N. Strauss. Published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives, it is available through the bookstore at www.csae.com.

AV Terminology

The following are some common terms* used by AV professionals and are familiar to event managers.



Audience Response Systems (ARS)

Computer software and audience keypads that allow interactive participation and instant feedback of the results which can then be displayed on a screen in a meeting room.

Aspect Ratio

Shape of a screen, as in width:height.

Aspect Ratio NTSC 4:3

Old-school tube televisions and traditional breakout room projectors and screens.

Public Address (PA) Systems

Audio devices used to clearly deliver sound to the audience.

Digital Light Processing (DLP)

Technology developed by Texas Instruments that reflects light from hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors on a semiconductor chip to project an image. The chip is called a Digital Micro-mirror Device (DMD).

High Definition Television (HDTV)

A 16:9 television, which is a common video aspect ratio for flat screen TVs, video monitors, main room projection, cell phones, and tablets.

House Sound

Ceiling-mounted speakers that are generally good for small audiences and short announcements from the podium.


A picture distortion in front projectors, in which the top or bottom of the picture is narrower than the opposite edge. This occurs when the placement of the projectors is not perpendicular to the screen.

Line Array

A group of omnidirectional loudspeakers arranged in a straight line, closely spaced, and operating in phase with equal amplitude. Line arrays are useful in applications where sound must be projected over long distances. Line arrays can be oriented in any direction. Their primary use in large arenas and meeting venues is in vertical arrays that provide a very narrow vertical output pattern useful for focusing sound at audiences without wasting output energy on ceilings or empty air above the audience.


Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)

A technology for displaying images. Light is projected through an array of crystals that either pass or block light, according to the signal driving the panel.


Indicate the brightness of the projector. The larger the screen, the brighter the projector you need. The more light pollution, the brighter projector you need.

Power Amplifier

An audio component used to boost a line level signal in order to drive loudspeakers.


The array of pixels used to make a video image, defined by the quantity of horizontal pixels times the quantity of vertical pixels. It is important to match the resolution in your content to the resolution of your video displays. The higher the resolution, the higher the picture quality.

Soft Sets

Metal frame, fabric-covered scenic structures, most of which are self-standing or require simple overhead support. Various shapes and sizes, providing a unique look to a stage while enhancing a projection screen or providing a touch of elegance to a room entrance.

Sound Reinforcement

A system independent from the house sound, consisting of speakers, amplifiers, mixer, and perhaps an equalizer. This is necessary when there are multiple wireless microphones or music with videos, computer audio, all of which require more dynamics.

Speaker Ready Room

A room that is set up on site where presenters can check their presentations on the exact equipment that they will use in their breakout rooms.

Spot Fixtures

Focused lighting units, which may include gobos. Some may also have shutters, known as Lekolites or Lekos.

Throw Distance

The distance between a front projector and the screen.

Wash Fixtures

Lighting units producing soft edges, which allow for quick and easy focus, sometimes called parabolic aluminized reflector lamps (PARs).


*The terms and definitions above were provided courtesy of Freeman Audio Visual Canada.