Lord of the Rings vs Game of Thrones – Episode 3: Characters vs Speakers, Stories vs Sessions: Lessons for Associations, Content Strategy and Events


Lord of the Rings vs Game of Thrones – Episode 3:

Characters vs Speakers, Stories vs Sessions: Lessons for Associations, Content Strategy and Events

This article was also published in AMI Magazine

By Colm Clarke

Episode 1: Characters vs Speakers, Stories vs Sessions

This is the final article in a three part series – Read Episode 1 on battling business models here and Episode 2 on understanding content and community here

Associations may not have multi-million-dollar production budgets but clever use of their community and content assets can still generate hugely valuable education and experiences.

One thing all associations have is a cast of characters and we can achieve a lot by creating the right storylines with them and for them.

Think about their stories in the context of your mission, the changes or challenges going on the profession. Build on themes, connect event to event, keep people coming back for the next chapter or installment.

Keep things fresh by using new faces, new arguments, and new outlooks to surprise.

Take Arya Stark in Game of Thrones who was forced into exile as a child. Years later (after many adventures and much training), she came back and saved the human race. Or young Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, entrusted with the key role in the fight against evil.

Those “young professionals” were central to the story – not a small side plot.
Most associations will have initiatives to promote emerging talent but ask yourself – do you really put your young professionals front and centre (do you dare)? Or are you giving them just enough exposure to stay engaged without upsetting the status quo?

Or how about casting your “established” personalities differently to show them in a new light? In the Lord of the Rings movies, Galadriel the elven queen was always presented as calm and serene, wise and powerful – so it was a shock to see her completely lose her cool when Frodo offered her the ring.

Do you have hugely successful leaders? Could they tell us a story about failure or doubt? An accomplished professional showing vulnerability can be very powerful, it shows relatability, it is motivating and drives others to better things – and isn’t that what association communities are all about?

Thinking about characters and stories gives us new ways to approach content development – especially for live events. There are all kinds of personalities who play important roles within a story – and not everyone needs to be the star on the billboard.

This gives more flexibility to get more people involved, to play their part without the burden of having to carry the stage or entertain an (often demanding) audience solo.

So how do you get started?

First of all, don’t panic and rush to redesign the entire programme – you can start by creating a few high impact sessions, here are some pointers:

  • Choose specific topics or issues that naturally provoke debate – this means you can have a mix with more “traditional” sessions which still suit important technical, scientific or case study content
  • Embrace controversy and forget about pointless consensus – adding characters shouldn’t mean making boring panel “discussions” where speakers take turns at complimenting one another (this makes for a pleasant dinner conversation to participate in but is not engaging to watch)
  • Meaningful interactivity is not just getting people in the same room, they need guidance and well framed questions to make it professionally valuable
  • Focus and Cut! Conversations with passionate experts will always be just a tiny sliver of what they could cover, have them focus on specific issues or experiences – otherwise discussions can generate hundreds of interesting thoughts but have no coherent learning outcome
  • Think places and spaces – in person events need destinations and venues to be a differentiator – they are competing with hundreds of reasons NOT to travel
  • Trust and support the innovators – connect subject matter experts with staff or service providers who can develop new formats together. This is more work than a one-way presentation, so don’t expect volunteer experts to do it on their own

Sounds tough, why should I bother?

Post-pandemic, in person events must prove they are worth the time and money (and CO²) to attend.

To do that they need to provide an experience, not just content.
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The business case is clear – why else would a one-month subscription to thousands of hours of content on Disney+ be €8.99 when a one-day pass to Disneyland Paris can cost more than €100?

Entertaining, interactive sessions where people learn, connect and collaborate are a networking booster which further multiplies the value in attending.
The live experience, combining carefully curated content with the energy of a gathering full of experts, peers and next generation talent can’t be replicated by today’s virtual event tech, nor by self-publishing.

The experiential element also gives associations clear ways to differentiate their content portfolio from passive consumption to active learning and experience – and clear reasons to charge the premium for the experience.

It undoubtedly takes more work than the traditional format of “give the expert a microphone for 45 mins” which (semi) satisfied conference goers for decades, however, the opportunities for associations to energise their communities are obvious.

But they better do it before someone else does.


Colm Clarke

Partner, Consultancy


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