Why Conferences Begin with a Plenary Session

Young businesswoman opening a conference with a plenary session
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Many large corporate meetings and conferences kick off the event program with what's an opening session, sometimes called a plenary session or an opening general session. These sessions are most frequently associated with larger conferences, congresses, or conventions, but they can be used for smaller corporate events as well.

Opening sessions are always scheduled for a set period of time at the beginning of the program. They usually run from one to two hours. The presentations that are scheduled during these times can offer event organizers and hosts a unique opportunity to address their attendees.

What Constitutes an Opening Session?

Opening general sessions are characterized by a scheduled presentation or series of presentations by a variety of speakers. They're geared toward addressing the general audience.

Some event programs eventually offer concurrent breakout sessions in which attendees break into smaller groups for presentations and workshops. Others divide the audience almost immediately for sessions that are dedicated to certain roles, skill sets, or interests. But the plenary session serves as an opportunity to address all event attendees together.

The organizer's leader might choose to cover general agenda items and outline the objectives of the overall program. Opening sessions also usually include a keynote speaker and other presenters who help set the tone for the convention.

These presentations can be held in a variety of formats, but the sessions themselves by definition are open to all attendees.

Why Start With a Plenary Session?

The most effective opening general sessions are those that are organized for the benefit of the audience and the event attendees, not the event organizers. Event organizers can take the opportunity to address company or association business, event logistics, and agenda items, but a great plenary session should also entertain and motivate the audience.

Effective programs require audience engagement and interest. Event organizers must fight to get that interest back if they lose it from the beginning. Opening general sessions should start the program on a strong note.

Objectives and Purposes

Great opening sessions tend to address some combination of the following objectives:

  • Motivate, educate, and/or entertain and engage the audience.
  • Set the tone for the program.
  • Create a memorable experience.
  • Share important information.

The best opening general sessions deliver on all of these objectives. The plenary session for an annual conference might include a welcome message by the organization's president, followed by an address from the emcee who will serve as a moderator for the duration of the event.

The plenary session can end on a strong note with a guest keynote speaker who delivers a presentation about motivating the attendees to achieve certain goals.

When It's Done Right

A good opening general session will set the mood for the entire event. You'll maintain interest if you can keep your plenary session upbeat. You want to motivate attendees. Impart some information they didn't know before as a taste of things to come. Make a connection with them.

And, yes, it's fine to throw in a little entertainment, but you don't want the entertainment to be the whole show.