April 29, 2009

Communicating with farmers: Using effective displays & exhibits

By Clive Dalton & Geoffrey Moss

Getting a farmer's attention - what stops crowds nowadays? Models, challenges, puzzles, pictures and posters, demonstrations and displays. A 'must-read' guide to persuasion and effective communication when facing the rural business-person.

How is YOUR exhibit or display going to be noticed in this lot?

Displays and exhibits have always been a popular way to get information across to farmers. Rural folk like to ‘see’ things in preference to reading about them. Modern technology should make displays and exhibits more effective, but they will still fail unless some basic principles (discussed below) are followed. Failure can mean a massive waste of time and money, and frustrated providers and receivers of the information.

What’s the target?

How many of these people will come to your exhibit?
How many will just walk on by?

Get this clear before you start:
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the message?
  • Is a display or exhibit appropriate?
  • How much space have you got?
  • Where will your exhibit be?
  • Who is going to design it?
  • How much time have you got?
  • Who will staff and service it?
  • What is the budget?
The question about the budget should always come first, but it’s amazing the number of people who start planning and making displays with no idea of what it’s going to cost, and where the money is coming from. See "Further reading" for how to set out a detailed budget.

The type of audience needs a lot of thought. The most important issues are age and sex. If you want to change things on a farm, you need to think about who is going to cause that change and make decisions about your message back home on the farm. Who do you think will even dare raise the question for discussion.

Where your exhibit will be is often related to how much you paid for the site. Make sure you inspect the site before you start designing anything

One good example was messages on ‘producing clean milk’ which we in MAF aimed at male dairy farmers for 30 years, when we should have aimed it at the women on the farm who knew all about hygiene and who were zealots for cleanliness. We missed misjudged the target.

Another good example is the generation gap, where son thinks the new idea is great and will make millions, and Dad declares it won’t work and they cannot afford it in any case. Who do you have to convince?

At field days when farmers are expected to walk around a series of displays, and stand to listen to the messages at each point, somewhere they need to sit down, especially if the older generation will be in your audience. Seating need not be expensive and farmers are quite happy to sit on hay or straw bales.

What seems to happen is that when have paid a few hundred dollars per square metre for a stand, they see it as a waste to fill some of their exhibition with seats. It’s not a waste.

When legs and body get tired, the brain switches off, so remember this about your audience.

Space is an important issue as you may have to pay for it. At major events space is usually sold in 3m x3m units, and this can cost a few thousand dollars. So it must be used effectively. If people don’t stop at your stand, at these prices you really have wasted money.

 This display has included nice seats. Why are there no farmers?
Has their  investment been worthwhile?  How would they measure that?

Why a display or exhibit ?
Answer this question in your priority order. Don’t have any more than three answers.
  • Meet clients
  • Teach
  • Show and tell
  • Demonstrate a product
  • Motivate
  • Bring about change
  • Create awareness
  • Offer a service
  • Improve your image
  • Make a sale

Promoting an ‘Image’

An expensive corporate stand with glossy brochures.
Who is it really for? What's the farmers' take-home message? Why are there no farmers there? Why are the allstaff talking to each other and not  soliciting passers by?
This is a legitimate reason for and exhibit so some organisations can meet their clients. There are plenty of examples in farming like pest control and environmental organisations.

But how often do you see a massive display, covering mega square metres and lit up like an ocean liner where corporate organisations have spent tens of thousands of dollars. I can only conclude it was to make them feel good, as there was no ‘take home message’ for farmers, other than a fancy brochure that got binned around the corner. The enclosed corporate pen may survive.

The message - to be effective
When thinking about your message, think about human behaviour. A bit of animal behaviour can be useful thinking of humans as animals and not vice versa. Effective messages must be:
  • Simple
  • Interesting
  • Informative
  • Stimulating
  • Have a memorable ‘take home’ message
  • Topical
  • New
The outcome of all these are to:
  • Cause action
  • Make a sale

Time limits
Remember the 30-second rule. It’s supposed to takes about 30 seconds to create an impression, and about 90 seconds to capture an audience – so time is not on your side. TV advertising is cutting down concentration time to even shorter times, and there are complete cooking programmes now which only take 60 seconds.

How to STOP your audience

A good crowd stopper - 'show and tell'.
The exhibitor is enthusiastic about his product and it shows.

At events where people are free to move around, unlike a seated audience, the first job is to stop them walking past. So it’s possible for exhibitors to spend a fortune on their exhibit and few folk stop to see it. People like sheep are a flocking species. They will stop to see why others have stopped.

So think long and hard about what makes people stop, so they will come into your area. Use these singly or in combination:
  • Something new
  • Something with a 'wow' factor

My tractor is the bigger than yours!
  • Action – things that people can see, hear or smell.
  • Noise. This attracts people but in very noisy environments like large field days, your noise may have to be louder than your opposition to attract attention and may put people off.
  • A crowd creates action with someone talking on a loudspeaker as others may think they could be missing out on something. But a packed stall where no more can get in will put others off as they can’t see anything.
  • Giveaways’ create action – but do this carefully as some folk don’t like being ‘accosted’ to take something even if it’s free. The pretty girl trick is used to get males to take material and this can get sleazy and not for farming events.
 Balloons and toys are always popular.  Sadly this wee girl hasn't read the notice - the toys are for sale!
  • A quiz with prizes – heard over a loud speaker. Seeing others winning certainly attracts others, no matter how small the prizes are.
  • Humour – cartoons, with added action if the cartoonist is drawing new ones.
  • Smells and tastes – free food or drink samples are always a winner, as people think it will save them money buying food.
  • Flashing lights – these used to attract rural folk but it’s probably been overdone. Rural folk have had enough of this.
  • Personalities - Comedian/singer/sport’s personality. A well-known performer will draw a crowd but there will be a large fee involved. Make sure you know what they are going to say and do, as some famous sports personalities in the past have been a disaster, assuming that rural folk like filthy jokes. They don’t.
  • Animals. These always attract people.

Ideas for displays or exhibits
Here are a few principles to remember to stop people and get them into your area.

KIS principle – keep it simple

A sheep breeder's small area shared with others to reduce costs.

One big picture, few words, one chart, some sheep - a good simple message.

There’s nothing worse than when every available space is filled with clutter, so that if there ever was a message, - nobody is able to crack the code. Such exhibitors must be worried about what they have paid, and don’t want to waste a square inch of it.
Remember that ‘less is more’ and the brain likes space around things. Have one big clear message if possible and certainly never ever more than three.

A poor and un-manned display.

Why would anyone stop to read and leave their details?

Have new information
If you have nothing new, then most folk will walk past in their search for something they have not seen before. People don’t have time to waste on old news.

Types of display or exhibit

1. Contrast and compare
This is a good idea if the comparisons are real and meaningful and not a mass of small figures on spreadsheets in complicated coded jargon. Figures must be easy to see. In comparisons, make sure you don’t upset any commercial sensitivities which will end you in court.

2. Models

Scale model of woolshed used by salesman to show what the finished job would look like.
Much easier to visualise than a builder's plan.

These were popular in years gone by and worked well e.g. model woolsheds and farm dairies. Electronics can now be incorporated with models for greater impact. Models are expensive to make and have to be carefully handled. If they need to travel they need damage-proof boxes and clear instructions inside the lid for assembly, and return.

3. Challenges - puzzles and quizzes

A test of dexterity or skill will attract both young and old

These must be relevant to your message, and the risk of ridicule by giving the wrong answer is not high. Make the questions relevant to your topic that are not ambiguous and create discussion or debate. Have some easy and some hard questions. Have some pathetically easy and see how suspicious folk are, e.g. How many wires are there on a seven-wire fence?

You will need a quizmaster who should be a bit of a comedian to get people enjoying themselves. The problem always is that so many hands go up together that you have to pick somebody as you can rarely see who was first. Make sure you pick people from around the crowd, and some children who will answer for their parents.

4. Pictures
Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words, and if they are really good they’d be worth more. Today with digital technology there’s no excuse for poor pictures. Here are some points to consider.
  • Only the highest quality pictures will do.
  • Don’t use old pictures – take new ones.
  • Photos should be relevant to the display.
  • Use large shots (eg panoramas) for backdrops.
  • Avoid a mass of small prints covered in plastic.
  • Use a few large prints for impact.
  • Keep captions large and short.
  • Leave plenty of space around pictures.
  • If you use a ‘slide show’ make sure there is room for all to see and they don’t block the crowd flow. Make sure the technology works and you have backup.

5. Live exhibits
Live animals always create an interest but remember these points:
  • Display animals should be good specimens.
  • They should be quiet and be happy to be tightly confined or tethered.
  • They should be clean and well prepared.
  • Animals need feed, water, shade and shelter.
  • They need enough space to be comfortable.
  • At the end of the day in a small pen, they may need to be taken to a large rest area where they can exercise.
  • It’s a good idea to have two teams of stock so each only spends one day at the exhibit.
  • Make sure the animals cannot be teased by small children or can cause injury to the public.
  • Make sure you know how to contact a veterinarian at the exhibit.

6. The ‘peep show’.
This always arouses interest through curiosity, but inevitably it can cause congestion with people waiting to have a look, and probably losing patience and walking away if they have to wait long. So it’s important to have more than one viewing place.

This concept can be extended to the Aladdin’s cave or ‘chamber of horrors’ where people have to go into a dark entrance way with low lighting in the area to see the exhibit. Give this careful thought as it may scare children (or attract them) and it may be a great venue for pickpockets!

Humans are like sheep and are generally loathe to enter a stand if they cannot see a way out, so have a clear flow in your exhibit and go sparingly on the dull lighting.

7. Working demonstrations

These are always winners provided there is:
  • A good commentator.
  • A good sound system that does not fail.
  • An interesting message.
  • Plenty of action, e.g. more than one activity at the same time.

8. Poster displays
These are used at conferences or meetings where there is too much information to be given as spoken presentations, so some authors are offered wall space to present their findings or show their product. They are not easy to get right, and you see some very forgettable examples. Consider these points:
  • The venue. So often it’s the foyer which people race through going to other ‘important’ places, and it’s the place where morning and afternoon tea are served. After being locked up in the formal sessions and being desperate for a drink, there’s often little chance of anyone even talking to you.
  • I have seen many scientists jut print the paper they would have read, and stick it on the wall! Keep the words to a minimum and use the ‘newspaper principle’ of the inverted triangle – get you message in the first paragraph.
  • Use big attractive photos with well-written captions. Copy the ‘photo essay’ principle.
  • Have extra information as an attractive handout.
  • Make sure you are there when your clients are there.
9. The un-manned stand
This is to be avoided like the plague, as the chances of stopping people is very low. However, if circumstances dictate that this is your only option, your only hope is to use large pictures with massive impact, and very few words. You have got 30 seconds or less to make passers-by hesitate and maybe read one headline. The place to leave their contact for more information needs to be very clear.

10. Graffiti boards
When farming was in the doldrums in the 1980s at the MAF display at the National Fieldays we put up some massive blackboards for people to express their feelings. It was an amazing success, and there was a crowd there all the time reading and writing.

General points to remember
  • Have a good simple and clear message.
  • Don’t try to say too much.
  • Make it topical.
  • Use simple language.
  • Limit the number of words.
  • Proofread your words and double check your data.
  • Use upper and lower case – only use capitals for HEADINGS.
  • Don’t use fancy fonts.
  • Rectangular shapes are better than squares.
  • Round off figures to whole numbers or at most one decimal place– and use charts with colour.
  • Have neutral backgrounds and use bright colours for your message.
  • Put more extensive information in a brief handout.
  • Use people who are good communicators on the stand.
  • Get them to be proactive and make first contact with the people – but don’t be too pushy and aggressive. Farmers hate that.
  • Any questions they cannot answer – get contact details and make sure these are followed up immediately after the event.
  • Staff should be dressed appropriately for the event. Farmers are now very suspicious of people in suits, wearing black slip-on shoes and a mobile phone permanently stuck in their hand!
  • Staff on a stand should be talking to customers and not to each other.

What kills an exhibit?
  • No message
  • Grotty presentation
  • Clutter
  • A person sitting on a chair on their mobile phone.
  • Staff on the stand in huddles talking to eachother.
The farmer in red is waiting till the staff have finished their conversation to get some help!
Note staff in the background doing the same.

Mobile phones

Sadly these are now part of our lives and it isn’t going to change. There is nothing which sends out a more negative message than when you pass an exhibit, and there’s a person (usually a man) sitting on a chair or standing on his mobile- talking loudly or texting. No wonder his has no customers as the body language is saying ‘please don’t disturb me as I’m too busy to talk to you’.

If you need a phone on your exhibit, then make sure users goes behind a screen to use it out of sight of the public. They don’t need shout so the whole place can hear.

The human body
Tiredness is such an important issue to be aware of at large events with few places to rest. It can affect your message as the state of peoples’ concentration level (mental energy and blood sugar) when they get to your exhibit can make a big difference about what they take home.

Farmers are early risers so you will get their full concentration from 7am until morning tea when energy drops a bit. After that they go well till lunch (noon till 1pm) then will last them until mid afternoon. After this they get itchy feet and want to get home. In any case, accompanying family will have had a enough and will be tired, often to the point of exhaustion.

This is a high-risk time for your handouts as they can so easily be deemed as junk mail and go into the bin on the way out. Keep whatever you write brief.

'At the end of the day'
Have an honest review to ask:
  • Did you achieve your objectives?
  • Was your money well spent?
  • How do you know?
  • You had better find out
  • Will you repeat the exercise?

Further reading
Read Chapter 6 "Persuasive Displays' in 'Persuasive Ways' by G Moss, available on website www.mossassociates.co.nz

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