Friday, February 17, 2006

Mistakes and missed opportunities: Conference speaking opportunities - 6 Tips for Vendor presenters

Save This Article for the Next Time You Give a Presentation

Unfortunately, I’ve seen countless mistakes and missed opportunities made by vendors who are given the privilege of presenting at a conference. I consider speaking opportunities to fall under the PR umbrella. I’m a strong believer in the value of PR (not advertising) for young businesses especially those selling to other businesses. PR is much more than issuing press releases despite what you observe. Some of the more effective PR tactics include blogging, speaker placement, bylined articles as well as traditional tactics of press releases, media tours, video/audio news releases, etc. The first mistake startups make is not focusing on getting speaking engagements. Just about every market niche has numerous speaking opportunities that can not only help raise awareness of a company but have ancillary benefits such as employee recruiting and creating a perception of industry leadership that will lead to future speaking opportunities, being quoted in the press, etc. Unfortunately, a good strategy poorly executed can have a negative impact. I recently attended the iMedia Brand Summit and saw both best and worst practices in action. Here are some of the best/worst practices I observed:

1. Avoid a sales pitch. One of my favorite book titles is Clues for the Clueless. I’m blown away how many clueless company execs make the mistake of turning their presentation into a pitch. Potential buyers can obviously hear a sales pitch anytime so they don’t take time away from their busy schedules to come to an event (and pay in many cases) to hear sales pitches. They are many, many ways to avoid the sales pitch by demonstrating an understanding of their challenges, the direction of a technology/market, etc. without having to get into pitching their own product. The byproduct is scorched earth for companies that do get it as they face resistance from conference organizers who’ve been burned. Most conference organizers are happy to provide feedback in advance of a conference. One thing I’ve observed is some companies think they aren’t pitching when they really are. One way this happens is the exec delegates the presentation/speech development to an underling who wants to make the exec happy by including glowing praise of their own company so the presentation is geared towards the exec rather than the audience. An exec should take ownership when they get the opportunity to present in front of dozens or even hundreds of people and ensure they aren’t just making a pitch.

2. Know your audience (duh). This includes knowing the knowledge level of the audience so you don’t patronize them or go over their head. When using examples or sharing stories, what is appropriate for one audience may offend another. If you are trying to sell yourself to a person/company, offending/insulting them isn’t the path to success. That said, humor is a great way of keeping the audience’s attention. For example, a conservative company like P&G exploring a new ad medium might find case studies with salacious images or raw language disconcerting. Unless that represents what the medium is all about, there are usually other examples that can show impact without causing them concern.

3. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. What obstacles will they have to carry your ideas back to their organizations? If you turn them into believers, make them effective advocates by giving them tools they can carry forward. Making it explicit is even better (e.g., 3 things to tell your CMO).

4. Make the conference organizer’s life easy. Pulling off a conference well is a major accomplishment. The organizers have a ton of details to keep track of. Constantly having to badger a speaker to meet deadlines is a pain. Voltaire has one of my favorite quotes – “Common sense isn’t all that common”. Why would a conference organizer want to invite someone back that has been a pain in the rear to deal with? There are a few people who are worth the grief but don’t flatter yourself to think you are one of them unless your name is Steve Jobs.

5. Make it easy to for the sneezers (influential people who spread “ideas” such as new products, services or theories - Seth Godin’s Unleashing the Ideavirus book goes into great depth on this) and Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen that Malcolm Gladwell discussed in The Tipping Point to share your insights/leadership to multiply the impact. Most conferences post presentations given at the conference. I’ve never understood why a company that will give a public presentation (typically blogged and videotaped these days) won’t share their presentation after the fact particularly when there are ways to write-protect files. If the company’s viability is threatened by a presentation that is shared, I’d question their ability to survive in general. That’s not much of a competitive barrier. A simple thing like listing your email address at the end asking for feedback and letting them know you will send them the presentation is effective.

6. Build up and Follow-through. A company can do a lot to raise the visibility of an execs presentation before and after the event. Too often, they think of it as a discrete event as opposed to something they can get great leverage out of. This includes highlighting the speech to customers and prospects in ongoing communications, timing the writing of bylined articles around the event, and being aggressive about gathering feedback on the presentation so that they can be better the next time around. It’s also nice to thank the conference organizers for the opportunity.

Naturally, there are other important things such as being coached on giving public presentations but the list above gives you a good start.

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