Monday, April 21, 2008
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the attendee comments about the panelists at a large search conference with many speakers and moderators...? I think you can probably guess that comments aren't always glowing. Paying audiences can be scathing in their feedback these days. Sarah Lacy's botched interview of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman is only one example of the "tell 'em what you think" trend.
As a frequent speaker, I know how tough it is. I definitely don't always score top marks but I make up for it in volume :). Some folks - the ones who get the best marks - are actually something like professional speakers. They make their living from wowing audiences. The rest of us do it part-time.
I've read some reviews of "how to speak" recently that seem to place a really high bar on speakers who clearly mean well. I think some of those approaches are unrealistic.
But from reviewing past conference attendee comments, I'm struck by how easy it should be to avoid the biggest mistakes. If you give attendees a particularly bad experience, you're just shooting yourself in the foot.
So here's a list of five common don'ts drawn directly from attendee comments. To put it another way, you will guarantee yourself poor feedback if you:
1. Trot out the sales pitch. Everyone wants to know you've done something valuable for the world, but above all, they are there to learn something useful for their own business. All you need to do is to balance out your cursory amount of salesiness by adding insight and value to the session - get the weighting right and folks will love what you have to say.
Get it wrong, and they'll not only hate your guts, they may even walk out of the session. Not only don't people pay $1,000 to be pitched on your company's services, oftentimes the sales pitch is laughably general and aimed at a different kind of buyer or even a mass audience. I won't name names, but companies across the board constantly risk making this mistake. Resist the temptation to fold in three extra "about us slides" when you were allowed one.
As I said, every company - Google included - falls for this temptation. Amazingly, Google often gets an easy ride when it does this. But then, they're Google. You're not. :)
2. Disrespect others. People in the audience are pretty sensitive to when a speaker is monopolizing someone else's time, or engaging in a petty war of words with another speaker rather than (for example) giving the audience enough time for direct engagement in Q&A. The "celebrity catfight" theory sounds good on paper, but again, this is a business conference, not Jerry Springer. Conference programmers can save the fun catfight events for optional after-hours slots. Then you can take it as far as sumo wrestling.
3. Don't show up. Attendees are merciless in their comments about speakers who cancel. Listen, it's a given that a certain percentage of speakers will be ill, or have had a death in the family. There are many reasons to cancel an appearance. It's just that attendees seem not to see it that way. So let's compromise on this one. Don't bail without telling anyone. Also, definitely don't call the conference organizers and mention that you'd love to be there, but your Big Important Company has a "key meeting" that you just can't miss. Especially don't do this if you had a standalone 45-minute session, forcing the conference organizer himself to fill the slot with his own backup material. This happened at a marketing conference I attended in New York last year. The thing is, other speakers also had meetings, and some took 2-3 days off to travel to the event. What happens is that conference organizer quietly tells about 46 people what happened over cocktails, and people hear about it.
4. Openly admit that you aren't prepared. Imagine yourself sitting in the audience and hearing that.
5. Save your best material for the bar. I have informally cross-referenced negative comments about speakers coming in flat, or not living up to their billing, with the number of hours slept and number of drinks consumed the night before. No one is expecting anyone not to attend the parties, but it is all relative. A good rule of thumb is that anything more than four hours sleep, and less than nine drinks consumed, gives you a better chance of actually resembling yourself the next day. Exceptions to the rule may include Superman, Dave Naylor, and Frank Watson.
The audience has spoken! Good luck at your next gig, and remember, Abraham Lincoln probably got low ratings his first couple of times out too. And the silent majority may be internally thanking you more than they let on.
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