Take Pity on Your Delegates – Spend as Much Time on the Actual Presentations as the Presenters

No event organiser actively sets out to bore their delegates to tears. Indeed, every event organiser I know works incredibly hard to research the right topics and speakers for their event. Delegates paying hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars to attend an event aren’t really looking for an opportunity to catch up on their sleep or emails. And yet…

No event organiser actively sets out to bore their delegates to tears. Indeed, every event organiser I know works incredibly hard to research the right topics and speakers for their event, ones that will engage and inspire their audience. For a while, it even became trendy for the big media beasts to rename their CMOs as “Chief Customer Experience Officers” (which is fodder for a whole other rant). Delegates paying hundreds of dollars (often thousands) to attend an event aren’t really looking for an opportunity to catch up on their sleep or emails. And yet…

So often the temptation to check emails or Twitter does seem to get the better of them; heads do nod. I have even seen drool. That is not a good look, for the delegate or the event.

Since the 80s, producers have churned out events with the standard mix of keynote, panel, workshop, out-of-the-box speaker and a fireside chat, which too often fails to challenge the speaker or hook the delegates.  Frankly, it is more than a little lazy. We have to introduce formats that excite and engage our audiences.

It is really quite straightforward. We just need to do three things:
1. Put as much production effort into the presentation type mix as the speaker line-up
2. Match the speakers to the right format (there are some industry legends who are wonderful in an unplugged environment and shockingly dull giving a keynote)
3. Prepare the presentation content and the speakers before the event (not as they go on stage).

Some of it is as simple as signposting to the speaker and the audience that the content will be at another level. Don’t have yet another Keynote, have a State of the Nation Address or a Last Lecture on Earth.

By all means have one fireside chat; then add An Audience With or My Next Guest Needs No Introduction where the producer does more of the heavy lifting adding in photographs, videos and guest appearances, surprising and delighting the speaker as well as the delegates.

TV and radio provide lots of fabulous inspiration. Don’t have yet another panel, have Question Time, or Consultant Challenge, or Just a Minute, or Have I Got [Sector] News for You. All of these require that producers or editors or eager interns prepare content.

When the conference industry really took off, it was all about finding subject matter experts to speak. Nobody worried too much about whether they were good at presenting as long as they knew their stuff. Slightly shambolic scrawled slides shown on the overhead projector were just fine. Somehow that amateur hour or, if we are being kinder, laissez faire, approach to the presentations themselves has lasted.

Producers leave the responsibility for the actual content and format of the presentation to the speakers; who think you are lucky that they turn up and give their stock presentation, or one that they prepared in the back of the cab, you are glad that they do. There are half hearted attempts to get the presentations sent in ahead of time and to do tech run throughs but only in the most egregious examples of sales pitches do producers push back.

It has become the norm for a speaker to hand their slides over to the AV team on site, yet a speaker who hasn’t finished them days in advance is likely to be overly reliant on reading them, and the delegates will read ahead and revert to their emails or on-line shopping. I know of someone at a recent association event who bought a whole new wedding guest outfit during a particularly uninspiring session.

The only concession to high quality presentations has been to add an Out of the Box speaker whose polished presentation can be relied on to create pre break buzz.

Yet there is no reason why every presentation shouldn’t be insightful and inspiring. TED talks have after all spawned a whole industry by being rigorous about the exact type and delivery of presentation.

By asking speakers to present on a certain topic using a certainly methodology, we can dramatically improve the quality of the presentations.

Don’t ask your best-in-class practitioners to send you their slides, ask them to send you their Takahashi, Lessig or Kawaski slides. To make it more likely that they will adhere to the relevant methodology rules, template the slides and send them to your speakers ahead of time.

Understanding the audience make up and customising speeches to their needs is critical. Briefing speakers and setting expectations should not be an afterthought or a nice to have.

I have seen a renowned financial journalist, paid to speak, use slides that had a 10 year old copyright on them. He was brilliant and erudite and all round stunning in the Q&A; but his keynote was such a staggering mess, as he explained in a rather curmudgeonly fashion, what the rest of the graph now looked like or how the company lauded on the slide no longer existed, that it was genuinely painful to watch. At the other end of the spectrum, a Managing Partner from a large consulting firm at someone else’s corporate event spent a full hour learning about the language of the company, the strategy and the current challenges and wove them all so seamlessly into his presentation that it received a standing ovation.

It is easy to tell the difference between a panel that has met for the first time on stage or where the chair has read their bios as she is walking onto the stage, and the one that had a full meet and brief before the session so the Chair knows where the interesting points of tension and debate are. Preparation pays off.

Most conferences haven’t changed their core presentation types since the 80s. I think it is about time we were a little kinder to our audiences don’t you? Maybe you could commit to having a minimum of 6 different formats a day? There are 50 session ideas attached which are not your traditional keynote or panel. That gives you and your faculty plenty of options. I urge you to give it a go. Your NPS results will thank you.

So You Want to Speak at a Conference?

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone had asked me which events their boss or client should speak at. The beginning of the year is peak absurd question season. As every comms agency is dusting off their client’s thought leadership strategy prior to their new year kick-off meeting, some poor minion is dispatched to pull together a list of conferences at which the CEO or her successor should be speaking. And yet so few have bothered to ask the fundamental question of what is he or she tying to achieve.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone had asked me which events their boss or client should speak at. The beginning of the year is peak absurd question season. As every comms agency is dusting off their client’s thought leadership strategy prior to their new year kick-off meeting, some poor minion is dispatched to pull together a list of conferences at which the CEO or her successor should be speaking.

The answer is classic It Depends.

It depends on your marketing and communications strategy. Are you looking to raise the profile of your leadership? If so, with whom? Are you launching a new corporate narrative? If so, why? Are you trying to make your overall brand better known? If so, for what? Are you looking to develop new business or cement your relationship with existing customers? Depending on the answer, one event will be better than another.

There is no point speaking at the largest Internet of Things event in the world (unless you are being paid a lot of money to do so) if the audience you are trying to impress are bee keepers.

The events sector is a $1 trillion + global industry with more than 10 premier B2B events held daily. There is plenty of choice.

Events change ownership though, lose or gain traction and punch above or below their true weight. Carefully auditing an event’s current status is vital before raising your hand and saying you’d like to be on the stage.

You really want to be sure that their brand values mesh with yours. Who else will be speaking there? Are you happy to share even the green room, let alone the platform, with e.g. Nigel Farage or other controversial keynotes? Who is chairing the event? Is his or her tacit endorsement of your brilliance a good thing? Who will be in the audience? Most critically, when and where will you be speaking? Are you on the main stage or tucked away in a breakout session in the dead zone after lunch while your biggest competitor has their own standing room only unplugged session in the auditorium?

Finding the perfect event is only half the battle of course.  It is sometimes hard to hear, or tell your client, but the organiser might not be as convinced as you are, that giving you a keynote or putting you on a panel, is the way forward. Particularly if you have something to sell.

Event producers are looking for two things: speakers who will attract others (whether it is delegates, sponsors, media coverage or other speakers) or who will dazzle on the day (creating happy delegates who will therefore return next year and recommend the event to other people, and lots of media coverage) – ideally both.

The perfect event faculty is made up of legends (political, financial, business, social), thought leaders, best in class practitioners, inspirers and disrupters (the innovators, commentators and technologists). Positioning where you fit within that mix will ensure that when you raise your hand to speak, the event organiser bites your arm off.

The deck attached takes you through step by step how to choose the right platform, how to be invited to keynote at the world’s leading events and how to make the most of it when you do.

Happy speaking.

Awards 101

Awards are very easy to do badly, leaving sponsors disappointed and attendees exhausted. Done well, they inspire a whole industry and produce margin boosting profits. It is all about careful planning and disciplined execution.

Everything you need to know to run a successful awards ceremony

Awards are very easy to do badly, leaving sponsors disappointed and attendees exhausted. Done well, they inspire a whole industry and produce margin boosting profits. It is all about careful planning and disciplined execution.

Anatomy of an awards ceremony

  • Awards categories – minimum of 12 to make money, maximum of 21 to avoid people poking their own eyes out with dessert forks (if you have really done an incredible job selling categories and go over 21, present an opening 3 – 6 awards with the starter, then have dinner and do the rest with dessert and coffee; or, for the truly award-tastic typically magazine-legacy businesses who sell 50+ make it a winners only event)
  • Judges – the great and good of the industry with whom sponsors will want to network, from whom nominees will want jobs, to whom the industry listens, follows and retweets
  • Ceremony – somewhere cool or fabulous, in the heart of the market or a destination; pre-dinner drinks (sponsored), VIP drinks (sponsored), entertainment (Britain’s Got Talent style); MC (comedian, personality or industry veteran who gives a short set / speech and then either reads the nominations or welcomes the presenter to the stage); three course dinner; after awards band / casino / secret after party location (sponsored)
  • Photography and videos – photographer takes step and repeat photos of guests arriving, winner pictures, videographer records short interviews with every winner and sponsor
  • Sponsors – headline sponsor, one sponsor per award category, reception and entertainment sponsors. If you sell naming rights make it a minimum of a three-year deal

The economics

  • Your entry fees should be used as a means to drive early entries by judicious use of early bird and discount offers
  • Table sales should cover the cost of the event
  • Your SpEx sales are your profits. Expect to be able to sell 75% of your awards categories. Use judges and media partners to present unsold categories.

Who does what?

  • The show director sets the prices
  • The producer:
    • chooses and runs the judging panel(s)
    • writes the description and criteria for each award for the website and brochure
    • proposes the shortlist to the team
    • manages the judging process of the shortlist
    • writes the awards script for the night (including phonetic pronunciation as needed)
    • writes the copy for the awards guide and winners magazine
    • briefs the MC on the industry, attendees and winners
  • Sales and product agree the awards categories [criteria: commercially viable AND editorially sound] and judging criteria
  • Technology shortlists the awards entry and voting system e.g. Cvent, Capterra, Awardsforce, for executive sign-off; is there on the night with laptop and printers for last minute support
  • Marketing:
    • develops the brand including the trophy design and web cards for announcements and congratulations
    • builds the website (entries, judging and results)
    • drives awards entries including producing the awards brochure, with the complete categories guide, entry process and judges
    • produces the sponsorship prospectus
    • liaises with sponsors to amplify awards and presence
    • manages judges involvement marketing program
    • writes and sends out the short list press release
    • creates social media buzz (pre, at and post awards)
    • sends out the shortlist and attendee emails (being sure to include an add to calendar button)
    • manages table sales
    • manages the app downloads and usage (need 75% downloaded before evening for full engagement on the night)
    • briefs the design company to create the step and repeat board, the on-site signage, stage set and award PPT template
    • works with the AV company to produce the opening sting and all “on to the stage” music
    • produces “finalist” and “winner” print assets and media badges
    • manages the photographers, interviewers and videographers on the night
    • writes and distributes the winners press release and review of the night
    • edits and posts the ceremony gallery
    • edits and posts the winners videos
  • Delegate Sales sell tables to short listed companies, whole tables and half tables only, no single seats
  • Sponsorship Sales sell all non-table sales inventory ie headline sponsorship, awards categories, reception and entertainment, app inventory, awards catalogue/guide ads and winners magazine; and manages sponsors
  • Ops:
    • Books the venue, the F&B, the entertainment and the MC
    • produces the trophies
    • builds the app
    • collect judges’ photos and bios, and sponsor logos and descriptions
    • hosts judges judging day(s) / virtual if necessary
    • creates and manages the onsite running order
    • ensures that AV company has the position of all winners tables marked in the running order so can turn camera and spotlight on them
    • develops and distributes the table plans
    • prints and sets-up signage, step and repeat board, triangles with app and wifi details, table plans, menus, awards catalogue and winners magazine and any paid for inventory such as logos on napkins and business cards in glasses
    • manages the budget, F&B, venue, the entertainment, the ticketing and the AV
    • works with marketing on the table design and decor
    • produces the nominee and winner slides to the template
    • ensures that everything runs smoothly on the night
    • sends post show thank you notes to sponsors with print ready picture of presenting the award and video link; sends winners their photos, videos and print ready / digital “winner of” assets

The timings

  • – 11 months book venue
  • – 8 months strategy and planning meeting
  • – 7 months start recruiting judging panel
  • – 7 months save the date as soon as have half a dozen impressive judges
  • – 7 months start selling sponsorship
  • – 6 months announce awards and open nominations
  • – 4 months agree shortlist of nominations for lifetime achievement award
  • – 3 months announce categories shortlist and start selling tables
  • – 6 weeks meet with judges live / virtually
  • – 6 weeks invite family of lifetime achievement award winner as surprise guests
  • – 1 week finalise stage set
  • – 2 weeks send app download instructions
  • – 1 week finalise sting
  • – 1 week brief MC
  • Live tweeting
  • Midnight winners live on website
  • +12 hours social media winner posts and responses (being sure to tag individuals)
  • +24 hours headline and reception sponsor re-books
  • +1 week winner / sponsor thank you’s, photos and videos
  • +1 week attendee emails and photo gallery link
  • +1 month follow up interview with lifetime achievement winner

The venue

  • Entrance branding
  • Reception / drinks room
  • VIP drinks room
  • Large seating plans on either side of each door way into main room as well as by the cloakroom and the entrance to the drinks room (alphabetise)
  • Stage set (steps on either side for the presenter to come on one way and off the other; steps in the middle for winners to run up; two podiums, one for the host and one for the presenter; three strong branded photograph points: behind the MC, behind the presenter and centre stage for winners
  • Venue décor (check carpets, wall paper and height of ceiling)
  • AV – opening sting, PPTs nominees and winners, VoG (for shortlist OR welcome to the stage name of presenter whichever has more room for name errors OR for additional details about why the winner won as they walk to the stage if a large venue), camera feed/relays, roaming camera to follow winners from floor to stage
  • Tables – check before booking whether they have tablecloths to match brand colours, venue centrepieces so you can skip the floral budget and use their candelabras, check chairs and see whether you will need to cover them or you can save money by avoiding covers and ties. If you have flowers on the table make sure they are high enough or low enough for people to be able to converse across the table


  • It is vital to be transparent about the judging criteria
  • Ensure that the judges feel absolutely bought into and responsible for the results; they should be accountable to the industry
  • The Lifetime Achievement Award tends to excite the most criticism. Be sure that you have the buy-in of the industry influencers. Look at your selections over the years and be conscious of the optics

Staff on the night (your own)

  • Front of house greeters (who can then double up in roles below)
  • Person to check off VIPs have been photographed in front of step and repeat board (who can then double up as trophy presenter)
  • Person to collect the presenters (two awards before the one they are presenting, be sure they have a table plan with presenters highlighted)
  • Person to greet presenter, hand them the envelope, check that they know how to pronounce the winner’s name, remind them to walk off the stage using the steps on the other side, go with winner to press room
  • Person to hand out trophy on stage to the presenter once they have read the name of the winner
  • Person to collect winner and presenter off the stage and take them to the press room
  • Person to manage videographer
  • Person to live tweet (have winner cards pre-prepared and ready to post)
  • Two table hosts per judges table
  • Sales staff to manage sponsors
  • Admin staff to manage F&B, AV and logistics
  • CEO / Board of your own business to add star dust

Staff on the night (vendors/partners)

  • AV staff
  • VoG (normally from AV company but check quality)
  • MC
  • Photographer
  • Videographer
  • Interviewer (of winners being videoed)
  • Entertainment

To ensure a seamless night – top tips

  • Staff run through the day before with all timings and reminder of appropriate attire
  • Send attendees a calendar invite with the location
  • Update the invite with a link to the table seating plan an hour before the event
  • Add the table seating plan to the event app
  • Make it easy to tweet from the app
  • Have the event hashtag clearly marked on the stage set
  • Brief the MC fully on the make-up of the audience. Send the table plan ahead so that s/he can research individual companies. Insist on a bespoke / tailored turn, not a standard routine
  • Have walkie talkies / ensure all staff are on a what’s app group
  • Check sting and slides on-site at least 3 hours before ceremony begins
  • Have MC there an hour before the event to do an AV run through
  • Offer sponsors an AV run through
  • Use an autocue or if budget is really tight have multiple copies of double spaced, colour coded, large font scripts
  • Include phonetic spelling of any difficult company names; in particular check with sales team that you have the correct pronunciation of any sponsor
  • Have FoH staff alert sales when sponsor(s) arrives
  • Have FoH staff alert producer when judge(s) arrives
  • Have FoH staff alert CEO / board member when industry VIP(s) / outstanding achievement winner arrives
  • Start moving guests from drinks reception to dinner 20 minutes BEFORE you need everyone seated
  • Plate starter and have it waiting on tables
  • Encourage awards sponsors to pre-purchase a bottle of Champagne for the winning table and have it delivered as they return to their table
  • VoG while dessert is being served, 10 minutes BEFORE main award ceremony will start
  • Ensure wait staff know when they need to have served ALL desserts for the awards to start
  • Have response plan for any complaints
  • Have after dinner party sponsor thank host and invite everyone to the next stage of the evening