Seen and heard?

Boring exhibition stands and keynote speeches that turn out to be sales spiels can put prospective customers off. Companies need to know what to say, and, importantly, when to say nothing.

We have all been there: the conference presentation we had hoped would give us some informed insight on the world market for sprockets, and instead ended up as a (not particularly effective) sales presentation for Sprocket Incorporated. While the objective of presenting one’s company in the best possible light may be a laudable one, an overzealous message can backfire. This applies in both conference and exhibition settings.

Most people would probably agree that the starting point in putting together any sort of presentation has to be the end point: what do you hope to achieve? This will determine what kind of presentation or exhibit you create – or even whether you take part in an event at all.

A key element in any decision of this sort is inevitably the degree of control that an individual or company has over a given event. An internal sales conference will present quite different opportunities to an external conference organised by a third party. Similarly, the competitive environment of an industry show may not be the right setting for the particular message that a company wants to communicate.

Forewarned is forearmed

Along with lack of control over a given event can come lack of knowledge about the event. Knowing as much as possible about your audience is of vital importance in any decision on involvement and in shaping an eventual presentation. Research into the size and nature of your audience should also influence the tone and content of your presentation, and the degree to which your company and its products need to be “sold”.

In the setting of an industry conference hosted by a third party, having the company name and logo on literature and visuals, together with a brief introduction, may well be all the promotion that is required. Cristina Stuart, managing director of training company Speak First, believes that a lengthy description of work done for different clients is quite unnecessary in the majority of presentations. She advises: “Mention three genuine clients of a reasonable size. That positions you – there’s no need for a list.”

In many situations, says Stuart, more can be gained by appearing authoritative and well-informed than by uncritically listing your company’s achievements: “It’s quite easy to sell in a low-key way simply by demonstrating knowledge.”

She adds that, when a presentation consists of little more than self-congratulation, the audience may be left wondering why this business needs to sell itself so hard.

Simon Hambley, managing director of live events agency Acclaim, believes that a company-organised event which takes a more wide-ranging approach to its subject matter will attract a better class of delegate. He says: “As a company and an individual, you gain kudos from talking about wider aspects of the industry.”

Even for internal conferences, says Acclaim, attitudes have changed in the past few years about what sort of content and tone is most effective. Hambley says: “Sales events used to consist of directors boring the pants off their audience, talking down to people, and then getting drunk in the evening. Now, companies often invite an external consultant, a business partner or a customer to present, maybe on a negative area. They will motivate the audience by prompting constructive feedback to more accurate information.”

A similar approach could be applied to broad-based exhibitions, according to IT events research company PEAK Report. Statistics from a report last year showed that 76 per cent of those who declined to visit IT exhibitions would be more likely to attend if vendors began treating events as opportunities to inform rather than sales forums.

Hard sell, or easy does it?

In the IT market, says PEAK managing director Peter Heath, only about a fifth of potential visitors actually attend trade shows, despite the plethora of events available. The idea of not trying to create direct sales leads on an exhibition stand, and being content merely to provide a low-pressure information service is, for most businesses, unthinkable. But for a company or exhibition organiser that knows how to make this into a workable reality, according to Heath, the opportunity is there.

Heath says: “Potential visitors say they want to speak to independent technical people, and want information rather than just marketing spin. The closer you get to that,

the more satisfying the exhibition will be for visitors. Only then does the challenge become one of converting satisfaction into sales.”

In an exhibition as much as in a conference, Stuart says, the way that individuals present themselves can make a huge difference. She advises: “Don’t just talk – listen. You need to ask questions which will help you find out what the real issues are in the eyes of each visitor. Find out what has motivated them to come to that exhibition.”

The show doesn’t have to go on

The criteria for presenting or exhibiting at an event, according to PEAK Report, should boil down to realism and honesty about objectives. Heath’s research reveals a discrepancy between the proportion of those in marketing departments who use an “increased sales” argument to justify exhibition participation internally, and those who genuinely believe that the shows will generate increased sales.

It may well be, PEAK report cautions, that to meet the objectives of the company’s marketing and business plan, direct marketing, PR, advertising or product launches may prove to be money better spent.

Corral your customers

For a particular target market, there may be more effective options than a competitive exhibition, especially when that market is relatively small and well-defined. Where an event is organised by the company itself, greater control over the make-up of the audience and the environment allows for a more subtle approach.

Even in a competitive exhibition, companies can make a difference by identifying their target market beforehand, ensuring they visit the stand, and then creating a controlled environment of their own. For instance, at one event, Hewlett Packard put a walkway on to its stand, paved with video screens that lit up in sequence, drawing visitors in.

Traditional exhibition settings are being treated increasingly critically, with greater attention being paid to what goes on outside the stand. Hambley says: “Exhibitors are creating hospitality events, inviting key customers to a dinner and paying for accommodation. Product seminars may give a more focused message and can cover a lot of ground. Many clients are scaling back the size of their stand and spending more on seminars and hospitality.”

Acclaim has experience of working with clients in setting up industry conferences which, although sponsored by a company, are presented as events with an independent identity. Hambley says: “The client can play the role of chief sponsor, with its own branding and probably a keynote speech. If they can present it as an event with genuine value in the industry then they can probably charge for it, too.” Now that really is something that will impress the managing director.

Stage and screen

Deciding whether a given conference format is for you, and positioning yourself by careful choice of tone and content, are only the beginning. Thorough planning of the way the presentation is handled may make the difference between impressing and depressing your audience.

The Nineties love affair with Microsoft Powerpoint appears to have cooled. Speak First managing director Cristina Stuart says she has seen instructions to speakers at particular conferences where this type of visual aid was actually banned. She says: “That’s a bit extreme, but there has been a real movement away from Powerpoint. My advice is to limit the number of slides used strictly.” Otherwise the visuals, rather than the speaker, can become the focus, undermining any rapport between presenter and audience.

Stuart reminds trainees that there is a “blank screen” option with PC-based presentation packages. Used properly, she believes, it can be very effective. She says: “It is good for those moments when you are trying to motivate people or win them over. Or for when you are spelling out, ‘If there’s one thing I want you to remember…’.”

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