05-11-2015 6 Ways to Ruin Your Conference Sessions

Associations are in a difficult spot. Like all conference organizers, you want innovative speakers talking about big topics. For this reason, many associations go outside of traditional association thought leaders for their keynotes. When they do this, they run the risk of a large disconnect between the needs of membership organizations and what the business leader knows of them. It’s a fine line between opening a dialogue with a larger application and meeting your association members’ education needs and interests.

The other side of that is selecting internally from your association’s applicants. This is generally the same mix of members and vendors. How do you keep content fresh, applicable, and interesting for your conference sessions? It’s a real challenge but part of it starts with the speaker submission process.

Why the Speaker Submission Process Isn’t Working

Most associations receive submissions from the same group of people on the same submission form each year. Selection committees require no social proof, video clips of speakers presenting are optional, and there are political reasons speakers are chosen. While there will always be a certain number of conference sessions that are held for sponsorships, it’s important that the other slots require more in-depth vetting and removal of obstacles that keep fresh blood from the selection process.

Small Marketing Efforts Equate to Repeat Speakers.

Most associations place a call for speakers on their website. In addition some send out emails or mention it in their newsletter. Hopefully most use social media but it’s a relatively small marketing job in most cases. The reason for this is that it’s a small community that is qualified to present to an association. There’s no need to take out a billboard.

But is it a small group? Couldn’t someone with a broader topic appeal to interests at an association conference?

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking gave an amazing presentation as a keynote for ASAE in 2013. Her ideas had wide-spread appeal. While keynotes are often pulled outside of the rank and file of ordinary association speakers, there is no reason why sessions couldn’t be given by others as well as long as they understand the audience and their needs.

If you want innovative topics and new conversations, market outside of your usual call-to-speaker venues.

6 ways to ruin yourStale Questions Lead to Mediocre Applications.

If your speaker submission form looks like this (with space to write the answers of course), it’s time to rework it.

  1. What is the topic of your conference session?
  2. How will you engage the audience?
  3. Why are you suited to present this session?
  4. List your past speaking experience.

While these questions seem to get to the heart of what you’re interested in finding out, they do so in such a leading way it’s difficult to stand out.

The engagement question will undoubtedly be answered using some response like “breaking up into groups to discuss” or “live tweeting.” The third and the fourth question will ensure a Millennial doesn’t present for you until they are at least 35.

Boring Submission Forms Yield Boring Speaker Applicants.

There are also a good many people lacking in creativity. While you don’t want them leading sessions, necessarily, when you have a very formatted application, it stifles creativity. A more open application form with less regimented questions mean applicants must fill in the details themselves in a way that makes sense. This is the speaker application equivalent of a job interviewer starting with “tell me a little bit about yourself.”

Freedom of expression often yields amazing results.

Leave the application space blank and make your applicants step outside of their usual cut-and-paste submission. This approach will also lend itself to more creative formats than just speaker sessions, like more workshops. When someone asks you to check a box of what category or type your session fits, you make it fit the box. By employing a less standard, more inventive application, no one has to make anything fit.

Requiring Experience Doesn’t Guarantee a Great Session. It Guarantees the Session Has Been Done Before.

Outside of the keynote speakers, most associations provide discounts for speakers, rarely do they pay them a speaker fee. Because of that, when your association selects a speaker, it is rarely worth their time to create something entirely from scratch. Most of the time the session they’re pitching either involves a book they want to sell or material they’ve used before in some way. That’s the downfall of requiring experience.

On the other hand, what if your speaker has no experience, gets in front of the crowd and is as entertaining as watching the grass grow? Do you want to run the risk?

How to Turn the Application Process on Its Head

Speaking experience is a catch-22. You can’t speak without experience and you can’t get experience without speaking. In today’s “always-on” world we should be able to move past this. What you’re looking for is someone who knows how to engage an audience. Substitute social proof for speaking experience. Look for someone with a social media following who actively engages that following. Look at their YouTube channel.

Involve members and attendees by finding out what topics interest them. NTEN allows its members to vote on topics at their conference. That’s not to suggest conference committees shouldn’t have any say in the topic selection, but it’s time to share some of that responsibility. With members involved, they’ll not only feel a greater affinity for the topics selected but are able to inject some of what they are interested in, curious about, or have learned in their experience. It’s time we stop looking at traditional means to find speakers and involve more members in the search, nomination, and participation processes.

In Conclusion

There are a number of extraordinary speakers and association presentations but they exist independently from the call-for-speakers process, not because of it. The things committees looked for in the past need to be adjusted to meet today’s social expectations. Creating a more democratic process will get members involved and interested in the sessions long before they attend the conference. If members have input into selection topics and speakers, you’re more likely to see them at the conference.

Source: Event Manager, 04-11-2015