A core marketing objective for many B-2-B SaaS companies is to raise their profile by presenting at industry conferences. In theory, it seems like a surefire way to get your message to the right sets of ears. What could be better than presenting a session to a room full of prospective customers on a topic that is in your wheelhouse and gives you a chance to shine a light on your company’s value proposition? Unless…
The truth is that this can go wrong in so many ways. In fact, we’ve all probably been on the receiving end of some brutal presentations. But why the disconnect? What is it about industry conference “vendor” presentations that makes so many of them boring, ineffective, uninspired, or the perfect opportunity for attendees to check email? Having been to a lot of conferences over the past two decades, I’ve concluded that there are countless ways to mess this up…but that mistakes tend to fall into only a small handful of buckets. The following post lays out (in no particular order) seven “deadly sins” committed by us presenters — and how to avoid falling prey to their temptation!
1. Not Knowing (or Caring) Enough About the Audience
Anyone who’s ever received any training in presentation skills has probably heard this advice — know your audience. Although we all nod our heads in agreement, we generally don’t follow this wise guidance. Rather, presenters often proceed with materials largely unchanged from prior talks, other than maybe a few altered jokes. In a busy world filled with competing priorities, that’s the easiest approach…and it usually bombs. Here’s why:
Knowing your audience means caring enough to learn what they want from you.
This requires taking the time to step inside the shoes of audience members, NO MATTER THE TOPIC. For example, let’s say your topic is [X], and you want to emphasize the importance of [X] as a strategy to boost company performance. Now, imagine how a talk on this subject would be perceived differently if you are speaking to a room full of system administrators versus a room full of CEOs (or developers or marketers). Each is totally different. While CEO’s (hopefully) will appreciate what you have to say about [X] and performance, the audience of system administrators will likely have a very different experience. If you don’t thoughtfully alter your approach, at least one of those two audiences will likely have a sub-optimal reaction. They won’t find your clever jokes about [X] to be all that funny; and they might spend the session thinking about the many ways they understand or view [X] differently than how you describe. They may politely pay attention for most of your talk; but they are equally likely to leave scathing reviews on the speaker evaluation forms for the session.
You could have the audience members sitting on the edge of their seats — if you understand why they are sitting there in the first place.
Now imagine that rather than just repackaging the same tired routine, you stopped to think how you might approach the same topic differently from the perspective of the audience. You might have created a presentation on “how to be an effective executive leader in connection to [X],” or rather a session on “how to encourage effective use of [X] from those who may not even yet have heard of [X].” You could have provided a brilliant step-by-step guide for a target audience on how to use [X] to advance your career and build your network. You could have had them sitting on the edge of their seats.
As an example, there was an amazing Evangelist at one of my previous companies who would take the same general topic and completely transform the thrust of her presentations for senior executives (outcomes and impact), executive administrators (process improvements / time savings / efficiency gains), technologists (innovation and macro-trends), and CFO’s (risk, compliance, security).
Understanding your audience means you’ve made the effort to really understand what motivated that particular group of people to come to that session. That effort enables you to predict what will make the session as valuable as possible for that group, on that day, in that venue — and to adapt your presentation and your speaking style to deliver it to them.
2. Trying to disguise a blatant sales pitch with a clever title
First, I totally get it: public speaking at conferences can be expensive, time-consuming, and uncomfortable (public speaking is scarier than death to many); so you want to get something out of it. At some level, it is a means to an end — selling your SaaS product to the audience. And you may even believe so strongly in your solution, that the audience — once they learn about how awesome your product is — will forgive a few minor commercial plugs within what was supposed to be an educational speech. And because it’s just so good, you find yourself giving a quick sales pitch, product demo, or feature-focused walk-through of what your company offers. Sadly, believing something doesn’t make it so. Rather, nobody — zero people — will have more respect for your presentation, your company or your products if you do the old “bait and switch” routine.
If the title of your presentation promises a learning opportunity — then teach to the subject matter. If you’re truly knowledgeable in a specific area, and your presentation provides compelling evidence that would lead any sane person to the obvious conclusion that a productized version of your knowledge may be the solution to their problems, then you’ve done a great job. If, however, you feel compelled to blatantly tell the audience all about your solution, while the title of your session promises something different, you will have lost them in the first 30 seconds of speaking.
3. Creating a Slide Deck That’s Better Read than Said
We have all sat through presentations where the speaker simply read aloud what was already plainly written on the accompanying slide deck. And we’ve all had the same thought — “this is a complete waste of my time.” But there is a more insidious version of the deadly sin of reading your slides aloud — presenting an exhaustive, text-laden slide deck. While I readily acknowledge that there are places in the world for dense “briefing decks,” industry conferences are NOT among them. Rather, entrepreneurs / operators requested to present at industry conferences have a forum to educate, entertain, and engage the audience. The presenter’s goal should NOT be to present everything he/she knows about a particular topic, but rather to leave them wanting more.
To that end, your slide deck should seek to provide quick, impactful visual cues that give you a chance to tell an interesting story. If you’re like me and you tend to forget specific data points at times, it’s completely acceptable to write these data points in the presenter’s notes section. But the slide that the audience sees should only provide enough information to engage the audience. The best presentations I’ve ever attended actually had shockingly few words on slides. Rather, they were filled with provocative images that cued the presenter to tell an interesting story. Some really talented presenters (like Simon Sinek) rarely uses slides at all, opting instead to use a blank piece of paper and a marker to draw a concept real-time. Such presentations are memorable, easily repeatable, and compelling — precisely because they don’t use text-laden slides as crutches to do presenters’ work for them. Tip: many presenters spend 90% of their prep time creating slides, and 10% practicing what they’ll say. Flip those ratios; and see how it goes.
4. Attempting to Tell the Audience Everything You Know about a Subject
I’m clearly not the first to suggest that presenting fewer pieces of information through a handful of compelling stories is a successful presentation strategy, but it bears repeating. We humans are terrible at memorizing multiple complex ideas in a single sitting. We are far more likely to remember how the speaker sounded and looked than recalling a laundry list of important points.
Knowing this reality, do yourself a favor and present less stuff. Pick the 1–3 salient points that you know will be a home run with your specific audience, and then come up with interesting stories you can tell that make your case for you. Then create a slide deck with images that prompt you to tell your stories. I’d argue the greatest feedback any presenter can receive from a session is something along the lines of, “This session was really good, I just wish it had been a little longer.” Tip: Beyond limiting the number of points you make, no one will EVER be unhappy if you finish your session a little early; so keep it light.
5. Filling Your Entire Speaking Session with YOU
When entrepreneurs / operators are given a speaking slot at industry conferences, invariably the audience is wary. Generally, they want to avoid being “sold to” or “boasted at.” Meanwhile, the presenter is also wary — they want to be perceived as knowledgeable and authoritative (none of us wants to look silly or stupid). So, presenters often attempt to establish their credibility by sharing their qualifications…and commit the deadly sin of making the presentation all about them. This inevitably backfires with the audience. The moment a presenter fills too much time with the many ways he / she is personally and professionally wonderful, you can almost hear a “whoosh” as audience members picks up phones to check Slack or Twitter.
Your job as a presenter is to give the audience the information they want (see point 1). So, don’t be tempted into thinking that the best way to win over the audience is to prove how smart, capable and successful you are. Having witnessed this approach many times, this rarely works. Rather, the presentations that receive the greatest buzz are those where the audience is engaged — where the presenter goes out of her / his way to make as much of the material about THEM as possible and only about her / himself when providing a more personal anecdote would illustrate a point in a humble, unassuming but totally identifiable way. For example, I’ve learned that poking fun of my own baldness offers a way to quickly inject some relevant personal experiences, while still keeping the tone appropriately self-effacing (warning: only try this if you are, indeed, bald).
Another strategy that can be successful — when done right — is to share the limelight by creating a panel of people who will discuss a topic. But beware — when done wrong, panel sessions can become the deadliest of sins (see below).
6. Facilitating a poorly planned, really dreadful panel discussion
It seems like such a foolproof way to win over your audience: simply pick a compelling topic, create a panel of 2–3 smart people (potentially customers and fans of your company), and then just ask them a series of questions. Right? Well…maybe. The panel CAN be a successful way to accomplish a few objectives easily:
But this approach can utterly fail if you as the moderator don’t bother to understand the nuances of how each panelist differs, what unique information or strengths each panelist brings to the discussion, and the best way to cue each panelist to deliver the most salient information. We’ve all seen panel sessions that were moderated poorly — where the moderator lazily asks every panelist the exact same questions, and each panelist (to avoid seeming either unprepared or impolite) just agrees with everyone else on the panel, and then tries to add a unique spin that really is just a paraphrase of what has already been said. Other panel moderators seem to think that having a panel absolves them of any prep work — like they can just show up and start asking random questions to a group of strangers and magic will somehow “happen.” Not so. Rather, the moderator has one very important responsibility:
The panel moderator’s job is to help panelists tell compelling stories that make the panelists look their best.
If you do this right, the panel discussion can shine a bright and favorable light on you and your company — because you are obviously the kind of SaaS leader who actually cares to get to know people. You care so much, you understood that the CEO from the hospital who was on your panel had very different challenges than the General Counsel of the family-owned company — and you skillfully selected (with ample pre-session prep calls with the panel) just the right questions to pose that allowed each panelist to shine as they told a really interesting story. You made it look like the group was up on the stage enjoying a riveting conversation — one that the audience just happened upon and is now sitting on the edge of their seats dying to know what’s going to happen next.
Which brings us to the final deadly industry conference presentation sin.
7. Calling yourself a panel moderator, and then behaving more like a “puppet-master.”
As described above, a good panel discussion requires a moderator who understands each panelist’s context, way of thinking, and knack for speaking — and who has carefully curated a set of questions designed to help each panelist showcase their best selves. Woe to the moderator who falsely believes that what the audience really wants is to hear her/him answer every question alongside (or instead of) the panelists. A cousin-sin to this is when the moderator feels he / she needs to synthesize and summarize all of panelists responses. There are many versions of this, and they all can appear scripted, unauthentic, and self-serving.
In short, if you’re going to invite panelists to join you on stage, recognize that they have an opportunity to help your message shine — but only by being their authentic selves. It’s completely acceptable for you to cultivate a discussion on-stage — even a contentious one — as long as it’s all done in a respectful way, where each person has the opportunity to share diverging viewpoints without attacking each other (attack the ideas, not the people).
We’ve all been there — stuck between a rock and a hard place. In the small-scale SaaS world, there is a particular version of this universal issue. On the one hand, we need to rapidly broaden and deepen our product offering, in order to increase our product’s appeal and expand its addressable market. On the other hand, we need to generate immediate-term sales dollars, even if what the customers want / need / think-they-are-buying creates misalignment or friction against our existing solution and the product direction we’re seeking to fund with these very sales. It’s a vicious, unforgiving dynamic that can be a difficult cycle to break.
In spending time recently with a number of small-scale business operators, I’ve heard this issue come up frequently. Which reminded me of a couple simple exercises and tools that can raise awareness around this issue and help organizations avoid this tempting trap. Really, it comes down to the cost-benefit of signing on new customers in an unselective way. We tend to see and quantify the benefits of new customer acquisition very clearly: “this deal will bring in $X of recurring revenue and $Y of cash today!” What we don’t see even remotely as clearly is the organizational cost / burden of servicing that customer.
One effective exercise to combat our blindness on this issue is to fill out what we lovingly call the “Cascade of Pain.” In the Cascade of Pain, we have a diverse set of team members conjure up an existing customer that is particularly challenging to satisfy. Most every company has at least one customer in their early days where this is true: “No matter what we do, we just can’t seem to deliver to this customer what we’ve promised; they just aren’t a fit for where we are today.” In this exercise, we then we go through — department by department — and identify the range of pain that our organization has experienced as a result of our having sold this ill-fitting client (or multiple clients). Below is a sanitized version of the type of output that typically comes from this exercise:
Captured it in this way, it becomes clear that the pain from signing bad-fit customers is a burden on everyone across the entire organization. Sometimes simply codifying the pain is enough for organizations to recognize and reign-in ill-advised sales. But let’s face it, the pull of prospective revenue is powerful and the pressure to drive sales is unrelenting. In these cases, it also helps to be highly prescriptive on the front-end about deals to chase versus those to be avoided at all costs. The relatively simple exercise of establishing “Right Fit” criteria for your product can be very effective. Basically, this exercise comes at the same problem from the exact opposite perspective by asking: “What do our best customers look like / what do they have in common?” This goes far beyond the most obvious questions such as market segment (e.g. wholesalers vs. resellers vs. retailers) or size of customers (e.g. SMB vs. mid-market vs. enterprise) and gets more to the heart of how these customers interface with our company and our solution. Below are some of the questions that commonly come up:
Each category or product will have its own unique questions, but these tend to be broadly applicable. Capturing them is a critically important step, but it is really just the beginning. Incorporating them into the company DNA is an organization-wide and ongoing endeavor. It includes identifying which “Right Fit Criteria” have some latitude versus which ones are non-negotiables. It also has a major training component — certainly among sales people for use in the selling process, but also across all departments. Some systematization also helps — for instance, including some version of these questions as fields in your SFA platform. Finally, it is always a good idea to establish some processes around them. For instance, in those cases where we are knowingly going to go after a customer that falls outside our strike-zone, at least let’s make sure that we do it with sign-off from all of the necessary / effected parties, full knowledge of where the gaps are, and a plan from the get-go as to how we are going to mitigate the risks.
Because the truth is that it is our job in small-scale companies to test the boundaries of what is possible and to stretch the limits of our products and our organizations. But, that doesn’t mean we should do so blindly, or without having first clearly identified precisely where those boundaries are, and where we are comfortable pushing them.