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Shaking off the Pandemic Rust – How to Turn Your Conference Speaking Engagement into a Bonafide “Lead-Gen” Engine for Business Development

December 01, 2021 9:19 AM | Eva Booth (Administrator)

I’m not sure I know how to set up our sponsor exhibit booth anymore.  And don’t get me started about diminished skills at carrying on a fluid “small talk” conversation.  It’s so bad that yesterday, as I rehearsed my 30-second “elevator pitch” and stumbled over phrases that previously rolled off my tongue with hard-earned muscle memory, I timed myself at 56 seconds – umm, Houston, we definitely have a problem. 

Heck, I’m so starved to get back to normalcy that I got a little tendinitis just from dragging my carryon luggage from my car up the driveway and into my parents’ house in Florida, where I just spent Thanksgiving. I’ve got all the signs and symptoms of a business developer who is woefully out-of-practice at personal engagement.  Zoom and GoToMeeting and the virtual conference platforms were cute for quick minute, but have you ever stuck around at the end of a virtual program?  You can practically hear every attendee click their mouses at the same time to “Leave the meeting.”  Engagement at any meaningful personal level was not happening.

And I’ll admit it, I kind of gave up on it. I’m the guy who will sooner show off the best professional headshot I’ve ever taken in my life than turn on my live webcam.  I just don’t like the virtual meeting environment.  There is a certain energy that happens in a live room where people are talking to one another, and that energy just doesn’t exist (at least not in the same way) in a virtual meeting.  In interpersonal communications, that energy is more commonly referred to as “communications signals” – and without them, I’ve been like a fish out of water.

But even as the Delta (and now Omicron variants of COVID) are rearing their ugly heads and threatening another winter surge, something remarkable has happened to snap me out of my doldrums.  The world has started to slowly open back up.  Not every corner, but a lot of them. Professional trade groups, industry groups, product and service expos – all the places guys like me congregate and scoop up new business leads – are starting to show signs of life again.

Emboldened by this turn of fate, I decided maybe I could shake off even more rust and actually land speaker slot or a seat on a panel at one of my usual conference stops that just announced it was coming back…LIVE!  And wonder of wonders, I got picked.

And panic set in. I’m about as far removed from polished at any of the business development skills I would need to exercise to pull this off.  After a few deep breaths, I reassured my subconscious that I’ve got this.  Yes, I’ve been a little rusty, but funny thing about time…you can use it to practice and rehearse and get better.  And the speaking gig itself?  Come on!  I was a teacher for 7 years and I’ve got an undergraduate degree in musical theatre performance.  I may not be signing at this conference, but as an actor/performer, the showmanship needed to dazzle an audience at a trade conference is in my blood.  And this conference will be the perfect opportunity for me to re-brand yourself as a subject matter expert, engage with some industry cohorts, and draw some attention to me and my firm, highlighting both as go-to resources for the topic of my program.

Of course, none of that will matter if I don’t have  a plan to capitalize on this opportunity.  The Pre-COVID days of my firm barely batting an eyelash at conference and tradeshow expenses are long gone.  These days, there’s not only an expectation that I’m going to derive some credible, measurable ROI from this event, but I’m going to execute this event with a plan to do exactly that. In the old days, maybe the exposure for branding and profile awareness was enough, but in this economy, every penny spent needs to derive value -- and in today's results-driven environment, every dollar spent on that trade association conference is going to be measured against every dollar generated by new business cultivated from that conference. So, unless I plan to take some additional steps aimed at squeezing every ounce of return on my investment of time and my firm's financial investment in sending me (and probably sponsoring or advertising in the program), then I might as well not even bother speaking at all.

Over the course of my 25+ year career, I’ve picked up a few tricks and tactics that I regularly rely on to help lay the groundwork for business development in advance of a speaking engagement – whether it’s at a big tradeshow or conference, or a seminar for the local Bar Association’s CLE Committee. And now, I’m sharing them with you.

NOTE: It’s important to understand and stay cognizant of the fact that we are still VERY  MUCH in the throes of a pandemic.  Some experts may think we’re nearing the endemic stage, but at the sluggish pace we’re getting our herds immunized with vaccines, getting TOTALLY back to normal is nowhere near the horizon.  For that reason, I urge you to consider these large public gatherings carefully. If you know the crowds, the usual suspects at each one, make a value determination and do what’s best for your health and your family’s health.  No amount of business development success is worth potentially losing your life over. End. Of. Story.

*shooting star* “The More You Know!”

OK, enough of the “Very Special Blossom” PSA about COVID and back to the tactics and strategies I use to help set myself up for stronger lead generation and more qualified leads via my speaking engagements.

1. Get the Attendee List In Advance

If you're speaking, you may be able to request this from your conference contact. If you're also a sponsor, this should be a given benefit in your sponsorship contract, and if it's not, tell your marketing and BD team to renegotiate the sponsorship. I have haggled with sponsorship managers at trade associations to barter less significant "sponsor benefits" like swag in the conference bag or an advertisement in the program to get the attendee list in advance. In fact, I believe you can do without just about any other "sponsor benefit" if you can trade them all away to get the list.

Why is this list so important? Besides being a goldmine of potential leads, it's also the first step of qualifying new business opportunities. You know everyone on that list is planning to be at the conference, so they should be on your radar as target clients for this conference.

Great, so that means I should send a mass email to the list alerting them about my program at the conference? Yes and No. Certainly a blind message wouldn't hurt, but you really need to spend a few minutes segmenting the attendee list first and further qualify this list of leads:

Take out anyone who's a competitor. No sense giving them any potential competitive advantage by telling them you're speaking.

Segregate any non-competitor "service providers" on the list. I wouldn't necessarily blast to them either, but I would spend a little time investigating who they are. Some of them could be valuable referral sources.

From the remaining list, identify those contacts who are the most likely to be decision makers. These are the people you MOST want in the room for your presentation. It's not that everyone else is negligible, but you should be aware of the demographics of the conference and who your real target clients are.  Time is money, and you don’t want to waste it pitching to the Office Assistant, rather than the Manager of Director.

Your message to the list needs to be compelling. Give them a reason to come to your presentation. A REAL reason. Be creative, but don't oversell.

Which message would you be more likely to respond to?

EXAMPLE A: Hi Jim - just wanted to reach out and let you know that I'm presenting next Tuesday at the Conference. My topic will be "X, Y, and Z." I really think you'd get something out of it and hope to see you there!


EXAMPLE B: Hi Jim - What would you say if I told you I have found a way for your company to save as much as $100,000 per year in compliance costs. I'll explain how and I'll share some other secrets to avoiding enforcement actions when I present "X, Y, and Z" at the Conference next Tuesday. If you're free, perhaps we can do a deeper diver over coffee, lunch, or dinner after the presentation. Here's my contact information...


The first example offers nothing of compelling value, but the second example not only grabs my attention (who wouldn't want to save $100K per year), but it also describes some other learning outcomes -- what is your audience getting out of the presentation. Don't give away the farm, but a few details to whet the appetite can be a difference maker.

The point, after all, is to help encourage attendees to come to your presentation so that you have an opportunity to brand yourself and your firm as subject matter experts worthy of their consideration.

The second example also opens the door to follow-up, and demonstrates to your target audience that you're interested in helping them and you're willing to put in the time to get to know them and their business. This is how relationships that turn into lucrative business are born.

2. Craft Your Materials Smartly and Carefully

If there is one part of speaking engagement marketing that I've seen repeatedly abused or wasted, it's in the presentation materials. The professionals I've worked with either put too much into the materials, or not enough. Worse yet, some don't even care about leveraging the branding opportunity by effectively utilizing their firm's own presentation templates.

How much content is enough? I once worked with an attorney who was presenting for 45 minutes and insisted on a presentation with 130 slides. That allows for roughly 20 seconds for every slide -- and you know every slide was packed from header to footer with legalese, citations, and paragraphs of excerpts from the statute. And of course, he didn't get through it all.

I've always coached that a comfortable presentation pace is about 1-2 minutes per slide. This keeps the slides changing frequently enough that people don't glaze over, and it will help you streamline how much content you're prepared to share.

But pace isn't the only tip to consider when building your materials...

First of all, attorneys need to STOP quoting the statute verbatim (this is a problem ALL attorneys have who give presentations). Unless the audience is full of ABA members, it's not only unnecessary, it may actually damage the clarity of your message.

Instead, give the audience the name and maybe the statute number, and if you must include an excerpt, only include specific phrases. The audience can look up the substance of the statute on their own, and if they can't, they'll pick up the phone and call you for help. But they'll have no reason to do either if you put the entire statute on a slide in your presentation.

Second, limit your slide content to concepts and ideas. The substance should come from what you say about these concepts and ideas during the presentation. As the late, great composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (may he rest in peace) once wrote, "let it come from you, then it will be true." You don't need to say everything on the slide, and if you do, people are going to be compelled to read it while you're speaking.  Why is that a problem, you ask? Because your audience should be paying attention to you when you're speaking, not reading along. Give yourself a chance to shine as a subject matter expert and hold a little back. Yes, there are times when an issue is important enough that you'll want to get specific in your materials, but the vast majority of the time, less is more.

Lastly - and this one is important, because it lays the foundation for my last tip about maximizing business development leads - if you're going to build a handout based on your presentation, you don't need to include the kitchen sink. Save it for your follow-up.

As an example, I used to work with a Construction Litigator in Chicago who is famous for his 50-State Survey of the Occurrence Issue, which is a substantive area of insurance law related to whether a construction defect effectively constitutes an "occurrence" under the commercial general liability (CGL) policies that typically govern construction projects. In his handout materials, he would include his presentation, his bio, some marketing materials about the practice, and a full copy of his 50-state survey - all told, it's at least an inch thick spiral bound booklet. Do you have room for something that bulky in your carryon? Yeah, me neither.

One year, I asked him how often he hears from people who saw his presentation, and he admitted only a handful of people who had questions had reached out that year. So, I suggested a radical idea that required some serious back-and-forth before he would agree

“DO NOT include the 50-state survey in the materials,” I told him.  Reference it in the presentation and talk about how awesome the survey is, but don't give it away. Instead, I encouraged him to offer to send the survey to anyone who was interested - free of charge. Sure enough, he brought back about 20 business cards the next time he did the presentation, and we used the delivery of the survey as the perfect business development follow-up to a prospect who essentially self-selected as a qualified lead. By the way, this litigator never argued with me again.

And After the Presentation Is Over...

Tell me if this sounds like you: You just finished your big presentation at the conference. Without missing a beat, you drop the slide remote from one hand while grabbing your shoulder bag with the other. You immediately head for the door because your stuff is waiting at the front desk and you booked that flight that's only an hour and a half after the end of your presentation. No time for long goodbyes. Or any, really.

The problem with that scenario - and yes, it does happen - is that it completely ignores a valuable opportunity to network with your attendees after the presentation.

I've presented at large conferences about a dozen or so times, and every single time, at least 2-3 people came up to me afterward to either express their gratitude for the presentation and the materials, or to ask follow-up questions.

These are people who are seeking you out and you've completely ignored them. I don't care if you were the second coming of Ronald Reagan at the podium that day, if you don't make time for folks after the presentation, you're sending the signal that their individual reactions, feedback, and questions are meaningless to you.

But let's assume, instead, you made the time to mingle and network. In fact, you referenced a white paper related to your topic, which you wrote and have offered to send to anyone who brings you a business card. Instead of 2-3 people, you're surrounded by a throng of 10-15 or 20. You collect the business cards, greet your fans, answer a few questions and head out. Back at the office, you've got your 20 business cards. What do you do next?

[ side note: I feel like Sam McKenna right now…asking these rhetorical questions about business development strategy ]

If you said "send them the white paper," you're only half right. The white paper was the excuse you needed to collect the cards. The real purpose for the outreach is to keep the conversation going and start developing the kind of business relationship that’s built on mutual trust and respect for subject matter expertise, and more importantly, that eventually leads to new business.

So what goes into this follow-up communication? You can open with a cordial hello, thank them for coming to your presentation, talk about the white paper, reinforce why the white paper is useful, and maybe mention your next speaking engagement or include a link to your latest blog post on a similar or related topic. All of that is good marketing, and you probably already knew that. But here are a few suggestions, and one caution, that you may not have considered:

Keep the conversation going by asking open ended questions in your communication. Try to learn more about the attendee, and their role in addressing the issue in question. These tidbits of information may come in a trickle, but they are all important points to know in order to begin building a relationship.

If there was anything about your original interaction with the attendee that stands out - whether it was something they said, did, wore, etc., try to make reference to it in a meaningful way. This is another piece of the relationship building, because it helps demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in them.

Never - and I mean NEVER - close by saying "if you have any questions, let me know." Instead, offer to schedule a follow-up phone call or meeting to specifically answer any questions they may have. They may not have any questions, but between the time you book the meeting and the meeting itself, you may have developed some additional content worth sharing, or there may be a breaking development in case law. Again, you're trying to keep the conversation going. If you leave it to them to reach out if they have any questions, more often than not, they're never going to reach out to you.

There are times when a speaking engagement leads immediately to work, and that's money in the bank. I worked with an attorney in South Bend, Indiana - another Construction Litigator - who did a program for development projects. It was a soup-to-nuts half-day that included some content around labor & employment law, some construction litigation, and a financing piece. We were careful to fill the room with a good mix of existing clients and high-value new business targets. By the end of the afternoon, we signed up four new engagements, including two brand new clients.  Sometimes, lightning will strike.  And sometimes, you just get thunder.

Don't kid yourself, though. In this instance, signing up four new matters was probably the result of more fluke than strategy. But with diligence, grit, and some technical know-how, anyone can turn a simple speaking engagement at your favorite trade association conference into an effective and (hopefully) lucrative pipeline for generating qualified business development leads.

  Jim Jarrell is the Director of Marketing & Business Development for the law firm of McCarthy Lebit Crystal & Liffman Co., LPA in Cleveland, OH and has enjoyed a career spanning more than two decades helping professional services firms, nearly half of it spent leading the strategic marketing and business development programs for several law firms. In all his work, Jim focuses on achieving goals and never assumes that “the way we’ve always done it” is necessarily the best way. Stints in leadership roles with two AmLaw 100 firms and managerial experience with a handful of smaller regional firms and boutiques have helped shape Jim’s national reputation as a leader in the field. As a LSSO-Certified Business Development Coach, Jim has developed the kind of tenacity and gravitas required to effectively steer attorneys at all levels and tenures in their careers, from junior associates to the senior-most rainmakers. In addition to his coaching skillset, Jim has developed and conducted formal training programs on a variety of other marketing, communications, and business development topics - many that have been accepted and approved for continuing legal education (CLE) credits – with topics that range from business development planning to cross-selling strategies, personal branding, social media best practices, and delivering the perfect elevator pitch.

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