The way the B2B tech world hosts professional events and meetings has been drastically altered due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The crisis forced countless events to be cancelled or postponed and forced organizations to get even more creative with how they seek to garner attention and build thought leadership.
While there are many aspects of in-person conferences and events that are difficult to replicate, corporations, associations and the event planning industry have quickly shifted to offer creative virtual solutions that present distinct opportunities that will be beneficial for marketing and PR pros (and their client influencers) for years to come.
In our latest podcast episode of Lay of the Brand, Warren Jones, CEO of Keppler Speakers, shares his insights on what's changed when it comes to events and speaking engagements; how to make presentations more dynamic to captivate your audience; and how marketing and PR pros can get the most from virtual speaking opportunities.
Here are highlights of our conversation. Click below to listen to the podcast or visit layofthebrand.com.
Warren Jones, Keppler Speakers: Keppler Speakers is one of the largest privately held speaker agencies in the world. We've been around for about 40 years. Our customers are corporations and associations across every industry vertical, and we also provide speakers for colleges and performing arts centers.
We've got a roster of thousands of speakers, including business leaders, tech innovators, media figures, adventurers, sports, legends, authors, and celebrities.
Peter Jacobs: Clearly the event landscape has morphed into something different. Instead of multi-day or all-day events, have they changed to shorter, more targeted programs?
Warren Jones: A good question. A few multi-day and all-day conferences have simply postponed their major annual events. So when they couldn't do them in March or April or May, they just went ahead and kicked back to next year. They're still planning to be in person events when they can safely reschedule.
A lot of the all-day and multi-day live events that have converted to virtual, have either kept the same schedules or shortened them only a little bit. A lot of the tech people, tech marketing, and PR people listening probably participate in the Consumer Electronics Show that's held in Las Vegas every January. The attendance this past January was 182,000. Gary Shapiro, who's the president of the show announced not too long ago that the 2021 show will be entirely digital. But the event will still go for the full four days.
Peter Jacobs: Does that mean that the speaking slots will be the same length or where there will be more, or fewer speaking slots?
Warren Jones: You know, it's hard to say for Consumer Electronics in particular. One of the things that they did, it was so smart — back in March when the sky started to dark, they said, “Look, let's build this thing for in-person, but also be able to flip a switch and go virtual.” Which is exactly what they did. So, it was a very, very smooth transition.
In terms of overall in the industry and as to the length of speaking slots, they are trending shorter, mostly to avoid screen fatigue for attendees. I was talking to the head of Microsoft's events the other day, who said, “The hour-long general session keynote is dead.” She was referring to both virtual and future in-person events. What she sees is more specialized breakout sessions using both recorded and live stream speeches to deliver more variety and more value to attendees.
So, marketing and PR people who are looking for virtual speaking engagements should develop modular speech content and mini-topics that will play much better in shorter and virtual speeches.
There are, of course, fewer conferences overall during COVID. That does mean fewer speaking slots, but marketers should stay alert for more speaking opportunities as virtual expands. And the pent-up demand for live events means there's going to be a tsunami of speaking opportunities once the clouds part.
Peter Jacobs: Well, how have these presentations changed? How do you keep the audience's attention when they aren't in the room?
Warren Jones: Well, we're all feeling Zoom, fatigue these days. It's a real thing. And you can't blame audiences because a lot of virtual speakers out there are a little ho-hum.
In the virtual setting, speakers are at a disadvantage, too, because they can't see and feel the audience's reactions to sense whether people are engaged. But having said that, marketing and PR pros need to keep in mind that so much of what holds an audience's attention in-person is just as important in the virtual world.
“Marketing and PR pros need to keep in mind that so much of what holds an audience's attention in-person is just as important in the virtual world.”
Is your speaker’s content relevant to the specific audience? Have you made sure your speaker has a strong central theme or message that resonates with the audience? Are the visuals that your speaker uses captivating or are they just visual noise? So, all of these elements are really important for keeping an audience engaged regardless of whether the appearance is live or whether it's digital.
Peter Jacobs: Well, let's dig a little deeper here. What can you do to keep that virtual audience engaged in presentation after presentation if it's an all-day kind of event?
Warren Jones: In the virtual setting, marketing and PR people can use a couple of techniques with our speakers.
First thing is, embrace the virtual format. Don't try to force fit your speakers’ on-stage performance into a small screen. Instead, craft the speech just for virtual. Make it shorter. Upgrade the visuals. Develop different content that will hold viewers interest.
Second, you're all marketers. Unleash the creative side of your marketing for on-screen speeches. One of our speakers at Keppler always uses a split-screen. She’s one side, her visuals on the other. She stands up, she moves around to keep up the energy. So, I recommend getting your speakers out of talking-head mode. You'll see better results.
Third, shift the format. Instead of a speech, open up with a few remarks, then segue to a moderated Q&A format. PR pros - you can provide the moderator with questions that'll bring out your message points. Some of our top speakers at Keppler, who give phenomenal speeches on stage, have completely shifted to moderated Q&A for virtual events and it's working very well.
Peter Jacobs: Obviously in-person interactions are out, and one of the benefits of speaking at an event is that you can engage with the media. How can you do that when the event is virtual?
Warren Jones: It is tricky. It’s great to have a sizzle video of your speaker in the virtual format. Show them in that format as opposed to being on stage. Keep it short. Just one to two minutes at the most. It's a great tool, not only for building media interests before a virtual event but also to have when you're pitching your speaker to event planners.
“Have a sizzle video of your speaker in the virtual format. Show them in that format as opposed to being on stage.”
Just as you'd want your speaker to get face-time with media on site, set up a dedicated virtual session before the speech, or immediately after the speech, while it's still fresh in their minds.
Peter Jacobs: But there’s the conference call rule, right? Make sure you've logged off of the previous virtual session because you don’t want the audience or other reporters listening in.
Warren Jones: Absolutely, the same caution applies.
Peter Jacobs: What else should we keep in mind? What other things can PR pros do to generate media interest?
Warren Jones: Well, I think anytime you're interacting with media about a virtual presentation, again, make the most of the virtual format. Use strong visuals that reinforce credibility — stats in graphic form, top quality imagery, video clips that will engage the media contacts. If it's a multi-part virtual event, make sure your media contacts have an agenda based on things you know they'll be interested in. And tech check here, make sure they actually have access to the Zoom room or other breakout session.
“Anytime you're interacting with media about a virtual presentation, make the most of the virtual format. Use strong visuals that reinforce credibility — stats in graphic form, top quality imagery, video clips that will engage the media.”
I would check in with your media contacts throughout the event, even if it's a single virtual speech. The media may have a question on the fly that would be a good one to use in the virtual Q&A window. Of course since reporters can't walk up to you like they can at a physical event, I'd make sure they can easily reach you by phone or text or chat throughout the event.
Peter Jacobs: Let’s talk about lining up those speaking slots. What are the top things PR and marketing pros need to think about when approaching event organizers with a speaker?
Warren Jones: At the outset, I'd say just as a PR pro would fully research a publication or other media outlet before they pitch a reporter, you need to fully research the event before proposing your speaker to the event planner.
Pay attention to the event theme. Get a sense of what's worked in the past. What other speakers have they had? What news has come out of earlier events? Are there side events or interim virtual events between their big annual events where your speaker might be a good fit?
And here's a key, make sure your speaker’s especially appealing by making his or her topic as timely and up-to-the minute as you can.
Peter Jacobs: Well, timeliness is obviously something that will draw attention. But how do you do that without looking opportunistic?
Warren Jones: Well, I'll give you a great example. One of our most requested speakers at Keppler's is Frank Abagnale, the famous conman, the subject of the movie Catch Me If You Can. Frank gives an unforgettable speech. It’s entertaining and is full of some great surprises. But these days, he also works in content about the wild increase in cyber scams during the pandemic. He gives reasons why, he gives plenty of examples of COVID scams.
Marketers should always make sure their speaker’s content is especially timely and that really adds appeal for event planners.
Peter Jacobs: So, if you're doing outreach to try and place your CEO or other C-suite executive or SME in an event, how do you make that speaker really attractive to event planners?
Warren Jones: There are a couple of things you can do. At the end of the day, event planners want what audiences want. They want speakers who are truly relevant. They want compelling stories. They want insights that will inspire the audience to take action. Most speakers can do a decent job in the course of a speech, but there are very few who can deliver true takeaways and have the audience members taking action. Above all, event planners want emotion, audiences want emotion. Even in a purely business-oriented speech, emotional moments are remembered long after the bullets on slide 32 are forgotten.
“Event planners want what audiences want. They want speakers who are truly relevant. They want compelling stories. They want insights that will inspire the audience to take action.”
We represent Aron Ralston, the guy who was trapped under a rock for three days in the Utah desert and had to cut his arm off to free himself. I saw him speak to a group of conservative bankers at a financial conference last year. The emotions that Aron had that audience feeling made his speech unforgettable. I don't recommend having your CEO sacrifice body parts, but the point is emotions, more than anything else, make a speech memorable for any audience.
Peter Jacobs: That is a hallmark of great speakers. Is there anything that's unique to virtual speaking?
Warren Jones: There are a few things. What's important- again, this is in pitching event planners - you got to show that you embrace the virtual format in terms of delivering content. Important point to remember, a lot of event planners are still trying to figure out virtual themselves. Show them that your speaker knows how to make virtual work. That means taking virtual production value seriously. You will stand out with event planners. You need to give them confidence that your speaker’s a step above other speakers with a great virtual setup.
“Show them that your speaker knows how to make virtual work.”
Gotta have clear audio, good lighting, closeup framing. Eyes level with the camera. I can't stress this enough - you need to make sure your speaker’s virtual appearance assures event planners you understand virtual.
In terms of specific coaching tips for you to give your speakers for virtual, a couple of things. First, yeah, it’s awkward to talk into a camera and to see and hear nothing. No feedback, no audience response at all. One suggestion is, have a few friends and family un-muted, because even a minimal amount of laughs or applause can give your speaker some good reassurance and feedback.
Second, as tough as it may be, maintain eye contact directly with the camera. This is harder than it sounds. Even a speaker who's just looking around her screen will be a distraction because she's so close to the camera. I've had speakers tell me that they actually put a post it note with an arrow pointing into the camera lens on their laptop or desktop, or they'll put pictures of people right around the camera lens so that they have a human to look at rather than just an abyss
Third, make the most of Q&A. It's a great opportunity for audience engagement and interaction in virtual. And always have a strong rehearsed closing to follow the Q&A. The reason I say that is, if you have the final close before the Q&A — and you should have a strong wrap up that you build to — the pauses during the Q&A can drain all the energy you've built up. You know, you have a big finish and then somebody, the first person up, asks a long-winded question, or there's this long pause before anybody's got the courage to put the first hand up. So, for after Q&A, always have a high-energy final close that makes the speech memorable.
Peter Jacobs: All right. It's time to pull out your crystal ball. Are there any signs of networking events coming back in the near future?
Warren Jones: Well, a lot of major companies and big tech players like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Salesforce - they've all decreed, no live events before the second quarter of 2021.
Some other companies and associations may feel less constrained because their events are smaller, but they still face the same issues. Safety in the venues, safety of the surrounding area, safety of travel to and from the event. The most recent surveys of event planners show their thinking live events are most likely to return in Q2.
There's an expectation that smaller local and regional events will be the first to come back. Of course, testing and vaccines will have the greatest impact on timing.
Peter Jacobs: Is a mix of live and virtual events something we should expect going forward?
Warren Jones: Oh, that's a great question. Absolutely, you can expect it going forward. So-called hybrid events are happening already. They will be part of the next generation of events and marketers should stay on top of this.
“One of the top tech innovation speakers spoke on stage in a ballroom in Las Vegas to about 100 top executives and VIP guests. But 3,000 attendees watched online.”
The other day, one of the top tech innovation speakers that we rep at Keppler spoke on stage in a ballroom in Las Vegas to about a hundred top executives and VIP guests. They were all masked. They were all socially distant. But 3,000 attendees watched online. After the keynote speaker came off, staged a little in-person meet-and-greet again, again socially distant, and hopped on a private plane home the same day. So, a very successful hybrid event. And they will continue.
Peter Jacobs: Why is that? Why do you think those are going to continue post-COVID? Whenever that is.
Warren Jones: Well for a couple of reasons, and they are reasons that that should be important to marketing and PR people. They should keep them in mind.
First, hybrid means more eyeballs. We've got an association client who was trying to decide whether to go virtual for one of their annual events. They were worried that attendance would fall off from the normal 5,000 attendees they got every year. They did go digital, and they wound up with 14,000 attendees.
Salesforce had their Sydney World Tour that went from 10,000 in-person to 80,000 virtual. That is a game changer.
So, companies are now looking at fully monetizing and getting greater brand impact with these much larger virtual audiences and many more eyeballs.
Second, a hybrid- or virtual-only format can mean smaller or more frequent specialized events. Marketers should really seek those out. You can bring in non-competitors, partners, customers, and of course even host your own.
Third, for event planners, hybrid means new content and new value for attendees without a corresponding leap in costs. That's why I recommend that marketing and PR people closely watch the evolving virtual event landscape. If so, you'll definitely spot some new opportunities for your speakers.
Want to host a virtual event, boost your marketing strategy or learn how to better position your thought leaders in front of key decision makers? Listen to this podcast and other episodes at layofthebrand.com or your favorite platform including Google Play, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and YouTube.