Over the last eight years, I think I have missed one MarketingProfs B2B Forum. With the Forum celebrating its 10th Birthaversary this year, this means I’ve been to most of them.
Although I have attended many a Forum, I have not always attended a lot of sessions. For a few years, I was working at MarketingProfs, so that made it hard to get to sessions when the Forum was in full swing. The last couple years, I’ve spent so much time catching up with people I see infrequently that my socializing has gotten in the way of attendance.
This year, however, I did go see a handful of sessions. And, since I had the privilege of speaking this time around with my colleague Andrew Moravick – our session (on SlideShare ) was quite ably recapped by TopRank’s Caitlin Burgess – I naturally compared every session I saw to ours. And, frankly, being the relentless self-critic that I am, I thought all of these sessions were better.
To be fair, we did get a lot of positive feedback on our presentation. The content, I’m told, was solid, and the concept of “writing your buyer’s mind” (as opposed to trying to read it) seems to have legs. At the same time, I was told by several people that our session lacked energy. The fact that we sat to present, rather than standing, was cited as one reason for the energy deficit.
Make It Special
So, why did I find the other sessions superior? I think that the answer, in part, was stagecraft.
For example, I saw two separate sessions that began with dramatic recitations. Scott Monty (pictured above), for one, began his talk – The Broken Promise of Digital: Making the Customer the Center of What We Do – by reciting Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Scott’s reverential approach to the material, not to mention his smooth baritone, set an appropriate tone for his talk, which called for us to follow our better, human instincts, rather than our technological capabilities, when it comes to conducting business.
To begin his talk – Once Upon a Time: Enchanting Secrets of Creative and Compelling Storytelling – Bobby Lehew told the story of “The Arrowmaker” from N. Scott Momaday’s collection, The Man Made of Words. With his calm delivery, oracular mane of hair, and Western twang, Bobby captivated the room, creating a space of attentive silence for his presentation laying out various frameworks for building effective narratives.
These talks reminded me that there is something primal and archaic in speaking to a group of people. One needs to honor this tradition and, of course, the time of those who have come to listen. One way to do that is to make it special and even ceremonial.
I tend to start my talks with stories, but they are often personal. Bobby and Scott showed me that one can also use shared stories, familiar or unfamiliar, to draw people in and invoke the spirit of the message one is looking to impart.
Make It Visible
The talk that Andrew and I gave had a definite structure and we tried to provide the audience with a simple framework for “reading the minds” of B2B buyers. It was classically “tri-partite” and consisted of: 1) Asking buyers what’s on their minds; 2) Using data to infer what they are thinking; and 3) “writing their minds” or, in other words, using content to get people to think in a certain way.
Unfortunately, we did not have a slide that pulled it all together.
By contrast, Jay Acunzo, Tom Webster, and Tamsen Webster all presented frameworks for approaching certain problems – public speaking, demand generation, and creativity, respectively – and, what’s more, made these frameworks visible.
Jay, for his part, aimed to demystify the process of creativity and show how, through a series of deliberate, manageable steps, one could cross the seemingly uncrossable chasm from the realm of conventional thinking to that of creative intuition. His talk described these steps in great detail, providing both a rationale for them as well as practical advice on putting them into practice.
Tom’s talk – The Forgotten Discipline of B2B Marketing: How to Create Demand – provided us with a schema covering the various types of “buyer demand” that we find in the wild. These types ranged from the “Overt” or explicitly stated demand (“I want to buy your stuff”) to the “Remote,” a demand you have to create from whole cloth.
The notion of “Remote” demand overlapped with our notion of “writing minds.” Tom cited HubSpot as an example of a company that built itself around a concept, “inbound marketing,” using content marketing and a variety of outbound tactics to invent a category and its attendant technological needs.
Finally, Tamsen’s presentation on public speaking featured a number of frameworks that companies can use both to develop a public speaking strategy as well as to structure individual talks.
What I found novel about this particular structure was its “fractal” nature. That is, Tamsen illustrated the way that “Why? – What Now? – How?” should serve, on the one hand, as buckets into which organizations can put their talks (“Why Move to the Cloud,” “Three Things to Consider When Moving to the Cloud,” “Creating a Cloud Migration Plan”), while also guiding organizations in the creation of talks; that is, just as any speaking program your organization produces must answer these questions, so must each individual talk.
In other words, one needs to make it special when presenting, but one also needs to make it visual. If you can’t adequately visualize the key point(s) you are trying to convey, you have to ask yourself: Have I adequately thought this through?
Make It Relevant
When we were putting together our talk, Andrew and I were both intent on providing the audience with actionable insights; we called it “News You Can Use.” These insights came in the forms of stories, data-driven findings, and frameworks (both practical and conceptual). From past experience, I knew that Forum attendees were hungry for this kind of advice. We strove to give them what they were looking for.
That being said, it is often difficult to strike the right balance. If the frameworks offered, for example, are too high level, then it can be challenging to figure out how to apply them to a particular situation. On the other hand, if they are too specific, then they won’t be useful for everyone.
This problem is actually similar to that faced by B2B marketers engaged in content marketing. We spoke at length about the importance of aligning content with the needs and questions of buyers. This involves, in part, figuring out what buyers are thinking and then, in turn, figuring out how to create content that is specific enough to be meaningful but not so specific that it won’t seem relevant.
To address that challenge, we advocated (as did many others at the Forum) talking to customers directly. This was precisely how Nick Westergaard, Erica McGillivray, and Jen Slaski ran their session, Get Scrappy B2B! Tips and Tricks from the Digital Trenches. Specifically, after some opening remarks by the ever-affable Westergaard, the bulk of the session revolved around questions from the audience.
This kind of approach is not without peril. I’ve often seen Q&A sessions at the Forum get lost in the minutiae of one marketer’s particular challenges. This was not the case here. Yes, audience members were looking for solutions to specific problems. But the tendency of Erica, Jen, and Nick to respond with stories from their personal experience meant that everyone had something to learn from their responses.
That is, although the session was fairly “free form,” it never felt scattered or, worse, irrelevant. In fact, the interaction and lively discussion were both valuable and refreshing.
I have done a fair amount of public speaking over the years and I would like to think that I have gotten better over time.
My experiences last week, however, reminded me that there is always room for improvement. Fortunately, I was able to watch a lot of people doing a lot of things right, and I learned from all of it. I learned that you have to make it special by taking time at the outset to set the proper tone. I learned that your argument has to be clearly conceived but, more importantly, you have to make it visible.
Finally, I learned that you can ensure relevancy by bringing the audience into the conversation directly, asking them for questions, and answering those questions by using stories to illustrate the general principle in the unique circumstance.