Branding, Recruiting and Learning Through Public Speaking and Conference Attendance

One of the primary ways of convincing applicants to work for your company is by building your brand as a great place to work. You can build your brand in a variety of ways: getting written up in articles and getting listed on great-place-to-work lists are two good examples of branding efforts. However, another very effective way of building your employment brand is through public speaking. Cisco, IBM, Disney, and Agilent are great examples of how firms have used public speaking and PR to spread the word about their people programs. Reasons Why You Should Speak at and Attend Professional Seminars Seminars are effective tools for both learning and for building your employment brand. There are a variety of reasons why you should attend and speak at public seminars, some of which include:

  • The Widespread Distribution of Brochures. For some events over 100,000 brochures are mailed out. It is likely that between only 300 and 3000 people will actually attend an event (and unless you speak at a “general session” you will only get a fraction of that). But regardless of how many attend, many thousands will scan the brochures and see your firm’s name. Readers generally assume that those selected for public seminars (both companies and speakers) are among the best in their field. This exposure is priceless in building your company’s brand. If you can become a keynote speaker (offering top company officers as speakers is the best way) you will generally get on the cover (the best exposure). By the way, even if you are a lousy speaker, a well-written PR piece in the brochure will build your brand anyway.
  • The Topics Covered. Top seminar producers (like Linkage inc.) are experts in identifying the hottest issues in human resources. When readers see these issues, they generally make the connection that the firms represented are leaders in the field and the speakers are benchmark experts in these hot areas.
  • Word-of-Mouth. Hot topics also attract top attendees (and speakers)…the perfect opinion leaders to spread the word about your firm. Attendees at the conferences are most likely to be from firms that are heavily into benchmarking. Firms that benchmark frequently almost always talk up the best practices of other benchmark firms.
  • Talking to Speakers. Just attending isn’t enough. In addition to the information you gain by attending, you also send a message to the speakers that your firm is forward-looking and is striving to be on the leading edge. You also need to bring up your firm as an example during discussions. Next, meet privately with speakers during general sessions and breaks. Discussing your best practices with the speakers is one way to enhance your image through word-of-mouth, as speakers begin to cite your firm in their examples at this and future seminars.
  • Benchmarking to Become and EOC. If your firm is currently not an employer of choice (EOC) you can rapidly become one by learning from the other presenters from EOC firms. In the public sessions you can present ideas and ask questions of the speakers about what “best practices” you currently have (or could add) to become a “talked about” firm. In the informal gatherings you can get additional advice and feedback from other attendees and to the speakers. In essence, you are getting free consulting advice on what you need to do in order to become an employer of choice.
  • Your Internal Image. By appearing in brochures, you and your company will gain increased status and visibility within your own organization. Employees feel proud when they see their own mentioned in the same light as other industry leaders. This employee pride can also increase the volume of employee referrals and reduce turnover. On an individual basis, when top executives see your name in these brochures, it can improve your internal credibility, which can help in getting your internal programs approved. It may also improve your chances for promotion.
  • Recruiting Top Talent. The best functional leaders (HR professionals at HR related events) attend or speak at these events. As a result, seminars (and trade shows) are fertile recruiting grounds for both actual hires and for using attendees and speakers as future referral sources. Nothing attracts more recruits than a great presentation from a company official (followed by being available after the talk).
  • Assessing the Competition. Speaking at and attending seminars can build your confidence and provide reinforcement so that you will know that what you are currently doing is, in fact, putting you on the leading edge. You also need to constantly know where the competitors are if you expect to stay in the lead.
  • Identifying Potential Consultants. By meeting and assessing speakers you can identify individuals who might be able to consult with your firm or to speak at your internal HR and management events. Consultants that visit your firm invariably use your firm as a positive example during future events and consulting assignments.
  • Test New Ideas. You can test out new ideas at the conferences (during your presentation or informally) among “fresh eyes” (people that don’t know you and are thus more honest). The type of questions and comments you get might help you learn how good the idea really is and how to sell it better “back home.”
  • Using Vendors to Spread the Message. Most of these events are attended by a good number of vendors and consultants. By talking to vendors about your best practices you can help spread the word about your best practices (because salespeople are excellent “word spreaders”). Public conferences also provide you with a valuable opportunity to compare vendors and their products side-by-side. You can also ask attendees and speakers about their experiences with vendors and their products.

Personal Learning

  • The Handout Materials. The handout materials alone often make attending the seminar worthwhile. Not only do they provide valuable information but they can also demonstrate effective ways in which you can improve your own presentation materials for both internal and external presentations.
  • Learning from the Brochure. Even if you don’t attend the conference, you can learn who the leading university “thought leaders” and business experts are. You can also learn what the hot topics and new buzzwords are by just reviewing the marketing materials. If you can’t attend, you can still call them and ask for copies of their presentations.
  • Attending Helps Build a Learning Network. As a frequent speaker at these events, I have heard from several attendees from major firms that “much of what I learned wasn’t solely from the speakers.” Although speakers are important; if all you do is listen to speakers you’ll come up short. By building relationships with other attendees and with the speakers you can build a “learning network,” which will allow you to continually learn over time. For an individual, the learning network is the single most valuable aspect of these events. It also helps to talk to the seminar organizers both about what topics are becoming “hot” and also about which benchmark firms (and speakers) were identified but couldn’t attend. Don’t forget to talk to the organizers about getting invited to future events as a speaker

Selecting Which Event to Target It is important to set goals for your speaking/branding effort.

  1. If you are speaking at an event primarily to build your firm’s name recognition, the number of brochures distributed is the key decision factor.
  2. If you are using it to improve your image or to benchmark, then the prestige of the companies that the invited speakers represent and the executive level of their speakers are the key factors.
  3. If you are using it to recruit (or just to attend) the prestige and experience of the organization sponsoring the event and the topics covered are crucial decision factors. Look at past events (and attendees lists) put on by the organization to assess quality. The key is to identify the target audience you are trying to recruit first and then do market research (interviews, surveys or focus groups) to identify which seminars/ events the best employees attend regularly. Also ask frequent seminar speakers who puts on the best events.

Getting Invited as a Speaker There are many ways to get selected as a speaker. Some of the most effective include:

  • Let current speakers at other seminars know you are interested in speaking. Speakers are often surveyed and asked about other hot topics, firms and speakers. Nothings gets you invited faster than a referral by someone who is on the speakers’ circuit.
  • Attend several seminars and become known as an attendee. Also, in the portion of the evaluation sheet where they solicit your comments for future events, suggest that they cover your topic and your firm.
  • Write articles about your best practices in leading technical journals. Ask your PR department for help. Next providing opinions on technical list servers and chat rooms is also an effective way of getting recognized.
  • Contact seminar directors directly. The most effective approach is to attend one of their related seminars and meet with them individually. You need to prepare a two paragraph description of your potential presentation (with 5 -7 bullet points) in the same format and style as you find in their current seminar descriptions (visit their Web page for examples). If you have spoken before, a video of your presentation goes along way in selling you.
  • Participate in research studies. Many seminar providers also do 6 month research studies into the hottest topics. By participating in or supporting these studies you are assured of getting their attention.

Who Are the Leading Seminar Providers? The process of getting invited as a speaker varies with the type of organization you want to speak for. There are four basic types of organizations that put on public seminars. Although they are no standard rules for getting selected, here is a general idea how they operate.

  1. Professional Seminar Organizers. In my opinion, Linkage is the top offerer, based on its prestige speakers. IQPC offers the largest number of offerings with management practitioners as their primary speakers. The American Management Association and IIR also offer a variety of programs. These types of seminar providers try to have a mix of university “thought leaders” and top firm practitioners. Speakers are generally selected based on 1) previous speaker evaluations, 2) their writings (books and articles), 3) the firm/University they come from (most admired firms and benchmark companies are always asked first), and finally 4) if you (or your firm) participated in a major change effort (best practice) in a “hot” topic area. The seminar director does extensive market research in order to identify what firms, issues and speakers that attendees (and potential attendees) want to hear from.
  2. Professional Associations. Professional associations/organizations exist in every industry. There are two basic types of professional associations that offer seminars. The first type is an “Industry association.” It represents a single industry (which covers everyone that works in an industry, regardless of their function). The American Electronics Association would be an example of an industry association. The second is a “single functional association”. It covers a specific job function (which covers all of the people that work in a single function, regardless of the industry they work in). Within the HR profession for example the top ones are SHRM (the largest by far), IHRIM, World of Work and ASTD. Speakers at the national events for both of these types of professional associations are generally chosen in one of two ways. The first is through a speaker proposal, which is generally submitted to the national office 8 to 10 months before the event. The second avenue is through nomination by internal subject area committees made up of appointed association experts. Speakers for local events are picked by a “speakers” chairperson (see below).
  3. Membership Organizations. Most major firms join prestigious research groups as part of their benchmarking efforts. Membership organizations (like the Conference Board and APQC) do both research studies and offer seminars for members on the hottest issues. The head of the research team generally selects the speakers. Participants in past research studies have an excellent chance to get invited as speakers.
  4. Local Professional Organizations. Many national industry and functional organizations have local chapters, which offer events. Traditionally, a single individual (or a small team) is elected each year to become the “speaker chairperson”. They generally make their selections three to six months in advance. Speakers are generally selected based on recommendations by officers and members who have heard them at other events. Firms should consider hosting these local events on their site. It is an excellent way to build your brand as well as to impress future recruits with your people and facilities (hosting an event guarantees you some speaking time)

Conclusion Seminars, conferences and the Web have surpassed classroom training as a dominant way that most of us learn. However in addition to learning, seminars can serve as a valuable tool in building your firm’s name recognition and image has a great place to work. Speaking at professional events is the third most effective branding tool available to organizations (after employee and customer word-of-mouth and getting written up in major publications)!

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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