What’s your Style?

Written by: Laurel Egan Kenny, Turningpoint Communications

When it comes to conference education, what style of presentation do you prefer? A keynote? General Session? A panel? A single presenter? A Big Idea Talk? Presentation type preference is a personal one – and has a great deal to do with learning style, comfort level, engagement level, knowledge of the topic and so much more. The best conferences offer a variety of styles to engage audiences of all kinds for different reasons. Which presentation style “speaks” to you?

Typically presented over lunch, keynote addresses are best “served up” light, funny or motivational. After all, who wants to be weighed down by a heavy topic and a heavy chicken over mashed potatoes meal before 1:00 PM? Though a dark story with an inspirational outcome can be uplifting, like a soufflé or chocolate mousse dessert. I’ve heard many different flavors of the motivational keynote – from Mt. Everest’s survival to rags to riches stories to accounts of overcoming severe illness, disability or other seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

A strong keynote is a powerful tool. The right speakers can “sell” a conference, particularly those with star quality or corporate leaders who represent a well-known brand. It helps when a famous keynote uses the story of their rise to fame to deliver poignant messages based on their experience. I also enjoy a good adventure story – chronicling an adventure through time, one where the speaker provides wisdom and lessons learned. I have had the privilege of attending a number of compelling keynote addresses at treasury conferences throughout my career. Most memorable were “Life is Good” co-founders Bert and John Jacobs, whose tale of homelessness inspired their whimsical t-shirts and ultimately their philanthropy. Even Former Boston Police Commissioner, Ed Davis, brought an audience from tears of pain to inspiration, just one year after the Boston Marathon Bombings.

A fit kick-off to any conference, the general session brings together all attendees in a grand and impressive gathering (of hundreds or thousands) to formally welcome them, establish/reinforce the conference theme and set the tone of a conference before they set off on their own or in small groups to their chosen paths. A general session presenter with mass appeal (fame, brand, do-gooder, even a mysterious, protagonist) will draw a crowd. General Session topics best are high-level, weighty, inspirational, thought-provoking, innovative – and delivered by a powerhouse speaker supported by a multimedia show complete with slides, video, interactivity and fully rehearsed (yet extemporaneous), authentic speech. Equally as effective are “fireside chat,” interviews designed to intellectually transport massive audiences in awkward chairs in a cold, cavernous function room to a warm, comfortable living room complete with soft couches and pillows – and a crackling fireplace, of course. Actor and activist, Michael J. Fox; Former President Bill Clinton; Colonel Colin Powell and Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were the most memorable general session speakers I can recall from my treasury management industry career. Breakout session speakers are wise to tie their presentation back to the general session and theme of the conference to reinforce their relevance. Conference organizers and leaders can enhance or detract from the power of a solid general session with their own performance. I favor a warm welcome by a relatable conference chair to a robotic, awkward, teleprompter, overly rehearsed speech by a figurehead any day.

Panels, if they are done well, provide multiple perspectives on a particular topic. I have seen this done very successfully and I have seen them fail. In environments ripe for violations to the “No Sales pitch” rule, panels with representatives from both the sales and buy-sides provide balance. At treasury conferences, specifically, I find it helpful to have vendors bring a corporate / practitioner / buy-side client. This allows for a case study, successful storytelling format. Of course, no one believes a “super vendor man saves the day” story when it is one-sided and told almost exclusively by the vendor – with the client simply there as a figurehead. It is no surprise, I have also found the best panels are well-rehearsed so that each panelist knows what is expected of him/her – and knows what s/he and the others bring to the table, to avoid a choppy delivery or redundant information.

Subject matter experts are well-positioned to lead discussions and deliver education based on their skills, education, experience. However, a single presenter must “deliver,” not simply transfer information for his/her audience. In fact, when it comes to individual presentations, the sage words of the late and great Maya Angelou apply, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This means single presenters must subscribe to a higher burden of “edu-tainment” delivery. That is to be compelling, dynamic and engaging (in no particular order). It is imperative that the speaker involve the audience in his/her presentation. This comes in several forms. Instead of stating a fact, ask it as a question, then ask the audience what they think about that – or if they have had any experience with that. Also, it is imperative to cite sources. No one believes that a single person holds nor should one be expected to hold all of the information there is to know about a particular topic.

Popularized by the famous “Ted Talks,” the “Big Idea Talk” is set in front of a smaller, more focused audience set to be amazed by an incredibly poignant 30 minute or less highly rehearsed presentation of a unique idea. Built as a bridge between real-life and podcast, these discussions are typically video recorded for use in other media. Treasury and payment conferences have started to incorporate this format into their repertoires to keep things fresh and to appeal across generations.

Education can be served up in different ways. Varied presentation styles offer advantages and disadvantages – and may or may not appeal to audience members with particular needs or tastes. General sessions and keynote lunches have mass appeal, while one-to-many (single presenter) presentations, panel discussions and “Big Idea Talks” together offer enough variety that audiences ought to be able to find a style that they enjoy. What is clear though, is that speaker name, reputation or brand may bring an audience, but delivery, content, engagement are what makes them stay. An ability to make the audience FEEL is what makes a presentation memorable.

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