Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Speaker "Species" at Conference

As a part of my job I have to go and speak at various conferences and demonstrate thought leadership of our company at a public forum. There is a fine balance one needs to attain. On most occasions the organizers would have paid a paltry sum to cover for expenses, which essentially means whatever content you give out is free. You don't want to give away too much at the same time you need to convince the audience that you know enough about the subject.

However, all speakers don't have these constraints. For some speakers it is an excellent opportunity to explain their product, service or solution to an informed audience and they might have paid an handsome sum of money to get that speaking slot. For some others it is industry obligation, for some others it is ticket to networking and for very few others it is an excuse to get a sponsored trip. This assembly of well dressed, well prepared presenters who have gathered to do the same activity but with completely different intent makes the whole experience very comical. So after presenting some species among delegates in my last blog, here are some species among speakers.

Last Speaker of the day : Networking session after your speech is your magic moment. You get a stage for yourself, to proclaim your expertise on the subject and irrespective of whatever you speak, it works like a magic on the audience. Networking starts after their speech. Whatever is your intent one does enjoy the attention, flattering comments and limelight moments after the speech. Delegates start flocking around and congratulate on the speech.
This is where the last speaker of the day suffers the most. The problem with Last Speaker is he knows he may not get such an opportunity. He is not even sure whether these delegates would stay back. In his mind he is kicking himself for accepting that speaking slot and is also mildly jealous of fellow speakers who hog limelight one after another. So he starts campaigning for his speech since morning. He does not take any conversation to its logical end. He initiates it, when the debate heats up, with a vicious smile he says,"I would like to answer this in my speech".

Unable to lose the bearing : Some speakers are really very passionate. They deliver energetic speeches. They may come from a company who does need that stage to communicate to the world eg. some start up working on a new idea or company that is knocking doors of the big league or some i dustry association propagating a new concept and gathering industry participants etc. . Invariably, they have some aspect of their speech that is debatable. During the networking fellow speakers or Aspiring Speakers may flock around politely give them another perspective. Actually, there is an obvious way to handle such situation during off-stage disagreements. The speakers can just listen to someone who presents a contrary point of view. Then give a nice and polite answer which sounds like ,"great point. I will think about it more deeply now. Thank you". But Unable to lose bearing speakers are different. They continue debating in during off-stage with the same passion and try to convince off-stage audience. If they run into an equally passionate Aspiring Speaker sparks start flying, temperatures rise and tempers show up. Despite their great speech and interesting thoughts they make more enemies than friends, their speaker feedback rankings suffer and they themselves go back frustrated, just because they were not able to lose their bearing.

The Surprised Speaker : Very often you run into a comical situation in which the speaker appears genuinely surprised at his own slides. They have a strange, mystic expression on their face which can arise out of the situation which goes something like this. Just imagine, you are going about doing your errands in a market with your partner. Your partner says, "Honey, (or sweetie or Baby or whatever your calling card might be) i will be right back." Soon you run into a common friend and your partner turns up. What would your facial expression be if your partner's looks are completely changed and he/she is looking straight of the fashion show ramp or like a movie star? They have similar expression on their face. They are familiar with the content but are completely bowled over by looks of the presentation and have no time to react. My hunch is the speaker might have approved the draft version of the presentation and sent to graphic designers. They may keep the content but jazz up the presentation beyond recognition. The presentation goes from graphic designer to his secretary and then to organizers. Secretary confirms that organizers have loaded the presentation so this poor speakers ambles around confidently till he his faced with his own presentation. For some of these speakers to shock is so much that they almost forget their speech. They admire their own slides but eventually start reading out the content. Their good speech is killed by their own graphic team.

The reluctant speaker: Walking up the stage and talking to room full of people is considered to be among top 5 dreaded things in the world. It is evident when you come across the reluctant speaker. Either due to genuine stage fright or due to reserved personality or lack of preparation time , every now and then you run into a speaker who hates to be there. He does not like the lime light, does not like approaching delegates. He tends to take a coffee break when other speakers are speaking and goes thru their notes during the coffee break. They act very nervously, finish off all the water bottles they can lay their hands on and then keep visiting rest room to balance the situation. They may present reasonably well but find it hard to accept any compliments. There is a sea-change in their body language after their speech. They become very friendly, may start of the discussion left half way during the day. Very early in my public speaking career, I was on this boarder line. So I have complete sympathy and understanding of what they might be going through. I do hope that one day they overcome this dreaded fearful event.

The travel bug: invariably, you run into speakers who have accepted to speak at the conference to get their trip to this destination sponsored. What is even worse, they don't hesitate to make it obvious. I have met some speakers of who have gone so far down this track that they make a convenient assumption that all other speakers are also here to do the same. They are completely oblivious to any other reasons for speaking at the conference. The conversations with such speakers can be really funny. If you strike a conversation with them they may start asking personal details about you such as where do you live, for how long, where all you have travelled, whether you are vegetarian or not, what are your hobbies etc. Initially, you don't know where the conversation is going, then you start feeling that they are genuinely interested in you but the real reason is they want travel tips. If you are from the same city, the conversation can derail into unusual places of interest, obviously because they are thorough on usual places of interest. They may ask for favorite local food haunts, local dishes, pubs etc etc. The conversation soon derails into travel habits, tips to get complimentary upgrades in airlines and hotels, which airlines are the best etc. These speakers can get along only with reluctant speakers. For the Last speakers or Unable to lose bearing speakers, these guys are a big waste of time. They may permanently away from travel bugs through out the conference. But The Travel Bugs don't care. They exist in the conference for a difference purpose. They don't waste even one minute after their speaking slot at the venue. They get very upset if the schedule is delayed or their speaking slot is preceded by the unstoppable speaker. It may put their entire schedule in jeopardy, a situation that they are not willing to accept.

The Unstoppables : I suspect that in earlier days this was the most common type of speakers at the conference. Because most of the conference organizers have elaborate systems to prevent time overruns at the conference, largely caused by the unstoppables. Conference organizers review length of the presentation, keep 5 to 10 minutes after each presentation to cover for the overruns, they have a dedicated timekeeper sitting in the last row, away from public eye, with placards showing "5 minutes left" "1 minute left" and "time up". But the urge to speak and share their experience and perspective with the educated, qualified audience for these speakers is simply unstoppable. They may have limited number of slides but somewhere in the middle of the presentation they may take a wrong memory lane and wander in woods. Good eloquent speakers may entertain the crowd with their anecdotal nostalgic experiences, but it would cause a major delay. The timekeeper on last bench may start waving his placard vehemently but they will pretend to look elsewhere. The master of ceremony or chairman of the session may switch on their mike suggestively. The nervous next speaker may queue up but these unstoppables are lost in their nostalgic memories, unable to find their way back to rest of the presentation. It is cruel on them, frustrating for organizers but a moment to be amused and chuckle a little bit for all others.

In my next blog, I plan to write about species in panel discussions. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Delegate "Species" at Conference

One of the important elements of my job is to speak at conferences. Typically, conferences are events centered around a topic, with speakers lined up for the whole day - some of whom flown in from overseas and delegates who attend primarily for networking but some of them may also be interested in acquiring the information about the central theme. There are speeches, panel discussions lined up for the day with sufficient time around coffee breaks, lunch breaks for delegates and speakers to network. I have attended a lot of such events and observed some peculiar "species".

What I have realized is irrespective of the topic and venue of the conference there are several commonalities. Organizers have the same facial expressions - caught between making sure all lose ends are tied and appear in control and courteous. The registration desks are always (wo)manned with impeccably dressed good looking girls, who always have trouble finding my name tag. They invariably mistake me for those MBA students who are encouraged to attend such events to get industry perspective. I can confidently say that the tea, coffee and sandwiches in all conferences taste the same.

But what is perhaps most striking is the "species" whom you meet at these conference. These are a group of people who show similar characteristics, talk and act in same way and you are likely to meet them at every conference.

Let us look at some species among delegates first.
Business card crusaders : "My name is XXX from YYY company", a small built, busy looking, not-so-impressively dressed delegate spoke to me, holding his business card for me. I accepted the card, reached out to mine, handed it over with my introduction. both of us said, "nice to meet you." as I started inspecting his card. "what is your company......", I asked as I looked up, but I had no chance to complete my sentence as Mr. XXX had vanished. I could see him in an adjacent cluster, introducing himself. I knew I had just met a Business Card Hunter.
Sole aim of this species is to collect as many business cards as possible. Everyone in the conference wants to collects business cards but these guys are different. They are not interested in anything else other than the business card. You can see them jumping around from one group to another making sure they don't get stuck into any lengthy and meaningful discussion. They strike early to make sure they reach everyone before their cards are over. During the speeches they pull out their attendees list and keeping ticking names of delegates whom they have "covered". I am sure specimen of these species would be catching up with each other to understand trends and passing tips "go to so and so guy, his cards are getting over" or "dont waste your time on so and so he the "Lost types" ". Lost types is our next species.

The Lost types : "I am Vivek from Frost & Sullivan", I introduced myself as I held my business card for my fellow speaker. He shook hands and said "nice to meet you" and suddenly his face turned very apologetic. He had forgotten his business cards and was feeling very stupid. (rightly so). He was a knowledgeable person but unable to continue the conversation as he had forgotten the simple basic thing. Surprisingly, I meet at least one such person in every conference.
The primary objective of organizing and attending any conference is networking. Carrying a stack of business card is as essential as wearing your tie. Yet in every conference I meet up with couple of lost type specimen. For some reasons these guys don't have realistic idea of what they are getting into. They have a lost look on their face or they are not dressed appropriately or forgotten to shave. But the most striking characteristics of these species is they have forgotten to bring their business cards. They feel majorly apologetic about it, they are not able to engage in any discussion and keep assuring you that they will keep in touch thru' email. The business card hunters stay away from their meaningless existence in the conference. However, if you find a confident looking "Lost type" person either he has done it very often and has made peace with this fact or he is a "Targeted Card Distributor". This is a sub-species who are very selective about whom to hand over their cards, mostly because they have limited business cards. If they meet an important enough person they may shamelessly flash the card and go on with their business as if nothing has happened.

The Foody types: Different things appeal to different people, to these species food is the most important part of the conference. They are characterized by extended breaks, overflowing plates and multiple serving. They may leave a speech early to beat the queue at coffee breaks and lunch breaks. They can be solitary or place themselves in a discussion groups. In discussion groups, they tend to be very good listeners - for obvious reasons. Lunch epitomizes the moment of truth for these species. If the lunch is too bad, they may be very disappointed with the 'content' of the organization and decide to leave early. They may also leave early, if the lunch is significantly better than their expectations - due to overeating. The existence of this species as helped immensely in solving the puzzling phenomenon of dropping attendance for post lunch sessions. In every single conference.

Aspiring speakers : You always find couple of delegates who are really disappointed with the content and quality of speakers. They are kicking themselves in their minds for not attempting the speaker slot or for paying the full delegate fee for such an ordinary conference. They can be seen discussing and debating vociferously in the networking sessions. They try to capture the public sympathies and win popularity that helps them to corner the speakers or get approvals for their "out of the box" views. Although, they are not happy with the conference, they are one of the last ones to leave the conference. Their enthusiasm and concentration level seldom drops and they leave the venue with determination that they will turn up as a speaker, one day.

Speaker hunters: These species is perhaps the most visible after speakers on the stage. They specialize in asking difficult questions to speakers on stage. They may be Aspiring Speaker species or may belong to some NGO who is working against the topics being discussed in the conference or may be a related to academic sector and been on the receiving end of such difficult situations. Their questions may sound like , "on your slide number 15, the third number in your table does not appear to be accurate." If they are from NGO they may pose a question that questions the whole basis of organizing this conference. In one of the electrical vehicle related conference, after I made a presentation about how EV companies are concerned about safety of battery in EVs, one Speaker Hunter asked me about my opinion on hazards of recycling the Lithium Ionian battery. God forbid if you come across a Speaker Hunter and Aspiring Speaker rolled into one. Once I was asked if cellphone companies can innovate to make telephony wireless why can't power generation companies innovate to transmit power wireless! Its a valid question in some sense but nothing to do with original topic of batteries for electric vehicles.
Only silver lining to this dark cloud as a speaker is most of the Speaker Hunters are not really expecting an answer. They get their kick out of asking a difficult question. They have got their attention, their limelight, their moment in the history. One of the gracious ways of exiting this situation is to appreciate their thought process behind the question. Thank them for bringing in out-of-the-box views to the table. Also praise the organizers for having such a high quality topics and delegates and do this long enough for the audience to forget the question and organizers to call it timeout. Trust me the you will win top rating from Speaker Hunters with this strategy.

In next blog, I will talk about some species among the speakers.