The importance of conference rapport

I have, to date, spoken at some two dozen seminars, conferences, panels or other public events where the audience is not my coworkers.

Not bragging, just saying that I’ve been to a few. Enough, I hope, to give an observation without having the more seasoned public speakers of the world laugh too hard. I know I’m just starting at this whole speaking circuit thing, but bear with me. I’d like to delve into a common mistake I see most of the VIPs at these conferences making. I want to explore why I think a measure of meekness is essential to be accepted as a worthwhile speaker. First, just a little background on yours truly.

I started my speaking gigs by accident. I was attending a social media for government seminar a couple of years back. My organization wanted me to go learn about what social media was. I already had a healthy knowledge of things, but they said they would feel more comfortable if I had a certificate or something, saying I knew what I knew. Fine. They ponied up the thousands of dollars necessary for me to earn a listening spot at a table in a Washington, D.C., hotel; I was able to escape the clamor of the office for a few days. Fair trade.

The conference was well-organized. The speakers were varied. The audience was engaged. But I had heard most of it before. A few of us had. I and a couple of others raised our hands a bit to bring up points of discussion. There were a few times when I was able to add a fresh viewpoint or other perspective. I tried to not be too overbearing. I know how annoying those know-it-alls in school always are. Still, by the end of the conference, people knew I was pretty comfortable with social media. I guess it was enough to show through in the end-of-conference summaries, because the organizers of the conference asked me to return for their next venue and speak.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary—these conferences self-perpetuate as attendees grow, learn and are asked to speak. It’s how the companies who run these events stay fresh. I was excited at the chance though. After the next event, I received several more invites. After those, several more. These things have a way of begetting further speaking opportunities.

DINFOS has a training course for new instructors. In this course, veteran educators teach the ragtag bunch of military journalists, broadcasters and public affairs officers how to impart knowledge in the classroom. There’s a lot to do to successfully reach the mind of an adult. Unlike children, who respond with external motivational factors like grades, candy or perhaps recess; adults learn through internal motivation. Someone has to appeal to an adult’s inner self—perhaps through self-interest (what’s in it for me?) or some sense of duty (performing well for the betterment of whatever). There are important steps that must be done prior to instructing.

An instructor must be respected. He or she must be seen as an authority or someone with a skill or bit of knowledge to share. An instructor must then be accepted by the audience. An instructor must coax engagement out of the audience, give an avenue for them to show their intellectual growth and then leave them encouraged at whatever skill or challenge an instructor wishes to impart.

This game is a miniature version of every leader ascension in the history of civilization. When a new leader wished to prove his or her dominance over a tribe/town/region/nation, these sorts of games had to happen too. Rapport was essential. An audience had to feel that the leader was a part of them—that the leader and they shared something. Perhaps it was a common interest in surviving. Perhaps it’s iPods. Whatever. Without rapport, people might listen, but it’s more out of dread or terror; either because of the position the leader/instructor holds, or the fear of what will happen if the audience member does not absorb the presented knowledge.

So, fast forward to most seminars and, finally, what I’m aiming at. I think it is essential that speakers show up early, stay for the entirety of the conference and know when to change their presentations. Most VIPs at these conferences whisk in and out. The most important ones have to, really. How often can President Obama just hang out? Probably not that often. So, were he to speak at one of these social media seminars, it would be an in-and-out venture. Granted.

But most of us can afford to stay longer. Perhaps we choose not to, because we wish to mimic the spectacle of the truly important members of society. If I’m jet setting to LA, Paris, or some meeting, I just have to scurry along. “Sorry I’m late, blah blah blah.” I’ll speak, get the applause and move out—on to the next critical event. I think too often speakers look to be celebrated as some sort of royalty. So whether it is because of honest busyness or ego, too many of us don’t invest in our audiences.

At every seminar I’ve ever been at as a speaker, I’m evaluated as the top or in the top three, so far as audience ratings go. Why? I think it has to do with rapport, honestly. I enjoy conversing with the attendees. I am an attendee at these seminars. I sit through the other lectures. I laugh and ask questions like the other attendees. When lunch comes around, I don’t make plans. I hang out with the others who are unsure where to go, how long we all have before we have to get back. Sometimes I eat alone. I crack some jokes. Most importantly, I think, is I listen. I talk about how the seminar is going. I hear people’s feedback on the other sessions—how two or three covered the same thing, or how one’s slides were too small, how another just tap-danced around the questions.

One disadvantage of most of these seminars is a general lack of content coordination. Most speakers flux—some cancel, all have different experience levels and areas of ability. As a result, especially in the volatile and formulating world of social media, many speakers cover the same thing. Or, they are so far removed from the audience members, they have absolutely no relevance.

The audience makeup doesn’t help speakers prepare either. Most of the seminars I have participated in are for government, but that is little help. In the audience there are usually contractors, government service employees, federal agencies, state agencies, non-profit, think tanks, marketing, businesses wishing to get into the government scene. There are police departments, Army guys, IT, legal, public affairs, directors, managers, workers….

A mess, especially if someone is trying to prepare material to speak to this disparate mob. So, most speakers default to a single or small series of lectures they give routinely. I know because I’ve seen several people pitch the same lecture years later. No one is the wiser if they attend only one event.

What I try to do is remain adaptable. Even if I’m covering similar material and borrowing from past presentations, I will rebuild new slide shows for every event. If I see several people giving the same lecture, I make sure I remove that material from my upcoming speech. If I hear people complaining about things being too loud, or the slides being too dark, I change my presentation to assuage the complaints. Most importantly, though, I listen to their situations through our conversations. I try to empower them. I try to build them up as much as I can. I offer my services. I give them examples. I add value to their conference experience.

And the result? Glowing reviews. Honest relationships. Continued invitations. It takes listening to make a great public speaker. The more grandiose a speaker’s introduction—when degrees and acronyms trip up the event organizer as he or she reads the biography…those are usually the speeches that lose the most people. There’s a hell of a disconnect there from the average government worker and the celebrated darlings of event organizers. If that speaker hasn’t taken the steps to be accepted by the tribe he or she stands before, then the following hour or two becomes a waste. The applause afterward is as much for the audience congratulating itself on surviving than any showing of appreciation.

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About salemonz

Born in San Diego, Calif. Raised as a Navy Brat, I jumped ship and crossed over to the Army. Served as an enlisted journalist for a bunch of years, then helped the DoD figure out what the hell to do with social media. After the Army, now I drift down the river of life, trying not to be a jerk.

One response to “The importance of conference rapport”

  1. Maj Jason Binks says :

    Josh,

    Great briefs last week in Tyson’s Corner. Showed the fellas your unhub site. I’ll be presenting the highlights of your briefs to my unit later this week.

    Jason

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