I wasn’t planning on writing about best practices in client seminars this month, but two bits of disparate information made me reconsider. First, BTI’s research summarized in the April 6 Mad Clientist blog indicates that the largest 30 firms in the world are diverting budget from general audience events, seminars and webinars to fund strategic, highly-targeted client development initiatives. These initiatives can and should include customized programming for clients.  Second, a legal marketing colleague shared a somewhat surprising client seminar planning experience: on the eve of the seminar, very little lawyer-side preparation had been done, despite his cajoling, stalking and pleading. BTI’s research reinforces that, now more than ever, thoughtful planning and preparation of client seminars – general audience or customized – is essential. So why do some lawyers think they can just ‘wing it’?
Sometimes having deep subject matter expertise bolsters confidence (consider the litigator who regularly appears in court and is at ease speaking in front of an audience). Sometimes presenters are just ‘last-minute Charlies’ by nature or procrastinate due to an aversion to public speaking (something many of us can relate to). Often, ‘winging it’ is the result of a busy practice, competing priorities, or an unpredictable workload. Legal marketers need to be sensitive to these realities even when the seminar planning becomes the embodiment of herding cats.
But at the risk of stating the obvious, there is a difference between knowing your subject matter well and being able to effectively communicate your knowledge and value to an audience. Compelling delivery of your content – making it memorable, digestible, and actionable – is a learned skill, honed through disciplined preparation and practice. In addition, seminars offer an opportunity to evoke and reinforce your firm’s brand experience. If the logistics are solid, but the content weak, or vice versa, the attendees’ experience is inconsistent and incomplete. In today’s market, every advantage, however small, matters.
Pulling it all together
I worked with a group of lawyers practising in a niche area of law, who hosted an annual half-day seminar comprised of more than a dozen back-to-back 10-minute presentations. Quite an undertaking for an in-house operation, but it was format that very effectively reflected the group’s depth and capabilities in the market. The line-up changes little over time, but each year, they establish discipline around developing their content and thinking about their audience, which includes a mandatory rehearsal for each presenter a few days prior to the seminar. A significant amount of time also goes into planning external communications, hand-out materials and logistics. The result is a professional, entertaining and highly-anticipated seminar that starts and ends on time, with rare exception. It is a well-oiled machine, but it does not run on autopilot. It’s a great example of giving consideration to each aspect of the seminar and planning for its success.
The following are some tips and best practices that I’ve picked up along the way, having worked with a few presentation-savvy lawyers, talented presentation coaches and event specialists:
- Plan early, plan often. Use a critical path, assign responsibilities and stick to it. Hold everyone accountable to the deadlines and deliverables; diarize deadlines with reminders.
- Get all of the presenters together in a room at least twice, first to develop an outline of the content and who will talk about what; closer to the date of the seminar, meet again to run through the content to spot overlap and inadvertent omissions. If budget allows, hire a presentation coach for the second content run-through. Related:
- Do some research on your topic, the market and client(s) to provide context and direction.
- Consider involving outside speakers who can add credibility or a new perspective, reinforcing your understanding of the business context.
- Understand who will be in the room and adjust accordingly. Whether a general audience or client-specific seminar, knowing who will be in the room will help you tailor your content to ensure that it is relevant and valuable to attendees.
- Think about the whole package as a reflection of your brand. The critical path should include ample time to review and improve presentation and hand-out materials, not only for spelling and grammar, but for cohesion and adherence to brand standards. Build in time to consider logistics and the attendee’s physical experience. A comfortable audience is an engaged audience. Seating set-up, room temperature, and easy access to food and beverage all matter. Cutting corners or sloppy materials simply won’t do.
- Remember that PowerPoint and the like are visual aids. The audience should be focused on you, not your slides. Also, don’t read your slides word for word; it can diminish your credibility as a subject matter expert.
- Rehearse. Again, if budget allows, bring in a presentation coach for the rehearsal. Related:
- Don’t be afraid to show your personality – give the audience a sample of what it’s like to work with you. If you want to use a joke as an icebreaker, test it out in advance (I can’t tell a joke to save my life, and attempting one during a presentation would do more harm than good. Unless you are naturally funny, try another tack.).
- Incorporate stories into your presentation whenever possible; stories make your content memorable and relatable.
- If you are on a panel, don’t check your phone while waiting for your turn to speak.