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Coaching Speakers to Deliver the Goods

One association set up a multi-pronged program to help session presenters be focused, engaging, and interactive. The result: More satisfied attendees and more potential speakers for next year’s event.

Given the change in her organization’s name—from the American Compensation Association to WorldatWork—and the renaming of her association’s biggest meeting—from ACA Annual Conference to Total Rewards—Courtney Mesmer had significant pressure on her in 2023 to support these branding changes with event content that delivered significant substance in an energized atmosphere.

To do this, Mesmer, vice president of events for WorldatWork, had to remedy the uneven quality of the session presenters she had at some previous meetings. So, she began working with Sarah Michel, CSP, of event-consulting firm Velvet Chainsaw on a complete overhaul of the speaker experience.

Using a combination of heightened expectations, better communication, focused coaching, and a few incentives, Mesmer and Michel worked with the more than 150 presenters at Total Rewards 2023 to prepare them to better inform and interact with attendees, and to perform at full strength when it was their moment to speak.

Ample Support
First, “we do not base our program on the topics that come in from prospective presenters,” Mesmer notes. “We have our content framework that we fill out with speakers whose topics are close to that. We then coach them to adapt their content in the direction we want.”

Once Mesmer and her planning committee combed through the speaker submissions in early 2023 and made their selections, the chosen presenters were strongly encouraged to attend a webinar developed by Mesmer and Michel titled “How to Be the Session that Everyone Talks About.” Afterwards, each speaker had to have at least one consultation call with a member of Mesmer’s planning team or with Michel.

In that call, “we asked them what specifically they wanted attendees to think, feel, and do both during and after the session,” Michel says. “Then we explained that we wanted them to deliver not just information but also context and wisdom on applying the information.” Mesmer notes that “we want attendees to be able to go back to their companies and educate their colleagues.”

One other element required of Total Rewards speakers: “Each session must be focused on a problem or challenge your attendees have,” says Mesmer. “Opportunities for interaction are baked into that approach to the content.” In other words: “If your session can be done online, it will not be accepted.”

AM0224SpeakerCoaching.jpegThe consultation with speakers did not end there. Michel ran office hours via an online Zoom room for presenters, and even for discussion panelists, to answer questions and give advice on how to generate attendee interaction. This included a discussion about each session’s seating format, which helps presenters build their approach to engaging attendees. “Room set-ups are the body language of your conference,” says Michel (in photo, watching Mesmer speak during their session at PCMA's Convening Leaders conference). “Post-event surveys can tell you which formats your attendees like best,” though planners should check out other professional conferences for interesting room set-ups as well.

On the other hand, “a room set should never dictate that speakers cannot have the desired interaction,” she adds. “If you have to put a speaker into a room that is set up in a less-than-ideal way, don’t compromise. Find a way for that session to be interactive.”

Interaction could take the form of short (8- to 12-minute) presentation segments interspersed with peer-to-peer discussion segments, extended Q&A sessions, problem-solving challenges among small groups, or other formats.

Also, a technology application could facilitate interaction and overcome a troublesome room set-up. For instance, planners could have an app-based chat forum featuring attendees’ questions displayed on a side screen in the session room, with the speaker then asking attendees to vote on which questions should be answered first—an approach that creates engagement in two ways.

And to prime attendees for interaction right as they walk into a session room, Mesmer asks presenters to stand at the entrance and greet everyone coming in. “That personal moment makes a difference” with a session’s interactivity because “it breaks down the wall between the stage and audience,” notes Michel.

Motivational Tactics
At the Total Rewards event, Mesmer creates a comfortable speakers lounge “so that they feel valued and stay there longer and interact with other presenters and with our event team.”

Another carrot for presenters comes in the form of a challenge: Anyone who gets more than 30 percent of their session’s attendees to provide survey feedback is invited to present again at next year’s event, provided the feedback is sufficiently positive.

Lastly, Mesmer surveys all speakers and presenters after the conference on their experience. “They often say, ‘Your event helped me become more influential in my company and in my industry, and I am recommending to colleagues who have good knowledge for your audience that they apply as presenters.’”

From these efforts, Mesmer has received more than 400 submissions from prospective presenters to fill 175 slots for the 2024 edition of WorldatWork’s annual meeting.

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