The key to marketing professional services is to demonstrate rather than claim.
And if you're marketing yourself and your skills then one of the strongest ways to do this is through talks and seminars.
Clients hire professionals who understand their problems, have the expertise to solve them, and who they feel they could work with productively. Few other marketing approaches give the professional such an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of client problems and their expertise, and give a feel for what they would be like to work with.
Talks and seminars are in the top tier of effective marketing approaches.
I remember the first time I saw a consultant give a talk on marketing at a networking event many years ago. The talk was pretty bland. Nothing special or new. But the consultant had a queue of people wanting to talk to them at the end. It didn't take me long to figure out that this could be a great way of engaging with new clients.
So how do you go about getting speaking engagements & seminars?
It's something I asked myself as I was planning my marketing priorities for 2009. I wanted to grow my practice locally (historically, the vast majority of my work has been international, or London based and I wanted to cut down on travel somewhat). Talks and seminars seemed an obvious route to go down.
I followed a simple three point plan which can work for many other professionals too. I'm focusing here on speaking for free in order to market your services, rather than paid speaking engagements.
Step 1: Get Good
An absolute prerequisite to marketing your professional firm through talks & seminars is that you must be very good at presenting your material.
That means both good content, and a good presentation style.
It sounds obvious: but so many professionals overlook it. The number of mediocre and sometimes very bad presentations I've been to in the last year is simply staggering. A bad presentation does more harm than good. Yet so many people fail to prepare, fail to practice, fail to get feedback – and so fail to get any new clients.
In my case, I'm a fairly experienced presenter, having done sessions at events from local seminars to global conferences. And I've been professionally trained in presentation techniques. But I still felt I needed to make sure I made a great impact, so I decided to make an investment in my capabilities in this area.
Early on, I focused on being able to really “ace” just one talk (on getting more referrals). So I developed it, practiced it, got feedback on it, and did it at multiple events in a variety of formats.
I also joined a local Toastmasters group to work on my presentations skills, and hooked up with my local Professional Speakers Association (in the US, this is the National Speakers Association) to learn from watching really polished performers in action. I also took coaching on developing compelling presentations. And, of course, I read a ton of high quality material on the subject.
Even if you're an experienced speaker or seminar presenter, you can almost always improve. And at bare minimum, you need to make sure that the presentations and seminars you do showcase you at the top of your game. Make sure you prepare them well (please, no endless stream of bullet-point PowerPoint slides), you practice and rehearse, and that you get honest feedback from experienced presenters.
I thoroughly recommend joining Toastmasters. If you don't know it already, it's not about becoming one of those guys who loudly announces the guests at functions – it's about becoming a great speaker. The most valuable element of Toastmasters is that you get to practice in a safe environment and get constructive feedback. And because you go back regularly rather than it being a one-off training course, you learn via the optimal method for skills training: one thing at a time not a whole bunch of new ideas heaped on you.
Step 2: Get a Plan
I'd wanted to get more involved in speaking & seminars right from when I set up my own practice. But for a year it just didn't happen.
The reason: wanting and wishing aren't the same as planning and doing.
But once I'd set myself a target of 12 presentations/seminars to audiences with at least 10 or more potential clients I was spurred into to action. I broke down the target into months and planned the activities I needed to do to hit that target. I brainstormed potential events & venues, thought through the topics I would focus on that would be likely to lead to potential clients engaging with me, and identified the resources I would need to achieve my goal.
Once I had my plan in place, I became more aware of possibilities for offering my services as a presenter. And by reviewing the plan and progress initially weekly and then monthly, I kept the pressure on myself to hit the target.
And it worked. I've already beaten my target 9 months in.
Simple stuff. But I hadn't done it the year before, because I hadn't taken the simple step of setting a target and making a plan.
Step 3: Get Booked
For me, there were three key steps which got me the opportunities to speak I needed.
The first step was to clarify with laser focus just what sort of events and audiences I needed to speak in front of. Obviously I wanted to get in front of potential clients and referrers. But the key was being able to articulate this clearly so that I could identify potential events and forums myself, and that I could explain it to others so that they knew what I was looking for.
Here, it helps to be focused. If you specialise in working with a particular sector or client type, or working on a specific set of issues or functional area then there are often professional associations or groups similarly specialised. And they're pretty much always on the lookout for good speakers with interesting topics.
If you're less specialised there are theoretically more potential groups to speak to: networking events, chambers of commerce, etc. But there are also more people offering to speak at those events.
The second step was to have done my preparation. I knew the topic I wanted to speak about, and it was one of great interest to my potential audience. I prepared a clear summary of the topic so that when I spoke to potential event hosts, they could see I had something of value ready. It's infinitely more credible than the tactic many people use of “I'd like to speak at your event. Any subject really, just tell me what you want me to talk about.”
And having a lot of publicly available material available on my blog helped. Potential hosts could quickly see I knew what I was talking about.
The third step was to go for an easy win and then leverage it. I managed to get a recommendation from someone who knew me well to an event host they knew well too. It was enough to get started and I made sure I did an excellent job at that first talk. From then on being able to say “I've just presented on abc to the xyz group…” gave me much more credibility in getting booked for other events.
Once I had a handful of talks under my belt, I was able to expand the range of subjects I covered too.
Now it's Your Turn
My plan worked, and it worked quickly. And I managed it as a sole practitioner without admin support. As a professional in a bigger practice you should certainly be able to harness the skills of your marketing/business development team to help you both with the material and in getting events booked.
You may even be able to host some events yourself. However, I do advise that unless you already have a big, responsive contact list it's much easier to get a good attendance by presenting or running a seminar at a well established event or forum.
Remember: the key to making it happen was to set a target and build a plan. Everything flowed from there.
Set your own target. Build your own plan. And it will flow for you too.
It's a scenario played out in millions of sales meetings every year.
The eager consultant (or lawyer, accountant or salesperson) has finally managed to get a meeting with one of his A list target customers. The customer meets him at reception, takes him to a meeting room and opens with “tell me a little about your company”.
“I'm glad you asked” says our hero as he brings out his pack of slides (or perhaps a glossy brochure, or even worse, his computer) and proceeds to give a thoroughly professional presentation – which unfortunately, does nothing to further the client relationship.
After a brief discussion afterwards the client offers to “call you when we need something in your area”, and the two never speak again.
Of course, it's hardly news that initial meetings with clients need to be about establishing relationships and trying to identify the client's critical needs. The problem is that far too many of us rely on the use of slides or a pre-prepared presentation as a crutch – without realising that the presence of the visual aid can often be a barrier to establishing the relationship we're looking for.
The first problem is that the potential client is no longer having a face-to-face dialogue with you – they're looking at your slides or brochure – or worse still, they're looking at a screen and you're not even physically close to them.
Secondly, if you present material, the meeting changes from dialogue to presentation. From a peer-level discussion to a “master-servant”, “I'm trying to impress you” dynamic.
Finally, the most likely outcome of a presentation is that they begin to ask questions about the presentation. That's what happens when we listen to presentations – they trigger questions and we ask them.
But, of course, at this point it's really you who needs to be questioning them. Trying to find out what they're looking for, what their challenges and problems are.
A far more effective approach is to be able to briefly describe your company in a few sentences, then turn to asking the client about their company, their challenges and what they are hoping to achieve. You can establish your and your company's credibility far more with intelligent questioning and a few “that's interesting, we worked with a client who had what looked like a similar issue recently, they…” follow-ups.
If you need to illustrate points, try a “pencil selling” approach. Have a few blank sheets of paper situated between you and the client and sketch out what you want to show them. It's far more effective and demonstrates your knowledge of the subject rather than just your ability to show slides which could have been prepared by someone else.
Better yet, you can hand the pencil to the client and get them to share in the process – adding in their thoughts and taking co-ownership of the solution or plan you are creating together.
And without the distraction of slides, brochures, or even worse, a computer to look at; you can begin to establish real human to human rapport. This may be the most crucial aspect of all as a potential client is highly unlikely to begin to open up and tell you about any significant problems they have until you establish a base level of trust and credibility with them. And that's so hard to do when you are presenting preprepared material.
So why do we rely on slides and brochures so much?
Very often it's because we have neither the confidence, nor have we done the homework needed to allow us to work without our visual aids. We can't remember all the key points we want to get across, the major benefits to the customer, and our great testimonials. We put all our preparation time into creating the presentation – rather than in thinking about how we should present it.
Ironically, we need to know our presentation and our slides absolutely off-pat – so that we can then do without them and begin to build a real dialogue with our potential client and stand a much better chance of turning that potential client into a real client.