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.
Now, of course, the increased prevalance of social media (and Matt includes blogs, articles, podcasts, etc. in that group) aren't going to completely kill off cold calling. But Matt's point – based on a lead generation experiment he ran – is that for many businesses they may now present a better return on investment than cold calling.
In the case of professional services: article writing, seminars and speeches have always been a fantastic business development device for the larger “names” in the business. They provide advanced clues for potential buyers to the credibility and knowledge of the consultant, lawyer, accountant, engineer or architect who wrote the article or delivered the speech. Given the intangible nature of professional services; those clues are often an immensely powerful lever to at least get the professional engaged in a dialogue with the potential client.
Historically, speech-making and article writing has often been the preserve of the well-known individual or the major firm. Most people read a small number of quality journals so competition for placement was high and the chances of a small firm or unknown individual getting a high degree of visibility was slim.
But like many things in life, the internet has changed all that. Not only is it much easier for good quality content to get published on a plethora of sites and blogs; but potential clients have changed the way they find material. Nowadays they don't subscribe to a small number of quality journals in the hope that something of relevance will appear every few months – they search for what they want, when they want it.
So equipped with some half-decent SEO and an interesting niche to write about; smaller firms and less well-known professionals can replicate the marketing tactics of the industry giants.
Of course, actually being able to produce quality material that really is going to raise your credibility is a whole different story. But at least today the barriers to publishing and being found have all but fallen.