Guest Blog from Liam Scott: Creativity, Messaging and Speaker Trends in Corporate Conferences

Liam Scott: Speechwriter/Producer, Liam Scott Ltd

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1.       What do you find clients are looking for these days in terms of conference creativity (including theme and design)? 

One word:  Collaboration.  They’ve realized that they miss a great opportunity when they have their groups together and force hundreds of people to stare at a stage and a single speaker, for days at a time, pausing only to get another coffee and muffin.  Every other form of communications has become more collaborative in the last 10 years; finally, the conference format is slowly starting to catch up.  Designing these opportunities and collaborative agendas occupies a big part of my time now.  How do you make the audience feel a part of what’s happening?  How do you harness the collective knowledge of the group?  How do they push each other to be better?  How do you sustain it over the year?  It’s way beyond “teambuilding”, and it’s thrilling stuff, because the conference model is changing before our eyes.  To be honest, theme and design are incidental to any of it.

2.       Do you find that companies are looking to build a long-term creative campaign that has shelf-life pre and post conference, or are they looking for one-off themes to be used just for the duration of their annual events?

I very rarely see the long-term campaign unless it’s around an incentive program.  This has always surprised me; there is so much work and thought put into themes and agendas, and it’s all linked together beautifully, and then …. Poof!  No one remembers it three weeks later.  I suspect it’s about ownership – the conference often lives in an opaque zone between sales, marketing, HR, and communications, and once it’s over, no one knows who should drive it.  This is just a guess; I’d love for some opinions on this.

3.       When writing executive presentations, is the messaging pretty consistent between companies?

Not at all.  Actually, the first difference is whether they use the word “messaging” or not.   If a company just wants to inform and inspire its employees, they approach it in a fairly straightforward way:  “Here’s what’s up”.  If they talk about “messaging” it often means there is some bad news that needs to be massaged, or some changes on the way, but audiences figure out the real story very quickly.  Reality always wins.   Secondly, every company is in a different situation, has a different history, different personalities running it, different challenges, and different opportunities.  I’ve written over 1000 speeches and produced creative for over 100 live event shows; I’d guess that you wouldn`t find 20 lines repeated amongst them, and if there were, they would be golf jokes.

4.       What has been the craziest message you have written on behalf of an executive? 

“Crazy” is a relative term.  I once convinced the CEO of a telecom company to speak at a technology conference without any PowerPoint; a lot of people thought that was crazy, including him, but it had the desired effect.  He stood out, and they listened!  In terms of conference presentation packaging, I once compared the history of Jamaican music to the future of a major financial institution, complete with live band, while in Montego Bay.  I’ve never seen an audience react to a corporate conference the way they did that weekend.  Now that I think about it… that actually was crazy.

5.       What are some of the messaging buzz words you’ve used the most when writing executive speeches?

I try desperately to steer clients away from buzzwords (not always successfully).  They’re part of the “management by bestseller” craze that has swept the world in the last decade.  Buzzwords sound artificial, and often put an audience on guard.  However, “table stakes” comes up a lot.  “Mission critical” never goes away.  “Alignment” started as a buzzword but has graduated to a business term.  There was a time when a lot of people, especially lawyers, wanted to use “open the kimono”.  I always found this vaguely unsettling.  My favourite example was the client who greeted me in our first meeting by saying “I’d like to do some envisioning”.  Usually, if people only want to imagine what the future could look like, it’s because they don’t know what they’re going to do now.  He was out of that job five months later.

6.       Are people using more video versus live presentations in their conferences these days to get the corporate messaging across to their audiences?

I wouldn’t say they are using it more; I would say they are using it differently.  I never see it used as “fluff” any more, like for opening videos or the like.  It’s used for a purpose – interviewing clients, visiting sites, demonstrating procedures, etc.  I know that YouTube has lowered the standards of video for everyone, but trust me, it’s still worth hiring pros to do the job right.  That’s especially true if you are interviewing people; there is a LOT more to it than turning on the lights and saying “talk now”.  It’s an art all its own; when you do get the person comfortable, you’ll be flat-out amazed what they will say.

7.       Are companies moving away from external speakers and using internal specialists more?

Definitely not.  If anything, I see more demand for speakers than ever before.  The challenge is finding one that is actually right for the company and the issues before it.   I often see companies overvalue name-recognition with a speaker; my strong advice is to work with an agency, be very specific about your goals, and do not be afraid to get someone who’s name you don’t know as long as they have actual experience in their topic area.  And always remember, the bare minimum you’ll pay a decent speaker is approximately $7500.  When you think about the way an audience can be turned off by the wrong person, you’ll see why I say “There is nothing more expensive than a cheap speaker”.

8.       What are the hot keynote speaker topics these days?

The same as they ever were:  Leadership, Change, and that fuzzy old “Motivation”.  One that has emerged recently is Customer Service/Customer Expectations, which I find interesting for two reasons.  First, it often has a psychological element and looks at changes in society and behaviour in the last decade.  (Hint:  they are profound.)  Second, if a company wants to talk about it, it usually means they aren’t very good at it, so they’re in the midst of attempting some shifts in their culture.  That’s always exciting to be part of.

9.       Who are your top three favourite speakers on the circuit now, and why?

I personally prefer speakers who are not on the circuit, if only because, if you widen the pool, it’s easier to find someone who can relate very specifically to an audience.  That said, Mark Tewksbury is far and away the best speaker on the “motivational” side.  Just typing his name makes me feel I like I can chop three cords of firewood and memorize the world’s capitals.  He is also possibly the single best presenter I have ever seen, on anything, and I have seen a lot.  On leadership, Brian Burke is the speaking equivalent of learning to play the guitar; he shows you (in excruciating detail) that you have to build up the callouses before you can get past “Loch Lomond”, and suggests, very clearly, that if you can’t handle that, maybe the piano is more suited to you.  Or the recorder.  On business and culture, Bruce Croxon will prove to you that anything really is possible if you have a plan to achieve it.  And he would know.

10.   What do you love the most about your job/specialty?

It’s not just different every day; it’s different every 10 minutes.

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