Seminars and workshops are particularly potent business marketing tools.  Here’s everything you need to know to use them to generate leads and grow your business.

If you’ve ever seen delegates queue to purchase audiocassette programs at a Tom Hopkins seminar, you’ve seen the power of a good seminar presentation. Seminars are a hybrid sales tool. They combine the benefit of face-to-face (or at least eye-to-eye) contact, with the scalability of a direct mail campaign. (By ‘scalability’, I mean that seminars make it possible for you to speak to 300 people with little more effort than would be required to address just one.) This article will show you how to harness the power of seminars and workshops to multiply the effectiveness of your sales process. While some of the ideas in this article may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, we’ll stand by them. The fact is, over the last seven years, we’ve helped our clients to sell more than half a million tickets to various events! In fact, in the last year, our own low-key breakfast seminars have been attended by just over 1,000 executives! (See inset.)

Why seminars?

Now it could be argued that a seminar is likely to be less effective than a one-to-one sales presentation because the attention of the presenter is shared between audience members — but that isn’t necessarily the case. You see, a good seminar presentation has two important advantages over a one-to-one sales presentation (other than scalability). First, a seminar automatically positions the presenter as an expert (after all, a congregation has gathered to hear this person speak). And second, because a seminar is less invasive than a one-to-one sales presentation, a seminar is easier to promote.

Seminars as a part of your sales process

The most important question to address when planning your seminar is, where exactly does it fit within your existing sales process? Typically, you have three options. Your seminar can be used to acquire new relationships. It can be used to add value to existing relationships (with both customers and prospects). Or, if your core business involves promoting seminars, your seminar can, in fact, be your product. Our suggestion is that the primary objective of your seminar should be to add value to the existing relationships under your custodianship. If you can use the same seminar to acquire new relationships, that’s a bonus.

What are you selling?

The next question you need to address is, what exactly should your seminar be designed to sell? Now, if you remember our first law of sales process design from the last edition of AdVerb, you’ll recall that each component of a sales process should attempt to sell only what it has a reasonable likelihood of selling. What this means is that, if it’s unrealistic to expect people to purchase your product at the conclusion of your seminar, don’t ask them to. Instead, sell them up to the next step (perhaps a complimentary 40-minute consultation). Ideally, you should only be selling one thing at your seminar. If, for example, you are ‘selling’ a complimentary 40-minute consultation, you might want to resist the temptation to load up your attendees with books, tapes or other peripherals. After all, you don’t want sales of low-margin products to cannibalise potential higher-margin sales.

To charge, or not to charge?

If there’s one question that creates more anxiety than any other, this is it! Our advice is simple: always charge. The logic goes like this. If you charge for a seminar, your attendance is likely to drop by about 15%. However, if you spend the revenue you earn from ticket sales on additional promotion, you should be able to easily double audience numbers. Now some of our clients are reluctant to charge because they are not sure that the subject matter will be worth the fee. If you’re in this position, I’ve got bad news for you. If you run an uninteresting seminar, audience members will be disappointed, regardless of whether or not they paid to attend. This is because, for most busy people, the cost of purchasing a ticket to attend a seminar is only a small component of the total cost of attendance. It’s better to charge, and then to invest the effort required to prepare a valuable presentation. We recommend a minimum ticket price of $25 for business to consumer seminars, and $45 for business to business events.

When, where and for how long?

Fortunately, we can be just as definitive in our answers to these logistical questions. On the ‘when’ question, we recommend breakfasts seminars for executives and CEOs of all but the smallest businesses. Evening seminars work best with consumers and owners of micro businesses. On ‘where’, always host your event in a five-star hotel. Our experience is that the small premium you pay to host your event in a more celebres venue is a worthwhile investment. And on ‘how long’, we believe the ideal duration for an event is between one and a half and two and a half hours (including a fifteen minute break).

Choosing a topic

As well as guaranteeing the attention of your audience members, the correct choice of topic will make your event a breeze to promote. And when it comes to choosing topics, the cardinal rule is, focus wins! It may seem paradoxical, but more focused topics tend attract the greatest audience numbers. For example, six years ago, when we promoted an evening seminar for Morgan Stockbroking, we ran a single newspaper advertisement with the headline, How to use exchange traded options to add growth, security and income to your top-50 portfolio. This advertisement attracted 109 high net-worth investors — which is certainly more than we would have been likely to attract with a seminar on general share investment. It is essential that your seminar topic promises to solve a problem or provides a benefit of interest to your target audience members (preferably both). If we’re working with a client to plan a seminar, we’ll use the process of writing an advertisement (or sales letter) to choose a topic. While this may seem counter-intuitive, we’ve found that the ideal headline for your seminar advertisement also happens to be the ideal seminar topic. Consider the following headlines we’ve used to promote our clients’ events: The world’s greatest marketing blunders — and how to avoid them in your business! (Marketing.) How to turn $45 into $463,000 in just 11 years (Financial services.) How to ensure that the next person who sleeps with your son doesn’t run off with the family farm (Estate planning.)

Giving it all away

As you may recall from the last edition of AdVerb, our second law of sales process design states that you should give freely of your knowledge in order to earn the right to charge a premium for implementation. It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re planning your seminar presentation. Too often I hear seminar presenters say that they are careful not to give away too much – for fear that, if they do, audience members will no longer need their services. The reality is that the true value does not lie in the information you share at your seminar, it lies in your ability to implement that information. If you give unreservedly of your knowledge, you will find that audience members will queue after your event to share their problems and ask for your assistance!

The importance of a model

Perhaps the greatest challenge in planning your seminar presentation is to share your knowledge in such a way that audience members can easily digest it. There are two techniques you can employ to effectively communicate complex information. The first is to present this information to audience members in do-it-yourself terms. In other words, rather than explaining how you do what you do, show audience members how they can do what you do themselves. The second is to present your information in the form of a model. Models have long been favourite tools of consultants. (e.g. The Boston Consulting Group’s Boston Matrix.) A model provides a user-friendly portal through which complexity can be readily appreciated.

Structuring your content

When it comes to structuring your content, you can’t go too far wrong with the old maxim: tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; then tell ’em what you’ve told ’em! Unless you’re a natural comic, I suggest you skip the ubiquitous joke and begin with a promise. Fact is, the best way to get your audience’s attention is to promise to solve a problem for them. (i.e. tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em.) Once you’ve made this commitment, it’s simply a matter of showing them how they can solve this problem — preferably using the model we discussed earlier. (i.e. tell ’em.) Once you’ve fulfilled your obligation (and exceeded your audience’s expectations) simply summarise your key points and conclude by reminding them that the problem they came with no longer exists! (i.e. tell ’em what you told ’em.)

Question time

If there’s one thing that’s likely to bring a seminar presenter unstuck, it’s questions! However, if you plan for questions, they can actually assist you to deliver a stronger presentation. To plan for questions, begin by asking yourself the following questions …

Am I happy to take questions?

If you’re not confident enough to field questions, simply advise your audience at the beginning of your presentation that, because of time restrictions, you won’t be able to provide a question time. Then simply write your e-mail address on a whiteboard and invite audience members to e-mail their questions for your prompt response.

Am I happy to be interrupted with questions?

If you’re happy to field questions, you should advise your audience whether they should save their questions until a question time at the conclusion of your presentation, or whether they should feel free to interrupt you during your presentation. It doesn’t matter which option you choose, as long as you advise your audience of your preference. If you are going to have a question time, be sure to come prepared with at least two of your own questions. That way, if your call for questions is unproductive, you can ask yourself a question! The best way to introduce your own question is to say, ‘You know, a question I’m frequently asked is … ?’

Who should present your seminar?

It is important that the person who presents your seminar is a representative of your organisation. If she is not, she will do little to build your relationship with your audience. For some reason, financial planners love to invite fund managers to present at their seminars. This practice is good for fund managers, but not so good for the financial planners (who pick up the bill)! These financial planners would be better off learning the content and presenting it themselves (of course, they can still give fund managers credit where it is due). It’s also a mistake to have multiple speakers present a seminar. Unless you’re organising a three-day conference, your seminar should be presented by one person only. That person should be the person with the best presentation skills (not necessarily the greatest technical knowledge). If your presenter does not have great technical knowledge, simply have him direct questions to a panel of experts at the conclusion of your event.

‘But I’m not a professional speaker!’

If you’re the person who’s been nominated to present your organisation’s seminar, here’s some good news. The fact is, you don’t have to be a professional speaker in order to present your own seminars. Provided you present seminars within your area of expertise, your detailed knowledge will automatically provide you with the kind of credibility that a professional speaker would have to work hard to establish. And assuming that you have a good knowledge of your subject, the other two requisites of a good speaker are not difficult to come by. You need the ability to speak comfortably before a group (you can get that by joining your local Toastmasters chapter). And, as previously mentioned, you need the ability to present your knowledge in simple, do-it-yourself terms.

Promoting your event

Once you’re convinced that you have an appealing topic for your event, your next step is to write a sales letter. As previously mentioned, this letter should begin with a compelling headline. It should then walk the reader through your seminar, explaining clearly how she will benefit from attending. Under no circumstances should this letter be any less than one-and-a-half pages in length! Along with a compelling sales letter, you should prepare a high-quality invitation. We have found that cocktail party quality invitations are considerably more effective than the standard three-fold fliers that are typically used to promote seminars. Our last promotional tip is an important one. Be sure to send your invitation to at least ten times the number of people that you wish ultimately to attend. There’s nothing that impresses audience members more than a full seminar room. And if you’re going to invest the time and effort required to present a worthwhile event, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you invite enough people to make your seminar a success.

Our own experiences

Almost two years ago, we made the decision to launch our own seminar program. This wasn’t a difficult decision to make. We had spent years assisting our clients with their events — and we were aware that a significant percentage of our clients initially discovered us after hearing Justin speak at other organisations’ conferences or seminars. Over the last 18 months, we have conducted eight breakfast seminars — attracting a total of 1,121 guests. Following is a summary of our experiences with these events.

Event overview

The topic of each of these breakfast seminars has been our Relationship-centric Marketing methodology. We have conducted Brisbane and Sydney events at the Sheraton, and our Melbourne events at the Hotel Sofitel. In each case, revenues from ticket sales ($49 a single and $88 a double) have fractionally exceeded costs. We promote these events with a combination of postal, e-mail and facsimile campaigns. Where we have subscribers’ e-mail addresses, we initially send an e-mail invitation, followed by a postal invitation and then an e-mail reminder. Where we don’t have e-mail addresses, we skip the initial e-mail and deliver the reminder by facsimile. Our postal pack consists of an invitation (tent-card format) and a two-page sales letter. Each breakfast runs from 7:00 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. sharp. Justin presents from 7:30 a.m. until 9:00 a.m. At the conclusion of each event, Justin offers audience members a free 60-minute consultation.

Key ratios

For an audience of 150 (our target) we invite 1,364 executives. Of these 150 audience members, 44 will typically take advantage of our offer of a free consultation. Considering that these events are slightly profitable, our cost-per-consultation (this is our key performance indicator) is $0, or better.

The power of e-mail

The promotion of these events has provided us with a lesson in the power of e-mail. From our fourth event onwards, we introduced e-mail into our promotional process (as mentioned above). As a result, we are now able to sell as many as 60% of available seats without sending postal invitations. This is remarkable when you consider that each e-mail ticket sale saves us almost $10 in postal costs! We also use e-mail to send reminder notes (prior to each event), thank-you notes (subsequent to the event), and notes to schedule Justin’s free consultations. (For the latter, we simply advise the dates that Justin is in town, and ask recipients to indicate their preference for date and time of day.) As well as saving us a small fortune in postal costs, e-mail is enabling us to automate event follow-up, which had previously been a labour intensive process.