Are Your Conference Speakers Teaching or Selling?

Raise your hand if you've attended a panel discussion at a conference and one of the speakers sounds suspiciously like he's selling a product or service rather than educating the audience about the panel topic.  Judging by all the raised hands, it's nearly unanimous that we've all been insulted (or is it assaulted?!) in this way.  This is a topic with which I have close  familiarity from a variety of perspectives and so I was interested to read the post at Sharon Nelson's "Ride the Lightning" electronic evidence blog (HT to @ronfriedmann for pointing it out) debating the pros and cons of allowing vendors to purchase conference speaking slots. The debate is a familiar one:  should legal conference panels be comprised solely of neutral parties such as academic types and buyers and users of legal services?  And if we allow vendors and sponsors and consultants to participate, parties who may have some commercial interest in promoting their products (or themselves), will this erode the quality of the content and turn the panel into a one-sided affair, or worse, a long infomercial?  Does the risk of commercialization increase when the vendors are also financial sponsors of the conference?

I've spent years managing sales teams or leading businesses that invested heavily in consumer education as part of the process of selling our products and services.  This meant that my team sponsored conferences or conference sessions and, yes, I've spoken on many panels which I had also sponsored.  I also led the business development function at a global law firm where I was considered a trusted insider and so I was asked to join conference panels to provide the buyer's or user's perspective on numerous topics.  I'm now a legal management consultant who's asked to speak regularly on conference panels as an independent observer debating issues of the day in our beloved legal profession.  Amusingly, on more than a few occasions, statements I've uttered as a consultant or as a law firm insider were deemed more credible and unbiased than the exact same statements I've made as a vendor.  Perhaps some audience members hear what they want to hear?

In fairness, I've had vendor colleagues who perceived any opportunity speak on a panel as an opportunity to pitch their product.  This type of behavior ruins it for the rest of us, and it usually stems from one of two sources:  the vendor representative is just that, a vendor rep, who knows little about the market dynamics beyond the features and functions of her particular product and therefore is in no position to offer consumer education on broader issues; or the vendor does such a poor job of consultative (a.k.a. "needs based") selling that he believes he gets one chance to pitch his wares, and as a result behaves in such a way as to make this a self-fulfilling belief.  I've written about the need for vendors to become part of the market they serve, to participate in the community alongside their clients, competitors and colleagues.  Sadly, many view their vendor role as a day job and when their sales call or booth shift is over, they want to do anything but spend time in their marketplace.

In Sharon's post she shares the inside scoop from a conference organizer who is incensed at the arrogance of vendors who try to buy selling time at the podium.  But conference organizers aren't without sin in this debate either.  One challenge with conference committees is that there is often little continuity from year to year.  On two separate occasions in my career my panel was rated the highest of all panels at the conference.  The following year, neither conference committee would take the time to even consider a follow-up session, a 201-level course, if you will.  In a more recent example, the new conference planners retained by a national legal organization specifically prohibited all but the most prominent consultants and vendors from participation in the educational panels, out of some apparent misguided sense that users and buyers are the only credible sources for peer education.  Does anyone really think that a neutral consultant, or an objective, education-oriented vendor, either of whom has spent time in dozens or even hundreds of firms, can't shed additional light on a topic as compared to a user who, almost by definition, has experience at just one firm?  Conference organizers, and in particular conference programming committees, tend to want to leave their mark, which often manifests itself in finding new speakers and not relying on prior speakers... regardless of how well they were received.  Eliminating all past speakers, and eliminating all but the buyers, are dumb ideas, but no more dumb than lazily inviting the same speakers year after year.

The moral of the story is that there are few hard and fast rules which apply when organizing conferences.  I should know, I've been the conference chair of a national legal industry conference, and I and my teams have organized (not sponsored, but ran) many dozens of conferences.  We often invited industry experts, some of them vendors, sometimes even competitors, to participate on panel discussions in order to present compelling educational programming.  However, we checked references of potential speakers -- starting with evaluations from prior speaking engagements and on multiple occasions polling past attendees to assess a speaker's propensity to sell from the podium.  The vendors who sell rather than educate are usually well-known.  Those who offer new, insightful, relevant contributions year after year should not be constrained because some poorly-trained hack in the same field conducted a product demo in lieu of a didactic approach.

I understand the emotion behind the pay to play debate.  But it's not the fact that a vendor sponsors a panel, or the fact that a panelist derives an income from selling products or services to audience members, that causes the problem.  After all, I've wasted as much time listening to biased users who, for example, resolutely believe their firm's technology implementation is perfect for everyone else on the planet, as I have listening to vendors pitch their wares.  The key is to discard prejudices and evaluate each speaker on his or her own merits.  And let's not be afraid to discard a panelist -- even after the program guide is published -- if during the rehearsals a panelist is incapable of educating rather than selling.  Do this a few times and the word will get around to the community:  send your best or don't send anyone at all.

As for me, my past teams often accused me of not once mentioning my company or my products. One colleague remarked dryly, "Tim, I don't think anyone would be offended if you thought to mention our company name, or mentioned that our company offers products that help users address the business issues you were discussing."  Of course, at one conference, immediately after the panel chair introduced me, an audience member stood up and  exclaimed, "I'll learn nothing from a vendor trying to sell me something!" and then he stormed out... before I had even said a word.  And I'm the one accused of having a bias?