I go to a lot of IT events. Typically, they are defined by forgettable presentations on technology products that few in the audience will ever touch. You just survive them. Now, Steve Jobs could do a presentation on products and you remembered every one. Granted, part of that was that they were personal products but part was the content; he entertained as much as he presented. Most CEOs and execs just aren’t trained, or lack the skills to present well.
At IBM, they do things a bit differently. IBM Connect opened with a professional MC, Jay Baer. He was preceded by an amazing band, American Authors, and the opening talk was by Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers. The first half hour was basically getting people off of email and waking them up. The first IBM speaker was a pro, well trained, rehearsed, and talking big ideas. The elements were: Wake the audience up, engage them, and then use that engagement to deliver a compelling message. One other thing to note: Most of the content of this event is customers presenting to customers.
Innovation, Speed, Design, Interaction, Engagement: These are the messages of IBM Connect and IBM delivered them amazingly well.
Let’s talk about this.
Audience Engagement vs. Filling Time
Within the first few moments of an IT event, you can look at the audience and determine whether the organizers were focused on engaging the audience or filling time to get the event done. When you are focused on engaging the audience, you recognize that there has to be a significant entertainment component because the audience has lots of distractions: social media, email, the Internet, and catching up with the person next to them. In an engaged event, the heads are up. In an event killing time, the heads are down and not because folks are furiously taking notes.
To keep people engaged, you operate with 15-minute segments because that is the attention span you are working with. In IBM Connect’s opening keynote, speakers changed every 15 minutes or less, almost like clockwork, and they tended to have videos at the breaks to get folks’ heads up and listening again. They likely couldn’t have done better had they gone around slapping the audience physically in the face. The heads popped up and off they went to the next segment. So it was 30 minutes of opening entertainment, 15 minutes of IBM setting the stage, and then 15-minute presentations by customer after customer.
This is really what makes a huge difference. I used to compete nationally in public speaking and was ranked third in the nation at one time. This is why I’m often brought in to review speakers. The most common comment is that there was inadequate rehearsal and horrid blocking so the speaker puts the audience to sleep and/or they are painful to watch. They may have great content but they lose engagement and the audience as a result. Often, this lack of rehearsal is because the executive feels he or shoe doesn’t need it and/or the presentation is being changed up until they go on stage and they then have to read it from the slides or a script. While pros can actually pull this off, executives just don’t get adequate prompter training.
This can be particularly noticeable with guest speakers. I was at an event a few months back where one guest speaker actually froze on stage and every other speaker ran massively overtime. It destroyed the event. This is where a professional moderator can make a huge difference. Jay Baer kept the program moving and interesting and he was a subject matter expert, which made him an ideal choice.
Pitching products, unless you are Steve Jobs, is exceedingly dull, particularly to a diverse audience for a diverse company like IBM. Most of the audience simply won’t care about most of the products due to their specialties. However, every member of the audience is interested in hearing how products are best implemented. A few years ago, we did a survey on who was most credible to an IT audience. Customers came in first, analysts second, technology publications third, and vendors a distant fourth.
Much of IBM’s event and particularly the keynote is filled with presentation after presentation by customers talking about specific problems and how they used technology to correct those problems. These are real people talking about real problems and advocating IBM as the solution provider that made them successful. By doing this, not only does IBM get excellent advocacy, but the advocates are presented as subject matter experts, improving their status amongst their peers and potentially increasing their personal value.
You have to have product demos; it is almost a requirement. But if they are done in a vacuum, they are deadly dull. IBM used the metaphor of a fictional company, Greenwell Financial, to showcase a banking site that actually engaged with customers through its site and didn’t just present services. High touch, low effort. Highly engaged customers drive more business and while the presentation was a bank, it conveyed a solution that would easily scale to embrace any B2C effort. The site contained call to action deals backed by videos and pictures that made them more compelling. The result was a very compelling, socially engaging site that appeared easy to create and easy to manage. The core element communicated was that using the IBM solution would result in a site that would engage, promote the brand, drive revenue upside (targeted intelligent campaigns), and deliver high customer loyalty and advocacy. Users could engage over their PCs, tablets, or smartphones. It was well rehearsed (the presenters performed like professional actors, keeping the focus on the message and off the presenters).
They combined portal technology, big data, analytics, social technology and graphics to create a compelling and attractive solution that the audience appeared focused on. Nicely done.
The second presentation was on using a different set of tools to identify, recruit and then manage the new employee through the hiring process. The application favored internal talent first and sets up a succession tree to assure that the firm is always ready for an unplanned or planned departure. This was built on a statistic shown earlier that more than a third of HR’s resources are focused on succession planning and this tool was targeted at that problem.
The third demonstration (which had an impressive amount of well-done humor built in) showcased how IBM’s Mail Next would better encourage collaboration and massively improve personal email management (they got a huge cheer from the audience on this). This is a product that every audience member can appreciate and it is generations better than the Notes I remember. It kind of came across as a blend of a more advanced Google+ with advanced email with a business emphasis. It was compelling. I’ve never been a Notes fan, but I could come to love this.
The key difference about these demos was that they weren’t the typical “these are the mechanics of how you use a tool.” They were more about why you’d use the tool and what benefits the firm would achieve. The mechanical demonstrations, which would appeal to a very small part of the audience, were very short, and the components showcasing the value were given far more time. This is like selling a car by conveying how great your drive to work will become and how impressed your neighbors and friends will be, rather than how easy it is to change the sparkplugs.
The next demonstration was from Actiance, an IBM partner. It uses Watson for a product called Alcatraz, which intelligently analyzes and secures your social media results. This gives a partner stage time and affirms IBM’s focus on partners.
The last set of short presentations was from a number of non-U.S. customers, once again showcasing that IBM’s products are making a difference assisting in a variety of business segments and functions all over the world.
At the end, the moderator pulled it all back together and closed this impressive keynote.
Wrapping Up: Impressive Effort
The keynote closed with the list of announcements at the event; each had a foundation in the content presented at the keynote and showcased a massive amount of integration work between the components. This serves the purpose of directing interested customers to the event sessions they are interested in and helping open conversations with IBM sales.
One of the most memorable IT presentations I’d ever seen was done by Lotus Notes after being acquired by IBM. That was decades ago, but this year IBM delivered a keynote presentation that exceeded that memorable event. It did so by having professional moderation, recognizing that it needed to entertain to engage, assuring that the speakers were brief, well-rehearsed, and professional, and in focusing on engaging with the audience rather than just filling time. I think if more companies used these best practices, more firms would find their events generate far more revenue and their customers would be far more loyal. It isn’t a hard formula: Entertain, assure high quality, and focus.