Last week Dell hosted its annual Technology Summit, and I was struck by how they delivered their keynote address (you may have to register to see the video). A few years back, I was among a group of analysts that put together a training course for events focused on best practices. One of the areas we focused on was how badly keynotes are done.
As we’ve moved from in-person to remote events, the effectiveness of a scripted keynote has been significantly reduced because, with the distractions we all have at home, an executive reading a script doesn’t seem to hold the audience’s attention. To keep the audience interested, you need more.
Dell went from a traditional keynote to a panel format that was well moderated by Dell’s SVP of Corporate Affairs, Jennifer “JJ” Davis, who is a legend at the company. On her panel were Dell’s CEO Michael Dell, Chairman and Co-COO Jeff Clarke, Co-COO Chuck Whitten, and Allison Dew, Dell’s CMO.
Let’s talk about why a panel works better than a scripted monolithic keynote for an online event.
Dew spoke to this during her interaction on the panel. As CMO, she gets that the impression and effectiveness of any executive team is a mix of company priorities and company personality. While the priorities, at least the stated ones, can be stated in a monolithic executive keynote, that format doesn’t convey the company’s personality. That personality is more easily conveyed when you see the executives interact. Do they like each other? Do they get along? Is the executive team looking for ways to undercut their peers, or do they have each others’ backs?
For someone considering working with a company, you want to see if its management is dysfunctional. That will directly relate to how well they can execute the plans and priorities they articulate. A few years back, I was at an event held by a Dell competitor. At that event, two critical executive team members demonstrated their hatred for each other, which predicted the firm’s later massive and more obvious inability to execute. I would argue it is at least as necessary to know the odds a vendor can execute their plans as it is to know those plans in the first place because, if you use them and can’t execute, their dysfunction will become your problem.
When I watched the executives’ body language, I could tell that they liked and supported each other, which helped me trust what Michael Dell and his executives said and made me believe that infighting was unlikely to derail their plans. A well-moderated panel like this one can establish a natural empathy and depth in the executive team and better allow you to see if interpersonal problems in the firm might become your problems later.
When you are at a venue listening to a speaker with full audio/video support, it can hold your interest if it is well-staged, scripted, and performed. At home, much of what is typically staged — product demos, slides, and videos — don’t seem to be done as well because you need a full-on TV studio to make all of that work, and most companies don’t have that. Microsoft often does far better in this regard because they have funded a full studio and thus can better professionally produce a show or event.
The panel approach, if done well, provides interaction that is more interesting to watch. Television networks use panels to discuss news items on news shows because they work better when conveying a complex topic like Dell Apex, Dell’s big “everything as a service” push. The variety and interaction between the speakers tend to hold interest better. The speakers are better positioned to speak up to fill information gaps or better explain a topic.
The key to doing this, however, is having the panel well moderated. A poorly moderated panel can be worse than a monolithic speaker because it often devolves into a linear progression of poorly linked talks with little preparation or rehearsal. Ultimately, what made the Dell panel work was Davis’s preparation and her execution as moderator. In addition, she was the best prepared on the stage, which tended to pull up the performance of the other panelists, further improving the overall quality of the effort.
I’ve noticed during vendor events the main focus is more about surviving the event itself. However, events are supposed to convey information, drive sales, and improve a company’s image. Executives often change slides until the last minute, resulting in unforced errors by the support staff and speakers, all of which reflect poorly on the image and perceived quality of the company.
A well-moderated panel can mitigate this because you don’t need as much rehearsal. The moderator owns the flow and can be brought in as a professional. And, from my perspective, a panel better conveys the company’s personality than a monolithic keynote.
Here’s an additional observation. Michael Dell opened with his new book Play Nice But Win, which is about the birth of Dell and the management practices that turned Dell Technologies into the powerhouse it is today. The book provided a solid foundation to who Michael Dell and his namesake company are and what the company’s lasting priorities will be in a believable context.