Lessons Learned from the 2022 Presentation Summit

If you were to look up epiphany at Dictionary.com, it should include the footnote "See Season No. 20 of the Presentation Summit." In our 20-year history, no event has been more eye-opening than the four days in October over which we staged our hybrid conference.

If you were to look up epiphany at Dictionary.com, it should include the footnote “See Season No. 20 of the Presentation Summit.” In our 20-year history, no event has been more eye-opening than the four days in October over which we staged our hybrid conference.

Let’s start with a few highlights that transcend epiphanies and were noteworthy under any circumstances:

Our traditional Sunday evening Business Round Table included a surprise guest as Nancy Duarte made a stealth appearance to a suddenly packed crowd.

We booked sportswriter Jeff Pearlman before his tome on the Los Angeles Lakers’ 1980s dynasty became a blockbuster HBO series. The ace in the hole was daughter Jamie Altman, who, back when she was in college, asked Pearlman to be her journalism advisor. He couldn’t say no to her then and he couldn’t very well say no to her now. His keynote and Q&A with Jamie are available as free content on the conference platform.

Dierdre Wolownick Matriarch of First Family of Rock Climbing

Dierdre Wolownick brought the house down with her personal story. Began climbing mountains at age 59…oldest women ever to climb El Capitan (at age 70)…learned all about handling stress as mother of Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame.

Nolan Haims extolled the virtues of wearing makeup as a remote presenter. His advocacy extended to his applying foundation to his face before his in-person and virtual audiences.

Monday evening’s Trivia Contest was played by both audiences simultaneously, and it worked.

And Tuesday and Wednesday evening’s receptions reminded everyone to never again take for granted the opportunity to bond in person.

The phenomenon of engagement

Now in its third year with a virtual component, the Presentation Summit has made it clear that its virtual audience must be maintained and nurtured. A true Covid silver lining was the hundreds of people who were previously unable to consider traveling to the Summit but could now attend virtually.

It has become simultaneously a vital yardstick and a tired cliché: can you engage your audiences? Can you keep them enthusiastic and energized while you teach them something? A routine commodity for in-person events, engagement is anything but routine for virtual events and an even more fleeting notion when you talk about blending two audiences.

This became one of the most salient challenges for us and it was central to our decision to seek out a dedicated virtual MC who could help cultivate community among our virtual audience. We chose John Chen of Engaging Virtual Meetings and he quickly became BFF with the virtual crowd for his friendly manner and his ease of accomplishment with technology and with the demands of hosting.

Twenty-year salute: Virtual MC John Chen (top row, second from left) created lots of spirit and togetherness among the Zoomies.

Upgrades we made to audio tech enabled us to hold several hybrid events which included active and simultaneous participation by patrons from both audiences. As the in-person host, I teamed with John to offer a welcome open house the evening before the conference, stage the trivia contest, and hold a speed round of quick tips. Audiences got to know one another and it became common for our in-person patrons to tune in to the virtual happy hours.

We succeeded beyond all expectation. We also became victims of our own success; more on that soon.

The longer you go, the more challenging it becomes

When you host an event for 20 years, patron loyalty becomes, at the same time, a cherished commodity and mortal fear. Every conference season, without fail, at least 50% of our patronage is making its first visit to the conference. Some of them self identify as new or beginning users and some call themselves advanced. We have learned not to place too much stock in these self-assessments as patrons historically overestimate their abilities to degrees that are often comical. This means that we need to provide a steady diet of bedrock principles and fundamentals, year after year.

Seventeen stars on this badge, one for each year of patronage.

Meanwhile, we gratefully play host to people who are making their fourth or fifth pilgrimage to the Summit. Seventh or eighth. Tenth. Twelfth. Or maybe their 17th trip, as is the case with one Charles Cranford, who has missed just three times since 2003.

In Charles’ case, he wants to keep having fundamental concepts drilled into his head. Others treat the conference like a mega networking event and just want to meet new colleagues, while a third group treats it like summer camp and can’t wait to see their long-time conference buddies. And among these latter two groups, a significant number of them want to get down and dirty with the geekiest PowerPoint tips and the deepest design concepts. We need to answer that bell for them.

This presents quite a challenge for us and that challenge grows more steep with each year as that schism widens between those attending as neophytes and those attending for their umpteenth time. I approach balancing seminar topics as if it is equal parts lost art and black magic. We start with some vague notion of what people might want to learn and we conjure up themes around those notions. If someone suggests a good idea, I try to craft a gimmicky name for it; if someone has only the gimmicky name, I try to wind some substance around it.

Sometimes we succeed brilliantly and sometimes we fail spectacularly. Other times, our failures are more subtle, like our tardiness in anticipating the emergence of Google Slides as the free and collaborative medium of choice among a now-measurable percentage of the public-speaking population.

We will always need to provide basic best practices for all conference attendees who feel that they need them. And we must always strive to quench the thirst of our most skilled and curious patrons. That challenge will never go away and we willingly accept it.

Hybrid: Exciting, exhilarating, exhausting, exasperating, exorbitant

In addition to the new community of virtual customers we have cultivated over the past three seasons, the other Covid silver lining has been the opportunity to learn an entirely new set of skills. Staging a hybrid conference — in which we simultaneously serve our two audiences with content and engagement opportunities — is like nothing I would have ever attempted or even conceived of prior to Covid. Let’s explore all of these EXs…

Exciting: It’s like being on a television set, with all of the moving parts, stage direction, timing down to the second, multiple cameras, and tape on the floor where you can stand and where you cannot.

Exhilarating: There are two aspects of hybrid presenting that are particularly compelling: 1) Reaching people in Duluth, Oslo, and New Zealand, all at once, while standing before a live and in-person audience; and 2) Calling for questions and knowing that you can address people’s interests no matter where they are in the world. This is like a narcotic: once you feel that, you just want to keep on feeling it.

Exhausting: I know all about borrowing against adrenaline to harness the energy needed to host a conference. I know the feeling of “being on” for an entire day. But hybrid hosting is that x 10. It is like being on a 12-hour non-stop rollercoaster.

Exasperating: While the level of satisfaction in pulling off hybrid is exceptionally high, so is the frustration level. Everything you do involves a bit of compromise. You can’t quite pull off that opening bit for your in-person audience because it won’t be appreciated by your virtual audience. And that slight of hand you want to do with your virtual MC will leave the in-person audience scratching their heads. Being most things to all people is a point of pride, but not being able to be fully present for either audience is a point of regret.

Exorbitant: Forgive me for burying the lede, but you will pay through the nose to do hybrid right. We’re talking over $25,000 in gear and talent to service the livestream, over $5,000 in rented Internet bandwidth, at least that much again in proper lighting, and several thousand in microphones and mixing equipment.

I am tremendously proud that the Presentation Summit acted as the standard bearer for our industry and that we got to show the world what hybrid learning and networking could look like. But I don’t feel as if we need to keep on showing the world. Twice is enough.

Dealing with hotels is a PITA

I fully sympathize with the post-Covid plight of the service industry in general and of the hotel industry in particular. I have many good friends in that business and they have had a rough go of it. In many cases, their very survival is at stake, and with that as the backdrop, being their friend is not sufficient grounds to offer me preferred pricing. Hotels feel as if they need to maximize their revenues and they don’t care how they do it.

While our conference has had three consecutive years of above-average attendance, this is due solely to our being able to combine our two audiences. I love that we can do that, but the accounting departments at our host properties do not. All they see is that our in-person numbers are half of what they used to be, so we can take our pick: get half the amount of ballroom space or pay big rental fees for the amount of space we need. Our catering manager does not care about the 50 people from Scandinavia that can now avail themselves of our instruction without having to fly 12 hours; he only cares that we reach the food and beverage commitments that we made.

It is not likely that this will change any time soon and it is equally unlikely that we will readily attract 200 people in person next year or the year after, as people return to business travel ever so gradually. Something has to give.

Going forward

My unwillingness to continue with a hybrid experience, coupled with a general pessimism about being able to do business with conventional hotels lead me to the following conclusions:

  1. It is easier to hold an in-person event, and then two weeks later, hold a virtual event. Less stress and fewer compromises.
  2. One hundred people in person is a perfect number, I don’t care what Hilton, Hyatt, or Marriott have to say about that.
  3. Our quest has begun to seek out alternative venues: boutique hotels, retreat-style facilities, locations for which our new expected numbers are acceptable.

This will be the impetus for an entire reboot of the Presentation Summit, a 2.0 launch in which we rethink every aspect of the event. We will not have to dismiss an idea just because it cannot service both audiences at once. We will focus on maximizing each experience and seek to take full advantage of an entirely different type of venue. Patrons will feel little or no FOMO: virtual patrons will not be watching in-person patrons on site and wishing they could be there, and in-person patrons will be able to opt in to be part of the vitality that has marked the virtual experience. So stay tuned.

Family is everything

Finally, for the first time ever, my entire family was on hand for the whole conference (as opposed to a social visit before it starts or a quick fly-in on the last day) and it was a high-water mark for me. Becky has been a beloved part of the community for over a decade now and I have considered myself lucky for that connection.

Our two daughters, Erica and Jamie, and Erica’s partner Cody, are now fully formed adults and it was a special experience to see them circulate among our patrons with grace and aplomb. They each had official roles which they took seriously, and then they socialized effortlessly with people of all ages. They did Becky and me proud and I hope they want to return next year.

The 2022 Presentation Summit is now available, in its entirety, as an on-demand experience. All of the inspiring keynotes, expert seminars, and virtual happenings. CLICK HERE to take a free tour, including several full viewings of seminars and events.

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