On Friday last week, I went to the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. On Tuesday, I went to the Indiana Governor’s Conference for Women. Going to both conferences back to back (I was speaking at the second one, and there as press for the first) gave me a chance to think about conferences, and what the value proposition of a conference can be. Obviously, the biggest benefit of a conference is networking, but you always try to get big name speakers too. So what should you do with them?
The PA conference had slightly bigger names: Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright. Both were fascinating. However, the Indiana keynote had a far more intriguing angle: Charlotte Beers (former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather) and Martha Stewart were both speaking, but in conversation, with a moderator. These two women have been close friends for decades. Stewart was a bridesmaid in Beers’ wedding about 12 years ago — and she hacked the bridesmaid dresses to make them much better than what Beers selected (of course). So listening to the two of them riff off each other was so much more interesting than any sort of scripted speech you’d get from a traditional big name speaker. There were a couple of off-the-cuff gems I tweeted, like Beers musing on how they both built brands in a male dominated business world: “We were lucky, Martha and I. We were too raw to tame.” Or Martha, musing on both her craftiness and entrepreneurialism: “I’m a pioneer. I could have made it across the states in a covered wagon.” Just imagine that wagon’s color scheme! The two met for yoga before breakfast on Tuesday morning, but Martha had already been to the gym, Beers deadpanned, noting that “I just like to hang out.” (If I remember correctly. I didn’t tweet immediately, so not sure that’s a direct quote. The others are.)
People who speak a lot give their stump speeches frequently. I know I do. I feed off audience suggestions somewhat, but I have my basic material. If you hunted, I think for most speakers you could find a video of them giving their basic speeches. It’s not an original thing to any given conference. The cool thing about throwing two people together, especially two with a history, for a guided conversation, is that you get something you will not get elsewhere. Unless, of course, you were in the wedding with Martha and Charlotte too.
Of course, conversations aren’t always done well. You need a moderator who can deftly keep it somewhat on topic (or guide the speakers toward the more interesting tangents they randomly bring up). And you need people with the right chemistry. But if you get this, you’re good. So if I ever plan a conference, I’ll remember this.
Photo of book signing schedule. Getting the same time slot as Martha means you are quite aware that she has a longer line…