Speaking at an international conference, the speaker had just completed a well-organized, polished presentation. Yet there was almost no applause. In contrast to the many questions other speakers received after their presentations, this speaker didn’t receive any. What went wrong?


The speaker had delivered an overly commercial presentation in a non-commercial environment to an audience that didn’t expect it. Whether you or one of your lab staff members is presenting a speech at the upcoming ACS national meeting, a trade association meeting or some other conference, you need to adjust the level of commercialism to meet the audience’s expectations. If you are overly commercial, the consequences can be worse than embarrassing; sometimes they can have a lasting effect on your career.


Audience members can vote with their feet. My supervisor and I once paid $99 each to attend a one-day workshop on time management. What we had expected to be a helpful educational workshop was primarily an advertisement for one firm’s time management products. At the lunch break most of the 200 workshop attendees left the workshop hotel; many did not even stay for the complimentary lunch that was provided as part of the workshop.


Avoiding Over-commercialism


How can you and your staff members avoid these embarrassing and unpleasant situations? First, determine audience expectations and adjust the amount of commercialism in your presentation accordingly. Second, sugarcoat the commercialism remaining in your speech with interesting, useful information.


 Determine audience expectations


The organization sponsoring a conference customarily sets limits on the amount of commercialism in presentations. Audience members did not pay registration fees and travel costs plus the value of their time to attend a presentation that is essentially a sales pitch.


Avoiding excessive commercialism includes designing any slides you use. Many organizations set limitations on commercialism in visual aids.  For example, the Society of Petroleum Engineers informs speakers at its conferences, “Company logos must be limited to the title slide and used only to indicate the affiliation of the presenter and others involved in the work.” The American Chemical Society does not allow trade names to be used in the titles of presentations given at its conferences.


So if you are describing the virtues of your employer’s products or services, you must clearly describe the product without using trade names and stick to the facts without exaggeration or hyperbole. Numbers and measurements showing the capabilities or superiority of your product persuade the audience that you are presenting facts not a sales pitch.


Comparing your product with other products are fraught with dangers even though your employer may want you to demonstrate the superior performance of your product compared to competitive products. Avoid using trade names for competitive products but note that they commercially available. Should an audience member ask what the names of these products, say that you’ll discuss it privately after the presentation. This strategy has worked well for me in over thirty papers presented at conferences and trade association meetings.