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Sugarcoat Commercialism in Your Oral Presentations

Presenting an overly commercial presentation at an inappropriate time can hurt your company and your own professional reputation. When is it appropriate and when is it inappropriat to "go commercial?"

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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None of us wants to fly hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to attend a technical conference only to sit down and listen to sales talks. Yet I imagine most of us can say, “Been there, done that.” Recall your reaction to these sales pitches. If you're like me, you were surprised, resentful, and seldom inclined to buy the product being pitched at you.

Going commercial

When you do “go commercial,” the audience must know in advance that your presentation will be essentially a sales pitch. For example, your abstract or letter requesting an appointment can say that you will talk about the superior performance of your product in specific circumstances likely to be of interest to your audience.

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Typical venues for a commercial presentation are a potential customer’s office, a conference room at a potential customer’s site, a hotel conference room, or occasionally, a trade association or professional organization conference room. These last two locations should be done only if the commercialism ground rules are made clear in advance to both speakers and prospective audience members. For example, the Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry (TAPPI) has offered a venue at which suppliers can make very commercial presentations about their products. This is a reception funded by suppliers at which their tabletop poster commercial displays and literature line the perimeter of the reception room. One or more representatives staff the posters to discuss them with interested conference attendees, answer questions and supply commercial literature.

Other examples are the vendor presentations and workshops at the National Chemical Exposition that is part of the yearly ACS national meeting. While company representatives do present much information of general interest, the primary focus is usually performance of the company’s products. In the case of software, the supplier often provides PCs on which attendees operate the software coached by the company representative.

When I worked for an oilfield services firm, I participated in an interesting commercial event in Calgary organized by our local sales personnel to take advantage of several researchers from the corporate lab who were in town to attend a petroleum industry conference nearby and present four papers. They rented a hotel ballroom and set up half with large round tables for lunch and half as a lecture presentation room. They then invited employees of area oil and gas companies to attend four technical presentations — commercial versions of the papers being presented at the conference. In our presentations, we used trade names and included comparisons of our product’s performance with that of competitors’ products while keeping a solid technical core to our presentations. (This information was not included in the conference presentations.) Thus, attendees, even if they were not prospective customers, could receive interesting, valuable information. Approximately two hundred people attended the free event with the presentations scheduled prior to lunch. The response was excellent with some attendees staying hours after lunch to discuss the presentations. At least two products were rapidly and successfully launched in Canada as a result of this event.

The key to its success was appropriate audience expectations, solid technical content to our commercially oriented presentations, and well-prepared presenters. So there are ways to “go commercial” and do it well. Not charging a registration fee helped boost attendance.

When audiences do have their expectations seriously disappointed, the result can be a public relations problem for the sponsoring company while reducing the professional credibility of the presenter. For instance, once my supervisor and I each paid $99 to attend what a mailing described as a one-day workshop on time management to be presented by a famous expert in the field. The registration fee included a group luncheon. About 500 people attended — but not the expert. Someone else presented a workshop primarily on the use of his firm’s time organizer/scheduler and only secondarily on helpful principles of time management. The large room was set up so it was difficult for people to leave after the lights were dimmed and the presentation started. Most of the audience was very dissatisfied with the event because we had spent $99 and more than four hours of our time to attend a sales talk. Despite the registration fee, about half the audience left without staying for the afternoon portion of the presentation. Many were so disgusted they did not stay for the lunch they had paid for.

Avoiding inappropriate commercialism

This example illustrates that an excessively commercial presentation can cause you and your employer more harm than good. This is particularly the case at technical conferences during which audiences expect speakers to impartially present technical information that is both educational and valuable. Many professional societies and trade associations have guidelines regarding the admissible amount of commercialism allowed on slides and in speaker’s remarks. Some specifically prohibit the use of trademarks and corporate logos. Despite these rules, some speakers still give presentations that are overly inappropriately commercial in the context of technical conferences.

When considering inappropriate commercialism, remember a basic principle of scientific publications and presentations is to give enough information so that someone else can repeat the work you describe and get the same results. Because of this principle I believe it is appropriate to use a trade name once (i.e., in the experimental section to define the materials used in a study). If your employer won’t allow you to disclose a proprietary chemical structure or details of equipment or instrument design, discuss with the appropriate people within your company what information of this type you can disclose. If you are quite restricted, either make sure the undisclosed information is peripheral to the primary content of your presentation or withdraw the presentation. This last example has happened to me and it is frustrating. However, it is preferable to the alternative — being strongly criticized by audience members for being too commercial in your presentation.

I’ve seen this happen at an ACS national meeting. The abstract and title gave the impression the professor would be describing a polymer-modification process. Instead, the paper presented polymer property information that illustrated how well the modified polymers would perform in certain applications. After the presentation, a member of the audience asked exactly how the polymer was modified. The professor said he couldn’t discuss this because his university had decided to patent and license the process but hadn’t yet filed the patent application. This questioner and another individual proceeded to use the rest of the question period taking the professor to task for abusing the privileges of the ACS podium. This case illustrates that it’s not always we industrial chemists who are at fault for being too commercial!

In another presentation at a symposium, I saw a young engineer give a very commercial presentation. After the presentation, one of the conference organizers stood to comment that he didn’t find the presentation “very helpful.” This unleashed a series of critical remarks and the presenter and the other company representative of the conference, both very embarrassed, left the meeting two days early. This could well have been a case of the more senior company representative failing to be an effective mentor for the young engineer who appeared surprised at the audience reaction to her well-delivered presentation.

The promotional presentation

However, industrial chemists often have to deliver a commercial message in a presentation because this is why our employer sent us to the conference. How can we do this without violating conference commercialism guidelines or our audience’s sensibilities as occurred in the two case histories summarized above? The answer is to sugarcoat the commercial message of our presentation with interesting and valuable technical content. This content should be the primary focus of the presentation. At least half of my more than 100 technical presentations have followed this guideline. Despite this, these technical presentations still result in frequent requests for product information.

Some call this type of presentation a promotional presentation. A promotional presentation focuses on information so audience members who would never buy the product still find the presentation interesting and valuable. However, those who are potential customers draw conclusions from your presentation that can eventually lead to product sales. If you use your company’s product to explore and understand a phenomenon, you can present data that indicates your product performs well in a particular application while emphasizing the phenomena under study.

For example, in discussing the process parameters that have the greatest impact on ink removal from pulped wastepaper in paper recycling flotation de-inking processes, I always use one or more of my employer’s products as the flotation de-inking agent (that promotes ink detachment from wastepaper and promotes foaming for physical separation of the dispersed ink from cellulose fibers by flotation). This chemical is described in all my slides but one using an innocuous acronym. The one exception is the slide in which I discuss the materials, equipment, instruments, and test procedures used. There I use the commercial trade name of the product. During the question period, someone occasionally asks why I didn’t use a different flotation agent. I respond that I performed the described research as part of my employer’s new product development program and so used my employer’s product. So far no one has challenged this answer.

The audience receives two “take-home” messages from a good promotional presentation. They have a better understanding of the phenomenon that was the primary subject of your presentation and they feel you and your company are expert in this particular field or technology. If they are potential customers, they are motivated to contact you and discuss how your firm’s products could solve problems for them.

Tips for promotional presentations

Tailor your presentation to the audience. For example, in describing a class of water-thickening polysaccharides, I have separate data sets on thickening oilfield brines and on fresh water thickening for presentation to oil industry and food industry audiences respectively. I present this information in the context of studying the effect of temperature on polysaccharide conformation and the nature of interactions with water molecules and ions in solution.

Finally, be prepared for appropriate follow-up. Exchange business cards so that, in personal conversations after your presentation, you’ll be able to arrange to send people information. Do this promptly. Handing out commercial materials immediately after the presentation could offend some audience members or violate the conference sponsor’s guidelines on commercialism.

By avoiding overt commercialism, carefully choosing the content of your promotional speech, presenting it well, and being prepared for follow-up, your presentation will benefit your audience, your employer, and your own professional reputation.