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Seminar Selling: a Simple 34-Step Plan

Last night I went to see Boiler Room, that new movie about rapacious young securities swindlers who use hard-sell tactics and a barrage of misleading information to talk credulous investors into putting their money into bogus stocks. As I watched those fast-talking fellows at work, and I squirmed more and more in my chair, I thought about self-marketing. The discomfort of self-marketing. The film was one enormous reminder of how selling yourself can sometimes make even the most proud and capable IP feel like a slimy salesman. Not a nice feeling, let me tell you.

Fortunately, I soon remembered one surefire way to detour around my bad Boiler Room sensation: seminar selling. That is, taking information your clients and prospects find valuable and presenting it through a seminar. This marketing technique is sure to make you feel less like a movie villain and more like a venerable professor -- just the ticket for sleaze-weary IPs. Of course, it's still a marketing vehicle (you have to shake hands, smile, and close the sale after the seminar's over), but it's a luxury marketing vehicle. The seminar can be a godsend for people who simply are reluctant to sell themselves.

Curious about the marketing possibilities of the seminar? Tempted by the thought of a roomful of would-be clients? If you'd like to throw a seminar but are unsure about where to start -- well, step right up. Here, at absolutely no cost to you, is a detailed map that will put you on the road to marketing high ground. Read the following tips and you'll have your audience hollering for an encore. Or at least business cards.

Pre-Seminar Selling

  1. Always keep in mind your goal: to share what you know with customers and prospects. A seminar gives you a chance to prove that you understand their business and concerns, and can do something about them.

  2. Expertise is everything. You should be the real deal, someone who can speak about your field convincingly. Seminars are content-driven events.

  3. Spell out your credentials in the seminar invitation; you must explain what qualifies you to lead the program, even if it's free.

  4. Print a few endorsements from customers right on the invitation.

  5. Send out a ton of invitations. More than in your wildest dreams -- say, ten times the number your meeting room can hold. Even if a recipient doesn't show up, the invitation introduces you. And if you're deluged with more people than you can possibly handle at one meeting, set up another seminar within a month.

  6. Pick a classy place. It doesn't have to be fancy, but make sure it's safe, easy to find, and attractive.

  7. Plan a public seminar every month on a different but related topic. CPAs, for instance, can cover taxes, investments, retirement planning, and college funds.

  8. Team up with another IP whose client characteristics or concerns resemble yours, especially if you've never given a seminar before. Two heads really can be better than one.

  9. Decide on handouts. You need more than business cards for a seminar sell, since the take-away component rules here. You don't need a book; one page is enough if it's a top-ten list. How about Top Ten Secrets to Selling Your House, or Seven Ways to Launch Your Speaking Career? Put your name, address, telephone number, and email on the same page.

  10. Contact your local community college, YMCA, or chapter of a professional society, and find out about speaking at one of their upcoming programs. It's not as difficult as you imagine, and it's unbeatable for your professional visibility.

  11. Spiff up your presentation skills. Even if you're the "It Kid" in your field, a quick pre-program brushup can only help. Substance is good, but style plus substance is better.

  12. Plan and practice! Really, you can't overdo this. For every hour of seminar time, figure at least three to four hours of preparation.

  13. Better to be a little crowded in a smallish room than a lonely cluster in a cavernous space.

  14. Choose your invitation wording with care. In general, phrases like "one-on-one" or "hands on" resonate with people because they're specific, but whatever you say, don't make it sound like a sales pitch. If you do your job at the seminar, you'll have a roomful of hot prospects when you're finished.

  15. Never schedule a seminar on Sunday, Monday, or Friday; ditto holidays, and the day before or after holidays.

At the Seminar

  1. Serve food if possible, but keep it simple. You have important business on your mind, so don't go crazy with the taste treats -- unless, of course, you're a caterer who's doing a seminar about how to wow people at business events. Otherwise, less is more. Breakfast: coffee, tea, juice, fruit, bagels, muffins, Danish. The food's got to be portable. If yours is an afternoon or evening get-together, have cookies, soft drinks, tea, and coffee. This is a meeting with a purpose, not a square dance, so don't overdo it.

  2. Arrive early. Allot at least an hour for set-up and a technical rehearsal (make sure everything works).

  3. Enlist a sociable friend to be a greeter at the door, someone with a warm manner who will put guests at ease and who can help arrange follow-up appointments at the end of the seminar.

  4. Include a guest speaker on the agenda. Remember that bigger names have their own mailing lists; when Ms. Big Name spreads the word to her contacts that she'll be speaking at your program, you hitch a ride.

  5. Bring along one or two happy clients to answer questions in real time at the seminar. This works best with high-end, high-risk services. When I went to a program on laser surgery, talking to a couple of living, breathing, clear-eyed people who'd already been through the procedure was uniquely reassuring.

  6. Make your audience think you're giving them everything you know about your topic. The appearance of holding back is the kiss of death in a seminar. It's coy and irritating. If you use slides, for example, include hard copies in the participants' packets.

  7. A seminar should never go more than two hours. Send people off wanting more.

  8. Don't let anybody get bored. Yes, you're here to share what you know, but if people aren't having any fun, they'll conclude that being a client of yours isn't a barrel of laughs, either.

  9. Stay away -- far, far away -- from telling jokes. They don't work. Funny stories that relate to your topic, however, are fine.

  10. Put together packets with handouts, articles, brochures, anything that's directly relevant to the seminar topic. Nobody leaves empty-handed.

  11. Design a half- or one-page evaluation form that attendees fill out before they leave. Find out what they liked and didn't like about your seminar, what other topics they'd like to hear about, if they want to receive more information, and if they want to be on your mailing list. Don't forget to pick up the forms before you leave.

  12. Get someone to audiotape or videotape your program. It's a good idea for purely archival purposes. But review the tape critically to learn what you did well and what you should change. You'll be surprised. Also, sit down with a trusted friend and watch or listen to the tape together. Another source of feedback is incredibly helpful.

  13. Remember that in a seminar setting, prospects are busily evaluating you. You want to do everything you can to convince them that your ideas, expertise, and approach will improve their lives. Then you can close the sale.


  1. Follow up, follow up, follow up. Do not rest. Start by sending a letter to every participant, no more than two days after the seminar. Say, "Thanks for coming, I appreciated your feedback on the evaluation form. Here's how I plan to work with you in the weeks ahead."

  2. Do a thorough program post-mortem. What worked? What bombed? What went too long, what did you forget? What did you learn from your prospects? Is there a pattern to the questions they asked?

  3. Attend other people's seminars. Find one about something you're moderately interested in, and find another that covers a subject you know zilch about: soap-making, dog-grooming, calligraphy, tree-pruning. Observe how the seminar leader structures the meeting and engages your attention. When the subject is utterly new to you, it can be easier to appreciate the whole process.

  4. Network. That is, contact each and every participant by email or by phone. You'll never have a more powerful opportunity to make the sale: you've built credibility, you know your stuff, you're a good person, they like you. Go for it.

  5. Make sure your participants still have the material they've taken home from your seminar -- your slides, a helpful Do and Don't list -- a taste of your special expertise. If they've lost their handouts, send them replacements.

  6. Sometimes it takes six months or more for a seminar to pay off in new work. But pay off, it will. Do not rest.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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