A Chance to Speak

I’ve been on the right and wrong end of conferences and speaking for a few years now, and when it’s done well, the connection between audience and speaker can be powerful and insightful. Hey it can even be good fun. A couple of things towards the wrong end of the scale have passed my way recently and I’d like to share them with you.


I was following a really fascinating twitter stream from the recent HR Future event. Peter Cheese was speaking and provoking a lot of really interesting reaction. He seems to be laying down a challenge to HR to raise its game and he seems to be laying down a challenge to his own organisation to do likewise. Good stuff, both are much needed. He acknowledged that the CIPD needs to communicate better with its members, and the brevity of twitter notwithstanding – I think that is a dangerously vague comment to make. Easy to agree with the sentiment, who wouldn’t? Much harder to turn it into something relevant and meaningful. Most of the zillions of surveys I’ve taken part in and considered the results of, produce a clarion call for better or more communication, few get past that into the detail, and I and doubtless others are keen to be engaged (perhaps via things like the current CIPD/MIX Hackathon) and to learn more about what that means for CIPD members.

Something else that came over the airwaves was a disappointing assertion that people don’t attend CIPD branch meetings because they don’t like being sold to by consultants. I don’t doubt that and yet it seems a pretty poor ‘finger pointing’ type excuse to put forward for poor branch attendance (though a subsequent tweet said that 17% of members do regularly attend their local branch meeting). Peter Cheese’s comment reminded me that I volunteered to give a talk on social media for HR for the CIPD Central London Branch in 2012. My experience as ‘the consultant’ was less than ideal, so by way of putting the other side of the tale, here’s my experience:

CIPD Central London Branch

We agreed a date for the talk – January 24th. The day before the talk I was told there were 62 bookings and we should expect 30 to 35 people to show up, which in the end proved about right. I may be wrong, I often am, but I doubt that around half the people who booked had a last minute attack of ‘Oh no this guy’s going to sell to me I’d better do a no show’ fever. Despite the fact my Dad died unexpectedly just two days before the vent, I felt I’d prepped well in order to deliver something I hoped was useful and enjoyable. I suggest I’d prepped a little harder than the CIPD branch chair who didn’t know my name and despite being reminded of it just before introducing me – still managed to forget it again. During the introduction Mr Forgetful asked if I was a CIPD member and I replied honestly, ‘no’. I was then treated to a mild castigation in front of everyone before being allowed to carry on. Nothing like being made to feel welcome huh?

I know how much it sucks to get pitched at by a speaker, so I just don’t do it. I’m so conscious of avoiding the pitch I have sometimes been known to forget to tell people my name and what I do, as Rob Jones, Neil Morrison and others will testify. At the start of the session, the first thing I invited people to do was play a social media bingo game I’d made. This had two benefits, firstly it got everyone talking and second – it gave us all an idea of our collective knowledge in the room on the subject of social and so helped me, to a degree, in positioning the subsequent talk. I then gave what felt like a useful talk – and we had a lively Q&A afterwards. A few days later I posted a write up of the talk on Scribd which has been read a modest 1,200 times, so all in all – I think I delivered good value that evening and beyond. I have yet to receive the promised delegate feedback which I always look forward to reading in the spirit of self improvement. To be fair – I didn’t chase it that hard as I had other more pressing things on my mind.

I appreciate this took place prior to Peter Cheese’s appointment, there are always two sides to every story and this is of course just one of those two sides. It’s easy to say ‘people don’t attend branch meetings because they don’t like being sold to’ and I believe and agree with that statement. I also believe there are a few simple things the CIPD could and should be doing to improve these experiences and similar ones at conference. I’ve contacted Peter twice to ask if we might get together and talk about this, I appreciate he is very busy and I’ve not heard back from him yet. I’ll keep you posted.

BOC Cutting Edge Marketing and PR Conference 

I was recently approached and asked to speak on the ‘Dark Side of Social Media’ at the above conference which is happening in London soon. I replied with three questions. How long do you want me to talk for, how many people will be in the audience and what is the speaking fee you have budgeted for this slot? I was told they’d like me to speak for half an hour to an indeterminate number of people, and no fee would be forthcoming. Given that I would need to rearrange some stuff to attend and that tickets for the two day event cost £790, I thought that was pretty tight and so declined their kind offer. Since then, the conference organiser has reciprocated by adding me to a marketing list selling all manner of training courses, and by trying to sell me a ticket to the conference even though they know I can’t make it.

There will be more posts on the whys and wherefores of conferences in the coming weeks, and I am grateful to Adrian McNeece for reigniting my thinking on this subject via his recent excellent post ‘The Ministry of Truth’. I sometimes wonder – is the conference industry on a mission to eat itself, its customers, or both?

photo credit

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

16 thoughts on “A Chance to Speak”

  1. Hi Doug.

    It’s complicated isn’t it? One of the major underlying problems is that suppliers get far too close to what they do and seriously cannot grasp the idea that, regardless of the whole problem with hijacking a presentation to do a sales pitch in a conference, people just aren’t all that interested in what they do. They might be fascinated by carpet because it pays their mortgage, the audience isn’t.

    In my experience of editing print magazines this was the daily battle that had to be fought: how you create a commercially viable and intellectually relevant medium, when the organisation who provide your revenue don’t understand that nobody’s interested in their carpet and that’s why you don’t want them to talk about it.

    Print magazines could always get away with publishing sales flannel in exchange for money because nobody was around to watch the people getting the magazine throw it in the bin or make comments about it. Online and in conferences, all that is out in the open (at least to some extent). But the mindset of the people who sponsor, advertise and provide free content via their PR operation often hasn’t. Until they grasp the idea that you need to say something interesting and relevant and let the audience make its own connection between that and what you do, rather than jamming it at them, then things will be as you describe.

    1. Thanks Mark – appreciate the different perspective you offer. I think a way of bridging the challenge you write about might be to try and encourage people to tell stories rather than give product pitches? A decent client would I hope appreciate your candour and the opportunity to do better, more than any reluctance to speak up borne out of a revenue delivering relationship. Thanks again for helping me think more about this subject.

  2. Hi Doug

    I wanted to respond to some of the comments in the post regarding member engagement. I have been a member of CIPD since 2007 and during that time I have only managed to attend a handful of events. Initially as an L&D practitioner I didn’t feel the events were aligned to my role. As a HR Manager now, the main reason for my non-attendance has been work commitments. Historically events in NI were scheduled in the evenings and they now tend to be half day events midweek. I know this may suit some but for me it is often difficult to justify taking that time out of the office and whilst I sometimes book in for events I do at times have to cancel.

    Attending these events for me should be mainly about networking and learning. If the opportunities for both are strong then I will want to attend and make it a priority to do so. I have found the quality of content and speakers at local events has improved massively but I would like to see the format and structure evolve. I would like to see more time allocated to discuss topics with fellow members and in doing so learn more about how businesses locally are managing such issues. This would also feed my desire for networking. Too often we are talked at and not given adequate time for discussion and questions. This was my experience at CIPD HRD 12 also.

    Another area I think could be improved greatly is committee involvement. I have in the past tried to get involved with an event in NI and arranged to meet someone from the NI committee who was initially very helpful and interested in my ideas. After that all communication was pretty much one way and I gave up. I have considered offering my knowledge, skills and time to the local committee but the application process caused fatigue and I gave up. Why not make it simple and cut all the bureaucracy? I want to help, it could be of benefit, seems simple to me!

    I say all this as a proud CIPD member who is very positive about some of the changes that Peter has already discussed. I say it all as a local member that wants to roll up their sleeves and get involved in making things even better.

    Last week I attended CIPD NI Awards as part of the centenary celebrations. It was the first time in 10 years that such awards were held locally. So many attendees made the comment that too often London and Manchester are the hub of all the activity and that they feel removed from this. People were thrilled to have this event take place locally and have local talent recognised and they want more of the same.

    Thanks for raising this and I am sure some good discussion will follow.

    1. Super feedback, and I know from my dealings with you that you care about this stuff, it comes through in the articulate and clear way you have laid things out here Sinead. Thanks, and I know the CIPD appreciate your input too.

  3. Hi Doug,

    as you know I was at that event, because you were speaking AND because I had volunteered to try and help the London Committee.
    On the former – you did a great job and I am disappointed that you have been let down by the CIPD. On the latter – I had the same experience with Mr Forgetful (but I call him Mr Red-faced Rude) who said he had never heard of me and I had never contacted the committee. Funnily enough he has now gone solo – let’s see how his manners serve him in a more unforgiving world.

    I have been a member of the CIPD since 1990 and took the professional qualification at TVU – the level of teaching was abysmal, especially given it was a centre of excellence and could set its own exams. And every single contact I have had since then – including events and even a conference – has been poor. I am very disappointed in my professional body and think that they need a serious overhaul.

    There is a CIPD LI group, not run by the CIPD but by Mike Morrison, who has a robust style, and is highly partisan. The level of comment is pretty low, and when important topics are discussed, including the remuneration level of the Chief Exec, there is no official comment from the CIPD. £400k package for running a membership group of 150k max with (guess) about 100 employees (I’ve never been able to get the stats) and a volunteer network ……surely £400k is toppy?

    But, hey, all the other buggers are being overpaid. So why not? Which reflects how poorly HR have managed/advised on the whole reward/remco situation – a huge curse on our country as the FTSE CEOs and their cohorts get larger and larger rewards for declining performance.

    Rant over.

    1. Thanks Julia – my experience is more mixed than yours – and by that I mean I have had some very good exchanges with the CIPD as well as less good ones. Looking back through the archives – many of these experiences are covered in various blog posts I’ve written if people fancy having a rummage.

      I’m new into the LinkedIn group so I’m not yet sure what to make of it beyond an early impression of it feeling rather prescriptive, but then I’m always getting in trouble for breaking rules!

      The money thing – I’ve no info to agree or otherwise just now – and I’m more interested in seeing what value can be delivered, so I’m going to hold fire there for now thanks. I do think there is cause for concern about the divergence in pay of the very highest and very lowest in our society and I would be interested to see how that debate could be widened and tackled. I don’t think the current system serves us well.

  4. Hi Doug – good discussion and important points for us all to think about. I am trying hard to communicate what is a broad agenda and many different elements, and want to use all available channels, including Twitter (although as you point out, it has it’s limitations!). I want to engage with as wide a group as possible, and that also means f2f – going to Branch events, Regional conferences etc, and working groups that can help us shape key elements of the strategy. We have been pulling together a storyline that describes in hopefully jargon free english what we are trying to do and I shared that with all the Branch chairs last week and am encouraging them to use it. I have always taken on board George Bernard Shaw’s quote that the single biggest problem with communication is believing it has occurred.

    I believe in supporting the Branches more to do more, and part of that is in building out a stronger regional structure to better support, share best practices, engage with the more regional agendas etc. I have observed and been told about many great Branch level activities and events, including of course those that bring in consultants who can give their perspective and experience. But I have also heard from members that sometimes they do feel that they are being sold to, so I just take that as a note of caution, not a note of general concern.

    We have so much goodwill, so many people that contribute their time and energy to share, to help build a stronger community, and to make a difference. That is probably our single most valuable asset and I want to encourage that as much as I can, but also support the activities better and to have the CIPD centre to be less…’central’!

    Happy to have a f2f with you and interested in your views and experiences – you clearly care about what we all do, so would be great to connect. Drop me an email and we’ll sort something out.


    1. Thank you Peter. I can see that you are trying hard, and I guess in a way a result of that effort is the blog post I wrote. If I felt you weren’t trying to make a difference I expect I wouldn’t have written it or the tone would have been markedly different. I appreciate the GBS reference – he was spot on there!

      You see more feedback than I but the broad consensus currently seem to be keep up the good work on the getting out and about front.

      I agree about the note of caution on being sold to and as I scribbled – I think there are things that should be considered to improve the experience for everyone. With that in mind I’m happy too about meeting up – I will drop you a line soon with a few dates and let’s take it from there.

      Cheers – Doug

  5. @Julia
    Thanks for the “name check”, however I feel I have to correct you about your comments on the LinkedIn group I run.
    You are correct in saying that it is my group, and not run by the CIPD, and they do help me run it by way of checking applicants to join are current members.

    As for “The level of comment is pretty low,” – if you consider regular discussion topics often attracting over 100 comments “low” then I guess you are right. I can send you to links where many people have commented both publicly and privately that it is the best run HR group on Linkedin.

    Consultants gets lots of work through interacting in the group – and when people post a request for help, there may not always be a deluge of replies, but behind the scenes there are lots of emails and telephone calls happening – and that is the reason why people keep coming back.

    Sometimes discussion which light the passion of a few are of no interest to the majority – and relighting the fire about remuneration is one of them. As long as people get the service they believe they should expect, then the majority of members are happy (or at least do not feel it worth their time to pursue).

    @Doug if you feel the group is “prescriptive”, then sorry. But then in some ways I am the “rule breaker” turned gamekeeper 😉 The group is for interactions and support – and for that it achieves its goals. People like you and I use blogs and twitter for some of the edgy stuff, and general communities are not the place for such things.

    The only “rule” you are likely to break is the “start a discussion with a link to your own post” which is a promotion – and they are welcome in the promotions tab.
    All we (as members want – and the rules have been developed by consensus over the years) is a place to discuss things and ask for help, without having 100s of blog links posted lazily, as often happens in the majority of LI groups. Other than that, and the usual “rule” of play the ball not the player, almost anything goes.

    My interactions with the CIPD have also been varied, having been on a branch cmttee for several years. I believe it is better to work from within, than throw stones from outside.
    There are many great people in the CIPD, but some are hidden behind the “name” or brand. Get to know the individuals and things can happen. It’s easier to paddle with the tide than against it and play the long game.

    Having had several talks with Peter, I strongly believe that the future of the CIPD is being set on a similar and yet different direction. More business focussed, aligned to the needs of smaller businesses and at last starting to recognise the needs of many members… as being suppliers in the market place (consultants).
    The change will take longer than many of us want, but some of those steps will happen faster than many will expect. The journey will not be smooth, and some will dislike the route chosen, but I do believe there is a 5+ year vision to change the tide for both the CIPD and all those members in the HRM/ HRD/ OD space
    I support this change and hope that many find ways to make it work,rather than for the change to have to justify itself.

    The LinkedIn group address for anyone that is interested is http://www.linkedin.com/groups?home=&gid=106184
    Mike – https://twitter.com/rapidbi

    1. Hi Mike – sorry for the unusual delay in publishing. My blog comment stream is unmoderated but you somehow ended up in spam. Cock up not conspiracy I assure you. And you have no need to apologise to me, but I appreciate it nonetheless.

      Cheers – Doug

  6. @Mike. Hi Mike – I meant ‘low’ to mean level, not volume. And with regard to the remuneration debate I was amazed (this was about 2 years ago) that no-one from the official CIPD was minded to comment.

  7. @Mike – and meant to add. I am a believer in working from within, which is why I approached the central london branch to offer help. The communication was poor – emails unanswered etc, and the response from the then branch manager was incredibly rude. There does come a point where you just know your time can be better spent.

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