Reflections on the 2008 Forum Symposium

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I shouldn’t be writing this now. I’m mentally exhausted. On the other hand, the conference is still fresh in my memory, and won’t be so 24 hours from now.

William Azaroff posted my key takeaways from the conference, so I won’t rehash that. Check out his blog to see what I had concluded, and to see his presentation.

At the risk of offending someone (stop laughing), here are some random thoughts about the conference:

Most speakers suck. As speakers that is. One of the reasons I proposed to Forum CU to try a moderated Q&A format is that only a precious few speakers can really hold an audience’s attention for more than 15 minutes. Too many speakers take too long to make their point, try to make too many points, or aren’t quite sure what point they’re trying to make in the first place. Most speakers aren’t able to read the audience’s mood and attention level, and so they end up just motoring through their slides, altering neither the pace or tone, and saying things that are obvious to the attendees, or irrelevant to the attendees.

But most speakers have something really valuable to say. They just say it better in conversation than in the artificial situation of a presentation. That’s what Forum was trying to do with the symposium. And that’s why I’m secretly pissed at a few of the speakers — because they shortchanged their opportunity to have a conversation with me (and, by proxy, the audience). [Please see comment #4 for clarification on this]

Vancity’s story is compelling and inspiring. The word “authenticity” came up a few times during the conference. Not during William Azaroff’s presentation, however. He didn’t have to say it — he and Vancity live it. People get authenticity at a gut level. You don’t need to tell them you’re authentic, they get it. No offense to the other presenters, but William’s was one of just a few of the presentations I thought could have gone longer and still held the audience’s attention.

If you work at a credit union, you should go to William’s site and watch his presentation. For many, it will be a painful reminder of why — despite all of the public proclamations your CU makes about how great it thinks it is — your CU doesn’t really know who it is, why it exists, and what it should be doing in the market like Vancity does. If you’re insulted by that, I’m sorry. But the truth sometimes hurts.

Presenting a vision is a great presentation device.
When those visions are compelling and tangible, that is. And Matt Dean of Trabian really delivered on this count. His wasn’t some high-falutin’, gee-whiz, science fiction vision, nor was it some cumbaya vision of some CU Eden where everyone holds hands, collaborates, and helps members achieve their financial dreams.

Instead, it was a tangible vision of what credit unions could be doing with their online banking platforms to ratchet up the value delivered and bring a social media aspect to their sites. It was a great vision, well delivered, and I can’t wait to steal his slides.

As a presentation device, some conference speakers could learn a valuable lesson from what Matt did. He could have gone up there and told everybody about the great work his firm has done in the past by showing pictures of the Web sites his firm has worked on. This would have basically turned his presentation into nothing but a commercial for his company (which is what one speaker did). If he had done that, he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective at establishing both his and his firms’ credibility. Nice job, Matt.

Numbers bore the hell out of most people. And they even bore the people who are into numbers when they’re not used properly. Unfortunately, there are times when conference speakers find a number that they think is impressive sounding, or that they think will help them prove something that they’re trying to assert. And sometimes it works. But sometimes it just leaves people wondering “so what?” I’d give you an example, but it would just make a friend get mad at me for calling him out in public.

WDTMTM? Every conference speaker should recite this acronym 100 times when preparing their presentation, and 100 times 5 minutes before they take the stage. WDTMTM? = What Does This Mean To Me? It’s what EVERY attendee is thinking while the speaker’s mouth is open. Unfortunately, there are some conference speakers who are seem more concerned with WATIWS (What are the things I want to say?).

Twittering questions from the audience was a terrible idea. What a disaster that was. Twhirl didn’t update anywhere nearly as frequently as we needed it to. Terrible idea. On the other hand, just the fact that we even tried it in the first place is a real testament to Doug True. When I proposed a moderated format, he said “let’s try it.” When I suggested using Twitter to capture questions, he said “let’s try it.” There was something else I suggested (can’t remember what it was), and his response: “let’s try it.” It’s quite possible that he’s just the biggest pushover in the world. But I’m betting that his response is the result of being an experimenter, willing to try new things, and to take calculated risks. And in the end, the fact that the Twitter experiment failed was no big deal. In other words, the risk of failure was low. But some managers don’t get that. They find every reason why something new will or won’t work and then weigh the probability of success versus the probability of failure — ignoring the risks.

Stand still. Using the stage is a skill. The best speakers use the stage as a prop and as a mechanism for helping them tell their story. They focus on stage placement — that is, different parts of the stage are used to convey different messages, so that when they go to a certain place on the stage, the audience is conditioned to know what to expect. Just because you walk from the left part of the stage to the right — and back again — does not mean you are using the stage effectively. It’s distracting. But not quite as distracting as pacing. Most speakers would do better to just stand still.

Less is more. And on so many different levels. First, as it pertains to a presentation. One message, few words on a slide, few slides. Video is good, but after the first or second video, it’s boring and overused. And building in down time into the schedule is critical. Less sessions, more networking time. Better to go to 5PM with an hour break in the afternoon, than to end at 4PM with just a 15-minute break.

Canada gets it. At least as it relates to the credit union world. They can keep their health care system, though.

You don’t need a social media strategy. I absolutely hate hearing from the social media experts that firms need to have a social media strategy. Firms need a customer engagement strategy — how they should  and could interact (or engage) with customers in a more meaningful way that creates and deepens the relationship. I will keep saying this over and over until the social media proponents begin to understand: Blogs and wikis and Facebook are not the only ways to engage customers. Face to face works. The phone can work. Direct mail can work. Any touchpoint can work. If you’re a bank or credit union, it doesn’t matter one single iota that 100 million people are on Facebook — unless they want to interact with banks and credit unions there. And that’s far from a proven fact. A customer engagement strategy incorporates all touchpoints — a social media strategy only deals with a subset.

[Update: For more discussion on this, go here.  Tomas rightfully argues that “what doesn’t work is marching into Facebook with the same old rusty weapons, looking for another “segment” to bombard with “messages”, with a “social media strategy” paper at hand.”]

The future of credit unions is in providing life management services.
Banks (and to a certain extent credit unions) have become increasingly adept at selling consumers financial services products. That’s nice. Unfortunately, what many people need is help managing their money. For many people, though, “managing their money” doesn’t mean allocating investments. And it’s not about “saving” more. It’s also about spending smarter. And making smart choices about what to spend their money on, what not to spend their money on. This isn’t just about financial education — it’s about hands-on involvement with consumers. It’s about intervening, getting hands-on, and engaging with consumers. It’s about helping them manage their lives, because we can no longer distinguish between managing our money and managing our lives.

It’s going to require a huge strategic shift in the industry, but it will happen. Not within the next 5 years, but perhaps in the 10-15 year timeframe. It has to happen. It’s the only way for credit unions to thrive in the long term, and the only way to develop a life long relationship with customers that isn’t based on the interpersonal connection between a member and somebody at the credit union. And if I were at a credit union, what I would be most afraid of is having a bank — or somebody else — come in and “out credit union” me.

I will never ever do this again. Moderating, or hosting, a conference, that is. I don’t mind the work it took to prepare — that was no big deal. But it’s too much pressure. Being mentally “on” for two days straight is incredibly draining. And if I didn’t do a good job, it wasn’t just me who would look bad, but Forum would look bad as well.

In the end, there are a bunch of things I would have done differently. I guess I could say “oh well, next time” — but there ain’t gonna be no next time.

I’d like to meet Gene Blishen’s wife. She’s been married to the guy for 35 years — she’s got to know his flaws. God knows I can’t find ’em.

Face to face rules. Twittering and blogging are great. But nothing beats seeing your Twitter friends in the real world.

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