It’s a big night, the first of three seminar presentations you’ll be conducting on consecutive evenings. The turnout is great, with at least 40 seniors sitting in the audience. Your hair looks good. Your mouth doesn’t feel too awfully dry. Your cuffs are pulled to just where you like them. Slowly, you make your way to the front of the room. The conversations in the room fall to a hush as you turn and all eyes are on you. Now what? You’ve got 40 people for the next 60 minutes, and then dinner will be served. How do you make the most of this hour and ensure that you’ll set enough meetings to make this worth your while and move your message – and your business – forward? Well, you start by reading on, and learning what makes for a winning seminar.

A trustworthy start
Seminars are marketing tools that are, on one level, very basic. However, getting them right involves the proper execution of a very complex set of variables. From the top, you’ll do well to approach seminar planning with the following ground rules in mind.

First, the prospective clients who come to your seminar have to feel comfortable. That’s why hosting dinner and breakfast seminars is so much more effective than hosting them in a stuffy hotel room. According to John McCloskey, the corporate sales manager for Response Mail Express, the restaurant environment goes a long way toward reducing the anxiety of attendees. “And,” he says, “when they see the volume of people, they don’t feel as individually targeted.”

Second, you have to convey that, as an advisor, you are someone who is fundamentally trustworthy, dependable, knowledgeable and approachable. Bear in mind, your attendees aren’t there because they want to be sold anything; they want to buy and they’ll only buy from someone with whom they’re quite comfortable. If you’re pitching something canned, salesy or insincere, it can only hurt you.

Lastly, you have to provide a way for the attendees to follow up through evaluation forms and have the opportunity for them to schedule appointments in a nonthreatening way. Within those basics, however, lies a world of details that can set your seminar apart from the average.

Relate to the target
According to Anil Vazirani, president & CEO of Secured Financial Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., every successful seminar begins with targeting the right demographic.

“Be sure to choose the appropriate age and income that you want to work with,” he says. “Then, work with a good company that will provide you with a good list [of prospects] – one that’s well-scrubbed and well-qualified.”

So what should an effective mailing net you, as far as attendees are concerned? When it comes to a good set of target numbers, those figures are best based on what the advisor can handle. If you want between 25 and 40 attendees for three nights, find a company that can provide that turnout.

Now, as for how many of those attendees convert into appointments, a great deal of that is left to the skill of the advisor. “Our advisors that get in front of 100 people are getting from 12 to 25 requests for appointments,” McCloskey says. “A reasonable expectation would be 10 to 12 appointments set from that 100.”

Provided you’ve picked the right target, the next concern is to pick the right location – one that is convenient – and it certainly helps if you offer a lunch or dinner. “I joke that they come for the meal, but they stay for the education,” Vazirani notes. “What keeps them there is how effective your presentation is; keep it simple and get it across in a way that they can understand.”

Don’t let all the above parameters, however, make you think that the rules are more important than the basic instincts for the game. Before you march too far down the path of setting up seminars as a brand new venture for your business, take stock of what you bring to the table. Seminar attendees have to get a sense that you’re the kind of person with whom they’d want to do business. After all, they’re interviewing you in the seminar environment and you’ve got be their type of person: someone who can be trusted, somebody who is credible.

“You have to relate well enough that they get the sense of wanting to do business with you,” says Dave Vick, president of Vick & Associates, a senior financial planning firm in the Chicago area. “Every senior is looking for somebody they can trust. [The seminar process] assumes that you’re going to be really good at connecting with people. If you can’t do that, seminar marketing isn’t for you.”

The good hooks
But let’s assume that it is for you, that you like the idea of getting in front of a group and delivering a message about your life’s passion. If the ideas above represent the basic nuts and bolts of a seminar, how do you go about making it come alive?

For Vick, creating a social atmosphere, and leaning on food to do it, is a necessity.

“I’ve been doing seminars since about 1995,” he notes. “We used to do them in libraries and such and they just work out better when people are feeling a little bit comfortable – eating together, that type of setting.”

Beyond the food, Vick stresses that what an advisor does at the very beginning of the seminar is important. He begins by passing out lottery scratch cards to all his attendees. For the ones who match any numbers, he tosses them candy. “It sort of gets them to light up when you lob it to them,” he says.

And even if this particular tack isn’t a good fit with your audience, the sentiment that underpins it is: “I love to have a good time in my seminars,” Vick says. “I go after Joe Lunchbucket, so I don’t go in wearing a suit or a tie; I don’t want to create a barrier that I don’t need to create.”

Provided you’ve got the food and a decent introduction lined up, one of the best hooks for any group is when you are able to cater the information that’s presented to a particular niche group. “How to get ready to retire” might be packaged for a series of seminars aimed at current employees of a major corporation; “Protection of assets from probate” would be a natural fit for an audience that is already well into retirement; “Safely outliving your money” would be a strong general-interest topic.

“I really believe the information has to be useful,” Vazirani says. “I think of the information more as our mission.” And as long as he’s communicating that message and winning more clients than he’s losing, that’s all that matters to him. As Vazirani stresses, “I often say, ‘Honest, intelligent effort is always rewarded.’”

Leave the salesman at the door
So you’re getting some idea of how to conduct your seminars but, after all, this is a sales process. Given that, is there anything to avoid? Definitely. The biggest thing to avoid in the seminar process is thinking of it as sales to begin with.

According to McCloskey, it’s a trap a lot of advisors fall into. “They get excited and almost hurt themselves by thinking they only have to sell one or two people” out of this whole group and, as a result, they get much too salesy.

“The time to do the selling is in the office during the follow up,” McCloskey advises. “The seminar should be a no more than a 60-minute infomercial that [an advisor presents in order to] set up a meeting.” You never want to come across as pushy or needy or overly-aggressive, he cautions, and the most successful advisors don’t have that desperate need for an appointment.

Instead, view your seminar as an event that allows prospective clients to get their first taste of you as a person and as a professional financial advisor. The problem with many advisors is they treat prospects as a one-night stand. They’ll think that if they don’t sign a prospect up to an appointment that night, they’ve failed. In reality, they need to adjust their mindset that this is just the first handshake; if they can continue to re-market and keep their message in front of people, relationships may yet take root.

Another strategy for avoiding an in-your-face sales approach is the one taken by Vazirani. Throughout his workshop, he keeps advising the people that he’s a problem-solution guy.

“Not only will I bring up the problem, I’ll tell them the solution. I let them know I’m actually here interviewing for the position of protecting their assets – and I let them know I am here to solve those problems and improvise if I have to.”

He also lets them know that if they set up a visit, he’ll show them a different way to solve those problems – it’s a way of asking for their business by showing them there’s value in meeting with you.

Mind you, Vazirani cautions, “You don’t provide the whole answer … just tease them with a solution” and then follow up to set an appointment that will outline that solution more definitively.

And, as many successful planners will tell you, if you start to think of your seminars as part hand-shake, part creating buzz and part creating intrigue for a follow-up meeting, you’re on the path to having seminars work for you.