I worked at Facebook for just over three years, where I was in charge of small business and startup operations for the brand in Australia and New Zealand.
During that time, I mostly worked out of the Sydney office when there was just a handful of us working there, but spent a lot of time in the Singapore office and other regional offices all over the world, and frequent trips to ‘the mothership’, the main campus in Silicon Valley, California.
We used to run quarterly conferences all over Asia-Pacific, and every year there was one huge conference in California where every employee from all over the world attended. This annual global conference was a big deal. It cost a lot of money (obviously), and it was planned meticulously. Not a dollar, or a minute, was wasted, and I learned a lot about how to run events, and how to speak at events, from attending each year.
And some of those things are things that we can all learn from in terms of conference and event planning, and although we might deal mostly with smaller budgets and smaller attendances (and less pyrotechnics, seriously), we can all transfer some of the lessons I learned attending and speaking at Facebook’s events, when we run our own events here.
The big names needed to be aligned with values, but not reading from scripts.
There were some big names keynoting during these conferences when I attended. Names like Brenè Brown, Michelle Obama and Chris Hadfield were slotted in, seemingly randomly amongst Facebook’s own big names presenting at different times on different days of the conference.
But regardless of who it was, and what they had to say, their presentations, although aligned philosophically for the most part with Facebook’s own ideology, weren’t dictated by the organisation in any way. In fact, even the organisers didn’t really know what their guest speakers were going to say or speak about, and that was part of the appeal of the speakers.
Nobody really went rogue, but there were moments that the organisers probably wouldn’t have designed, but the overall effect of these speakers having pretty much free reign, was impressive and natural.
The stars were rarely the stars.
This was true, even for much smaller events that I would run in Sydney or Singapore or Auckland. The best feedback came in – consistently – for the customers who spoke on stage about how Facebook had changed their businesses, and therefore their lives, much more than any Facebook employees speaking at the events, even when those employees were world-famous.
Audiences wanted to relate to the speakers and the speakers’ experiences, much more than be dazzled by who we (internally) thought they would be more impressed by.
The 9 minute rule.
Apart from a big keynote given by Mark Zuckerberg, or Sheryl Sandberg (which still only lasted about 19 or 20 minutes usually), the presentations were short, punchy, and memorable. We had a 9 minute rule which was strictly adhered to. Particularly when it came to showing the employees new product rollouts, or discussing anything technical in nature, no speaker spoke for longer than 9 minutes, even if the overall presentation took an hour. Mark might speak for 9 minutes (or less), than a product manager for another short time, then a customer, then a coder, and so on.
It resulted in the audience learning and retaining much more than they would otherwise, and had the added bonus of being able to introduce more of the internal employees responsible for some of the ground-breaking tech to the larger organisation. Pretty democratic!
As long as the content is good, the agenda can be long, really long.
And then the last one is one that other speakers (eg Tony Robbins) and organisations (eg Apple) take advantage of as well. If the content is good, you can basically present it all day (and most of the night).
People don’t resent sitting in a room for hours on end, if they are being entertained, taught, appreciated, and wowed.
They do resent it if they are bored, and nobody seems grateful for their attendance, or if they feel taken advantage of.
Overall, I think that sometimes we can get lost in trying to have the biggest screens, or most fireworks, or most famous speakers, and all of that, when – maybe – what the audience really wants is to be appreciated, to be taught something, and to see someone on the stage that they can relate to. Regardless of the size of the audience, or the size of the budget, these things still ring true.