The Greatest Seminar Mistakes Ever— And What We Can All Learn From Them!

At the conclusion of my previous article, I asked you to send in your greatest seminar mistakes. You were more than generous. Next to my laser printer I have a huge stack of papers documenting those mistakes and I will now share them with all the world. Some names have been withheld to protect the innocent (and the guilty!). In other cases, I will quote from superstars around the country who have learned from their seminar marketing mistakes and who have gone on to prosper.


Anyone who has ever done a seminar has made mistakes. Seminars are an imperfect art. If you don’t make at least a few mistakes, you are doing something wrong. You aren’t taking any chances (and that, in itself, is a mistake).   Mistakes that we are aware of show us in which areas we need to improve. They key is to analyze what went wrong (and what went right!). Then take corrective action and strengthen the weakest parts of your seminar, correct any mistakes, and further strengthen the best parts. It sounds easier than it is, but diligently following this plan of action is the secret to achieving a high level of success in seminar marketing.


In life, we often learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. When everything is going well in life, there is a natural human tendency to take it all for granted. Do you remember how complacent your clients were a few years ago when almost any randomly selected stock rose in value? Did your clients learn more during those times of easy money or have they learned more about the markets and about investing over the past two difficult years?


In exactly the same way, I have found that financial advisors often learn more about seminar marketing from analyzing their mistakes than from basking in the glow of their successes. Ideally, you want to analyze all the problems and take swift corrective action so that you will then have a high probability of enjoying the fruits of success.


With that in mind, let’s examine what financial advisors have learned from the challenges they’ve faced in seminar marketing. Remember, it is usually better to learn from another person’s mistakes than from your own. The tuition is much, much lower! Let’s look in on the trials and tribulations of your fellow advisors as they have toiled in the fields of seminar marketing and let’s analyze what they’ve been through.


This compendium of mistakes and lessons learned about seminar marketing is not arranged in an order of importance. I’ve been writing this article over the past several weeks in times I’ve had available between working with my financial advisor clients.   I’ve listed mistakes and lessons learned as I received them from you and your fellow advisors.   One financial advisor’s biggest mistake in seminar marketing might be a mere bump in the road for another. The key to success is to persevere, to keep on keeping on. Some of these mistakes, as onerous or embarrassing as they seem, were committed by financial advisors who now have massive, highly profitable practices. They didn’t let a few mistakes discourage them from utilizing the incredible power of seminar marketing. Hopefully, you can learn from their experiences and mistakes and enjoy equal or even greater success.


  1. Fights with the Compliance Department.


A number of you sent me war stories of your battles with the compliance department (sometimes known as the Anti-Sales Department) of your firm. You showed me your bruises, your cuts, scratches and permanent scars. A few of your have even given up on offering seminars because you believe that compliance will never approve any seminar ad or mailing piece that contains the slightest bit of persuasive language. Yet other financial advisors at the same firm are getting rich and having a lot of fun doing seminars!


The greatest disaster of all is when a fight with compliance escalates into World War III and the advisor ends up getting suspended or terminated. Fortunately, this is rare. It is much more common, and almost as sad, when the advisor puts his tail between his legs, walks away and gives up. The greatest successes seem to come to those who, as improbable as it seems, befriend compliance.


One of my clients is a broker at a major wire house. He called recently saying he was depressed because compliance had shot down all of his good ideas for seminar advertisements. I had him send me his ad and the changes compliance wanted. Actually, two of the changes made the ad better! I couldn’t believe it, but I actually took the side the compliance department on those two changes (there is a first time for everything!).


I also saw several other major weaknesses in his seminar advertisement. I gave him three different drafts of a much more persuasive ad and told him to only submit one version at a time. Fortunately, his compliance department has a relatively quick turnaround time of only a few days. We got a few of the changes approved in version 2, added those to version 3 (along with some new changes) and submitted it. With each submission, a few more of our ideas were approved. This ad just keeps getting more and more powerful! You can follow the same strategy of never-ending improvement.


Another interesting lesson planners have learned is that sometimes the compliance department will shoot down a seminar ad (or part of the content of a seminar) on a given day. Submit the same material a few weeks later, and it might get approved! One of my clients just got lucky and got a different examiner in the compliance department on our third submission and we got the ad approved. In any case, if you really believe in what you want to say, it is often worth resubmitting it at a later date. Don’t be a quitter.


As an expert witness in sales practices lawsuits, I have learned (believe it or not) that the compliance department usually has the same goals you have. They want you to get new clients, they want you and the company to make money, and they want to avoid litigation. Focus these common goals and strive to make friends with someone in compliance. They have to approve someone’s ads and they might as well approve yours!


  1. Death By PowerPoint.


PowerPoint is a miracle of modern information processing. PowerPoint is the eighth wonder of the modern world. With that being said, PowerPoint is entirely overused by many financial planners. Some of you sent me emails saying that you turned up the lights after your super-duper 150 slide PowerPoint seminar and found that a number of seniors in your audience had fallen asleep. Whoops!


Let me ask you a few questions. Did Ronald Reagan (the “Great Communicator”) use PowerPoint? Did Bill Clinton?   Even if you disliked Clinton on a personal or political level, you must admit he knew how to influence an audience. Do Jesse Jackson, George W. Bush or Colin Powell use PowerPoint? The only politician I can remember who used visual aids was Ross Perot and the comedians had a field day with him.


PowerPoint is an incredibly powerful and effective tool, yet many financial advisors overdo it. One of my current clients is an extremely bright attorney who does seminars for real estate investors all over America. He emails me his PowerPoint slides and we go through them one by one in our telephone consultations. We’ve simplified some slides and gotten rid of many others and his seminars are now more successful than ever.


In January of 2002, I did an all day intensive training program for about 40 representatives of a large broker dealer. I decided to put the theory to the test and did the entire program without PowerPoint. I had an extensive handout, we did a number of interesting skill-building exercises and I wrote a few things on a large flip chart (remember flip charts?). At the end of the day, the seminar got rave reviews. My inspiration was super-planner Tom Gau of SunAmerica Securities. While Tom does use PowerPoint in some of his programs, I have seen him give 2 ½ day seminars at various locations around the country without using even one PowerPoint slide. And he frequently gets a standing ovation!


I love PowerPoint, and you should too. However, remember that a little PowerPoint goes a long way. A few years ago, a client emailed me a PowerPoint version of the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Had this PowerPoint version been the original, I am convinced we would all be non-believers today. Someone else sent me a PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address which, in similar fashion, destroyed the power and beauty of Lincoln’s great speech.


Go through your PowerPoint slides ruthlessly. Ask yourself, “Is this slide really necessary?” Is there some way you can make the point yourself, as one human being speaking to another? Keep your best slides and make them even better. Get your audience to focus on you rather than on the screen and your success will be assured. I recently coached two local financial planners who were preparing to do a seminar at a restaurant where PowerPoint was impractical. They had their most successful seminar ever. By all means, use PowerPoint, but use it with sensitivity and balance. Remember, YOU are the star of the show. Bill Gates’software is just a tool and it pales in comparison to the power and elegance of your voice and your persona.


III. Lack of Seminar Interaction.


We’ve all been to seminars where the speaker stood behind the podium and lectured us. What a bore! Ask your audience members questions. Get them to participate. Solicit their opinions. The more involved they are, the more they will learn and the more they will like you. Jeff Dunkel, CFP, CLU, ChFC wrote me a fascinating email about how his seminars “bring the audience into the program, interacting with one another, and not remaining only spectators. Real learning takes place between each attendee, and using group dynamics and a little friendly competition, bonds everyone together.” Wow! I can’t wait to attend one of Jeff’s programs. I am not surprised that Jeff is as successful as he is. Just for sending me that Jeff, I am going to give you an honorary Ph.D. in Seminar Psychology.


  1. Lack of Practice and Not Rehearsing.


Laron “D” Shannon also gets an award for his comprehensive ten point email to me. In his sixth point, he states, “I have videoed my programs and ruthlessly critique each program.” Later in his email, he states in capital letters, “THERE ARE ALMOST TOO MANY PROSPECTS THAT NEED GOOD ADVICE,” and in speaking about the competition, he says, “I am praying they’ll take up the slack!”


Obviously, practice and rehearsal pay huge dividends. My most successful clients are the ones who practice the most. They leave nothing to chance. Even though their seminars seem casual, relaxed and spontaneous to audience participants, every line has a purpose and is rehearsed to perfection. In some cases, we’ve spent eight to ten hours refining the material and practicing delivery for a one to two hour seminar. It is no accident that these financial advisors are so successful.


I walk my talk when it comes to espousing the value of rehearsal. When I am hired to deliver a seminar or give a speech, no matter how many times I have delivered the program before, I always rehearse it and frequently further customize it for the audience. No matter what your field or specialization, the universal law of preparation and practice is simple and profound: the more you practice, the better you will get. As they say in the world of professional sports, Practice is never over for the pros.”


  1. Offering a Seminar on Too Narrow a Topic.


Some of you had million dollar seminar ideas that went bust. Why? The topic was too narrow. One financial advisor wrote to tell me of his fantastic idea for a seminar on Asset Allocation. Everyone needs asset allocation, right? Millions of people are not practicing proper asset allocation (witness employees of Enron, Lucent, Tyco, Global Crossing, People wanting to attend this asset allocation seminar will bust down the doors to the barn to get in, right? Wrong. He mailed out 5,000 invitations (five thousand!) and only two people showed up. What happened?


I will grant you that asset allocation is an extremely important topic (and you should use the Morningstar tools to do it right), but it may be too narrow a subject for the general public. Many of my financial advisor clients cover asset allocation in their seminars, but it is just one of many subjects covered. It is also essential that you dress up this subject (and many other subjects) before you parade them before the public. On its own, asset allocation looks a bit drab and plain, a bit of a wallflower. I dress it up as a seminar topic in clothing such as “Breakthroughs in Asset Allocation,” “The Asset Allocation Revolution,” and sometimes slip it into other sexy outfits. Remember, how you package an idea has a tremendous impact on whether or not people will be receptive to it. Great content does not insure great success unless it has the proper frame about it.


Some topics that are too narrow for one audience perfectly fit a different group. I am in the process of helping one of my clients get approved for a new advisor referral program so that he can work with professional football players. He already has one pro coach as a client. Obviously, professional football players have special concerns that members of the general public don’t share. If we design a seminar on “What to do When You are Retired at Age 28,” I don’t think we will try to offer it to the general public—no matter how great the seminar is. Big ideas and broad topics, presented in an entertaining, involving and educational way are usually what works best with the general public. Unless you are addressing a very special audience, don’t limit your seminar to just one concept or idea—however much you may be in love with that idea.


  1. Seminars without Stories.


Stories sell. Stories are persuasive. Stories move people in a way that mere facts cannot. Some of you wrote to tell me that you bought pre-packed seminars that put people to sleep because they were so boring. The only way to save such programs is to give them a life transfusion of stories. Think of the success of the “Chicken Soup” series of books, which have made multi-millionaires of the authors. These popular books are composed of story after story after story.


Presidential candidates are coached in how to tell stories. The most popular priests, rabbis and ministers tell stories. Great coaches use stories to motivate their players. Learn from them all. Do what the master motivators do and make strategic use of powerful stories.


A few years ago, I licensed a program on “The Power of Story Selling,” to Oppenheimer Funds. Ralph Grant at Oppenheimer is a great story teller and is a student of stories and metaphors throughout the ages. He travels extensively delivering this seminar to Oppenheimer Fund sales professionals working in banks across the country. Why do people respond so warmly to this seminar? Besides the charisma of Ralph Grant, stories make financial products and services come alive. I have a saying: “No story = no sale.” Even the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Forbes have belatedly learned the power of stories. Their most popular articles are the ones that tell the stories, the dramas and the struggles behind businesses large and small around the world. Articles focusing on economic statistics are scanned by a few and ignored by most. Newspapers, magazines, web sites and the media have learned that readers crave stories. Take a page from their book. Intersperse stories throughout your seminar. I guarantee you that long after seminar attendees have forgotten that 27th slide you showed on the performance of some stock market index, they will remember the story you told along with it.


If you’d like to learn more about the power of story selling, pick up a copy of Unlimited Selling Power at a bookstore or library. In one of the chapters of this Prentice Hall book, I and my co-author Dr. Ken Lloyd identify the ten most powerful types of sales stories. You are probably using a few of them but I’d bet you are missing many others.


VII. Other Mistakes That Hamper Seminar Success.


You’ve sent me a gold mine of seminar mistakes. In the remaining space, I will hit the highlights of a few more. Avoiding just a few of these mistakes could save you thousands of dollars—and greatly increase your success in seminar marketing.


  1. Not confirming attendance: Ever have 90 people register for a dinner seminar and only 40 show up? Whoops! I hope you are hungry. You’ve just purchased 50 extra prime rib dinners. The solution? Have your secretary call the day before to remind registrants to show up. Or, do as my client uber-attorney Philip Kavesh does (he has 10,000+ estate planning law clients): mail out a reminder post card about three days before the seminar. You’ve just filled the seminar room and saved $800.


  1. Guest speaker who hogs the podium: Ever have a mutual fund wholesaler sponsor your seminar and think he deserves exclusive use of the spotlight? Yes, he paid for the dinner, but does that give him the right to go on for 90 minutes about how his international small cap fund has found the hottest micro stocks in every developing country from Burma to Uganda? Remember, you are the star of this show. The audience members must decide to do business with you or no one wins. Solution: have a meeting of the minds BEFORE the seminar on exactly how long each speaker will present. Make sure you reserve enough time with the audience to have them fall in love with you. ALSO: preview any guest speakers. Every guest speaker will tell you he is the next Tony Robbins. Listen to one of the speaker’s presentations before you allow him or her to share your podium. If your guest speaker turns off the audience, you will have to work ten times harder to win them back. Avoid this at all costs.


  1. Big, heavy dinner: I’ve heard and seen some funny and sad stories here. Talk about seminar mistakes: the dinner seminar at a bar-b-que restaurant where seminar participants were sucking on rib bones instead of listening to you. The four-course dinner at a country club that put half the audience to sleep. The order-whatever-you-want dinner seminar at an upscale restaurant where one person ordered steak tartar with anchovies and grossed out everyone else. Solution: order a light standard meal for everyone, maybe Chinese chicken salad, Chef’s salad or a chicken breast dinner—whatever works in your area. Or, have no food at all. At all costs, avoid the 3,000 calorie soporific meal.


  1. Mailing too late: You’ve custom designed a fantastic seminar. Half of the high net worth people in your community would like to attend. Problem: your fulfillment house or letter shop ran into a problem and mailed late. People get the invitation the day before the seminar or the day of the seminar. No one attends. Solution: some of my clients have their secretaries and temporary office staff do the mailing. Then you know the invitations are being sent out on time. Or, have a contract with your mailer stating that if they are late, you don’t pay.


  1. Scheduling conflicts: Ever receive a seminar invitation for a seminar on Super Bowl Sunday? Who will attend? Consider all possible scheduling conflicts: religious holidays, competitor’s seminars, sporting events, three day weekends, etc. Obviously, some events cannot be foreseen. One of my clients this past year scheduled a seminar for September 11, 2001. Who knew? We had to reschedule that seminar but then had record breaking attendance and a record number of new clients. Never give up.


  1. No urgency: many of your brought this one up. You wrote me that participants love your seminars. They give you great reviews. They like you, they really really like you (credit is hereby given to Sally Fields), but they don’t become clients. Why not? Your seminar was pleasant enough. The information was good, something like what they just read in a popular money magazine. You were clean and kind and seemed like a nice person. But there was no urgency or compelling reason to select you as their financial planner. Solution: You must emphasize your USP (unique selling proposition). You must let audience members know what makes you special and different from the 100,000 other financial advisors who want their business. Without a compelling USP and a call to action, your seminar will be nothing more than a free public service educational event that you have sponsored at great expense and for little reward. I’ve helped some of my clients develop powerful USPs that have doubled their response rates at seminars. Working on your USP pays large dividends.


After re-reading your responses from around the country, I have detected a clear consensus opinion. You have told me that the greatest mistake of all is to not do seminars or is to give up on seminars prematurely. Some of you told me you tried seminars a few years ago, did not achieve immediate success and gave up. Big mistake. Others tried their hand again and again, learned from their mistakes and now have more business than they can handle. Kudos to you. Nothing succeeds like persistence and constant gradual improvement. Laron Shannon, a MorningstarAdvisor reader I know only through email, said to me, “My final belief system is that seminar selling success comes from doing 1000 things 1/10 better.” I concur. After doing seminars all over the world for 20 years and coaching financial advisors for more than fifteen years, I’m in complete agreement.


Do not fear mistakes, as analyzing mistakes plants the seeds of great success. And if we learn from a mistake, is it really a “mistake” or a powerful growth opportunity in disguise?


Coming Next: Let’s assume you have learned how to successfully promote seminars, that you are a maestro at the podium and that seminar participants are begging you for appointments. You now have thirty new people who want to see you next week. How do you convert these interested prospects into clients? In my next column, I’ll show you how to be highly successful in conducting the Initial Client Meeting.




Dr. Donald Moine, based in Palos Verdes, California, is a Sales and Marketing Psychologist specializing in working with financial advisors, mutual fund companies, brokerage houses and wholesalers. A popular seminar leader and marketing success coach, Dr. Moine is the author of seven books and more than 200 articles. He is currently designing a new series of seminars for financial planners based on his popular MorningstarAdvisor articles on Practice Building. To learn more about his services and speeches, you can contact Donald at or at (310) 378-2666.

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