The Expectations of Executive Presence

In the last few months, we began our research for an updated release of our first book, The Hidden Factor. Written more than a decade ago, the book defined presence and offered executive-level insights on how presence helps some employees get ahead while the lack of it holds other employees back. Presence was viewed as a collection of attributes and expectations that increased with more visibility and responsibility across a career.

Our first book provided executive-level input on how employees show up in a business setting, and we’ve coached to those impressions and expectations for thirty years. In fact, we would say that the concepts of presence: Confidence, Commitment and Connection, are validated over and over again as we talk to managers and leaders about impact and influence.

But a decade ago now seems like a lifetime ago. And as we continue to provide expertise on presence, we’ve collected new insights to challenge and confirm our direction. And in our recent surveys and interviews, we researched two different perspectives: how employees think about presence in a leader and how leaders observe presence in employees.

As our work continues on our fifth book, here are some preliminary thoughts that may help you consider presence in your work environment today:

A Leader’s Presence – the Employees’ Perspective

Ten years ago, we ranked the attributes of presence. And while most of the original concepts are still there, the order of importance has shifted. While confidence, credibility and professionalism led the pack originally, today’s employees focus more on authenticity, believability and engagement.

It doesn’t mean that confidence and credibility are less important. It means to really influence an employee, a leader has to have more than that.

And leaders got a lot of that feedback and coaching during the pandemic. They were guided to share more about themselves and to start with a human connection before a business concept. It has elevated expectations of a leader to a compelling communicator. And leaders are seeking skills to become memorable and repeatable. It taps into our work on storytelling, and in many cases, the pandemic helped leaders get a jumpstart on this skill.

Storytelling is valued enough to be considered an expected attribute of presence in leaders. If you lead a large division or a function with multiple teams and you haven’t mastered storytelling, you’re behind your peers. It’s the element of presence that brings content and style together by helping a communicator establish lasting impressions and repeatable sound bites.

But if leaders are a little ahead on new expectations, employees themselves may be behind.

An Employee’s Presence – the Leaders’ Perspective:

When you ask leaders to think about how they notice presence in employees, there are some new dynamics to consider. Working remote or hybrid has had an impact on how easy or difficult it is to establish presence with leaders. And in several of our discussion groups, managers called this out directly. They say establishing presence is harder because they just don’t get as many opportunities. And it seems leaders feel the same.

Here are three themes we identified in surveys and conversations with leaders.

First, presence hasn’t changed. Choices have.

Leaders have stayed consistent to impressions and how they describe the impact of presence on someone’s visibility and opportunity. Bottom-line: “Like everyone else, I form an impression of you from how you communicate and how you present yourself in business settings.” But as employees have shifted with flexible hours, flexible settings and flexible everything else, the opportunity for comparison is more obvious.

Leaders would say an employee with presence stands out so much more today because of all the other choices being made around them. From how people show up in meetings to when they show up in the office, from lack of focus to lack of clarity, from being prepared to being unclear. And by extending the boundaries of how we work, we’ve also opened up more opportunities to miss the mark.

Second, in-person presence trumps virtual presence. Every time.

“You can’t confuse the convenience of virtual with the influence of in-person.”

A good analogy is this: You’re sitting in a room with a person and the television is on. You’re watching something together. But as you engage with each other, it’s easy for the show to be drowned out as you take more of an interest in your conversation with each other. You feed on each other’s enthusiasm which is expressed through body language and voice energy. There’s just more to take in and more to influence when you’re with someone.

It doesn’t mean that virtual can’t work. By focusing on the television, you and the other person in the room can choose to make the television the focal point. But it takes agreement and combined focus to make it happen. And in a business setting, a really good facilitator. And that puts your ability to make an impact in the hands of someone else.

Third, leveraging impressions is a lot about relationships. They matter.

If your presence is established as an initial impression, it takes repetition of that impression for people to attach presence to your brand. It’s how people begin to think about you and talk about you when you’re not around. They describe you to others, and they leverage you in different places.

Presence opens the door to new relationships. But leaders are talking a lot about the lack of relationships with newer employees.

In our discussions, one leader said: “If I’ve seen you twice a month in a virtual meeting and you’re one of ten people, I don’t really know you. I don’t think of that as a relationship. I only know you related to the skills you’re discussing in the meeting.” And without the more relaxed opportunity to form a relationship, it’s harder for leaders to assess expanded responsibility and consider promotion. For employees, it’s harder to have a network of champions.


As we head into another year of hybrid working and expanded choices, you should think about how presence shows up in your business setting. From leaders to managers, the expectations of presence have stayed consistent. But a lot about how we establish a presence has changed. And that’s going to take more effort around fewer opportunities. It means learning how to have a presence in the way you’ve been asked to work or the way you’ve chosen to work.

Resetting presence is a priority for us in the year ahead. And we anticipate 2024 will add another book to our resources.

As always, we’re here when you need us and hope you’ll consider how we can help you and your team reset presence in the year ahead.

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Influencing Without Authority

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There’s a path in career advancement that isn’t always easy to navigate. It’s the spot between individual contributor and seasoned manager. And for some, the path never appears and for others, it’s as if the path was clear all along.

There’s some mystique to who finds the path and runs up it quickly and who turns a different way and misses the path altogether. Maybe some were given specific landmarks and guidance so they wouldn’t miss it. Maybe some knew where to turn and chose not to.

And it begs the question: who picks the path and who guides the turns?

Sometimes an earnest employee does it on their own. They jump in and seek guidance and can find their way. Sometimes it’s circumstances around a project or a big initiative that forces someone into management. But most often, it’s a mentor, a sponsor or a leader who sees something in someone that signals manager potential:

  • Where do they see it? In everyday meetings or quarterly presentations.
  • How do they evaluate it? Group reaction and response.
  • And what do they call it? The ability to influence without authority.

It can be as subtle as someone who gains alignment with conflicting perspectives or as bold as someone who knows how to set options and impose action. It’s a skill that, once learned, will follow you throughout your career. And it’s a differentiator between an individual contributor and a management candidate.

The most common feedback employees get as they begin to gain visibility is: “You’re in the weeds. You’re sharing too much detail.” It’s feedback that means we’re asking you to recognize the difference in what you’re actually doing and how we’re asking you to communicate about it.

Let’s take two employees and consider what they missed.

First, John, a product supervisor. John has responsibility for upgrading a product and getting it back in the market in six months. John scoped the project in order to get buy-in and financing. And now, every day, he leads a huddle with the five developers working on it. He has a project manager who works with him to manage the flow of changes and incremental sets. Most days, John’s time is spent problem-solving with one of those developers.

John’s Mindset: John is in the weeds. He understands where he started on the project and he understands the end game of what he’s trying to deliver. He was a part of the conversations when the decision was made to invest in upgrading this product and why it matters to customers.

How John Communicates: If you ask John to attend a meeting and report on this project, you’re going to hear the play-by-play steps of what they’re changing, how they’re changing it, where they’ve gotten stuck, and what they’ve done to solve it.

Your experience of Emily will be similar.

Emily runs a lead gen process for a B:B sales team. She sits within the marketing organization, but her customer is sales. She runs weekly campaigns based on targeted personas, implied needs, and new verticals. She has a team of four, and they are deep in the weeds of watching website activity, tracking outbound mailings, and making real-time changes to adjust to activity.

Emily’s Mindset: She meets with her team daily, and she works with each individual on the specific campaigns they manage. Emily is deep in the weeds and close to the adjustments made on each activity or data point.

How Emily Communicates: If you ask Emily for an update, you’re going to get the play-by-play of each campaign’s activity and adjustments.

So, let’s go into meetings and see how others respond to them.

Assume you’re the VP Product and, quarterly, you meet with the VP Sales to let her know how things are progressing, so that her team can communicate what’s coming to customers. You invite John to give an update on the product upgrade and within five minutes, the VP Sales is shaking her head. After the meeting she says to you, “I didn’t understand any of that. What am I supposed to do with that information?”

John provided an update on the workflow and progress behind the update. He didn’t provide the strategic message that the VP Sales hoped to hear. She wanted to know how the update would impact the company’s customers, not how it was literally taking place. John was not effective in that meeting.

Now assume that you’re the VP of Sales and you have your regional directors coming in for a meeting. You’ve asked Emily to provide an overview of lead generation. At the end of Emily’s presentation, your district leaders were confused by the amount of data and didn’t understand what to plan for next quarter.

Just like John, Emily approached this visibility moment as an opportunity to showcase the work of her team. Her audience wanted to align her actions to their opportunities. Emily was not effective in her meeting.

In both meetings, the listeners’ impressions were:

  • Too in the weeds…
  • Misses the point…
  • Unclear on the takeaway…

We describe it as the difference in talking about what you’re doing versus talking about the outcome you’ll deliver. But if you’re John or Emily, they would say that’s oversimplifying their biggest challenge. And the challenge is they don’t always see the difference in doing the work and communicating about the work. And it’s a skill that our team calls communicating and influencing without authority.

It’s communicating from the listener’s perspective and thinking about the value your listeners will take away from your insights. It’s worrying less about reporting on what you’re doing and putting in the context of a strategic mindset. This is the skill that allows some people to climb the manager path early. They’ve learned to speak someone else’s language so that communication aligns to what someone else is trying to accomplish.

Employees like John and Emily need help understanding the difference in supporting outcomes versus partnering on outcomes. It’s a shift from communicating activity to communicating outcomes.

When we coach that skill, it changes an employee’s momentum within a company. It improves their ability to influence conversations today, and it increases high-visibility moments, which leads to the next steps in their career faster.

And as we continue to see companies ask managers to step up quickly, we know this skill belongs in their toolkit. And that’s why we’ve packaged it as a new program for 2024. If you’d like to help one person step up for a promotion or your entire team partner more effectively with internal groups, give us a call. We’ve got the solution you need.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Advancement vs Development

There’s been a shift in employee conversations.

To people managers, it feels a lot like a long car ride with young children. “Are we there yet?” is asked so many times that it stirs feelings of frustration and exasperation.  Ask any people manager, and they would say the most common question from an early career employee is “Am I there yet? Am I ready for promotion?” And while most people leaders have a faint memory of feeling eager and impatient themselves, there is more frustration and exasperation with their newest employees and the repetitive “Am I there yet?”

No doubt it creates an impression of someone who seems self-focused. But it’s worth noting that this generation of newest employees are considered to be a very smart generation. They have a skill set that many around them in the workforce don’t have. They’re tech natives, so they can do almost anything faster. And in the early steps of their career, they’ve experienced unusual trends with a workforce shortage and hiring salaries off the charts. So, it stands to reason that they’re being coached at home and by friends to “ask for anything… and you’ll probably get it.”

It makes sense that their focus is about what’s next. And if people managers take a deep breath and a step back, they’ll find that enthusiasm and motivation is driving the annoying impatience.  We all made mistakes in our early steps, and this group‘s impatience will likely be one of their missteps.

But if you have a motivated, even an impatient employee, you can shift the conversation.

Some managers feel hesitant to do this. They, too, lived through unusual trends. And they were told to look after people, to be very flexible with people. So having any conversation that stands firm or offers a little humble pie, makes them nervous.  But when you balance the worry of disappointing someone with the responsibility of guiding someone, you’ll find that honesty is the best policy.

Here’s how you shift the conversation.

First, compensation can’t be a gray area: Every employee needs to understand how compensation works inside a company. 90% of individual contributors don’t understand pay bands. They don’t really understand how talent ratings work within companies, and so they’re very naive about their manager’s capabilities and limitations around advancement. 50% of managers don’t understand how this works beyond their team.

People leave companies because they make assumptions about how things work, and they assume managers can do whatever they want to do to advance them. Advancement is a process within a company, and the assessment behind it happens for most employees at the same time each year. Navigating advancement requires instruction. When an employee understands the rules, timing, and the process companies use to advance an employee, they realize they’re asking their manager for the wrong thing in those weekly conversations.

Second, distinguish between advancement and development: Good managers lean into development which makes the annual advancement conversation easier.  If Joe is your employee, the conversation shift may sound like this:

“Joe, I have an advancement conversation with you twice a year from a standpoint of compensation, position changes, and increased responsibilities. Our company does that once a year, and at midyear, I’m happy to talk to you about how you’re tracking. But I’m more a steward of your development plan than your compensation plan. In terms of growing your skills and experiences, I’m happy to have an on-going conversation with you. As your manager, I have a lot of ownership for helping you get the experience that will lead to advancement down the road. And while the company guides the conversation we have once a year, you and I can set a unique and individual development plan to set what you want to see and what you want to learn.”

Third, build a multi-step career path with an employee: Shift their thinking from what they want to do next to where they want to be in ten years.  This paints a picture of multiple experiences and relationships that will happen over time versus a specific event of taking one step up the career ladder.

If an employee can’t tell you where they want to be, explain the importance of having a path.  While the path may change, it will help them shape the experiences that they need along the way, and it adds some direction to what they should explore. It also gives them something to talk about as they network within your company.

As companies continue to evolve and reset quickly, we see many people who get stuck or sidelined because no one understands the longer journey they’re pursuing.  They only see an employee’s current skills, and it may be too much or too little for a company to apply their skills. But when companies have more intel, where someone is today AND where they’d like to be in the future, it’s easier to adjust a role short-term and keep an employee on course from the longer career path.

This missing element, the ability to talk about your career path, was the inspiration for our book, Disrupted! How to Reset Your Brand and Your Career. In fact, people managers have their own stories to share about how experiences led to career opportunities. And managers should share them often. Young employees need a broader view and a longer game plan. They also need relationships.

And that’s the Fourth element. Encourage relationships that may lead to mentorship: This is another misunderstood corporate norm. Young employees are “coached” to find mentors quickly in a company. Maybe the right intent, but it’s often executed poorly. Leaders get frustrated when someone they don’t know asks: “Will you be my mentor?”  The answer is maybe, but probably not.  To the employee, mentorship means someone who is going to tell me what to do to accelerate my success.  To a leader, it means added time focused on someone you don’t really know. So maybe, but probably not.

Mentoring happens over time, and it’s a one-in-a-hundred relationship that grows beyond advice to common interests and trusted camaraderie. No one knows who will take hold as a mentor, but coaching an employee to build multiple relationships starts the beginning of a network that may reveal a mentorship.


People managers are the critical factor that gets high performance out of employees today and guides career development for where employees will end up tomorrow. But it takes a shift in conversation, and a people manager who can put the four steps above into place.

If you’re finding employee conversations challenging, let us help you shift the conversation.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

It’s All On You: Will Your Keynote Speech Be a Home Run?

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It’s all been leading up to your 20 minutes on a stage…

The events team has spent a small fortune planning it…

The marketing team has spent six months promoting it…

And the sales team is waiting in the wings, eager to capitalize on it…

And all you have to do as the keynote speaker—is hit it out of the park!

Easy enough, right? Actually no. Most leaders say it’s one of the hardest things they’re asked to do. Few leaders like doing it, and no leaders like hearing the expectations described above. So, they wait too late to begin planning for it – and they strike out.

It happens more often than you might think. About 60% of all the keynotes that will be delivered in this upcoming conference season will fail in their main objective: positioning new opportunities for the company.

How can that be? After all, most company keynote speakers are senior executives with an entire support staff. So how can more than half of their keynotes fail to leave an audience impressed?

The truth is that most keynotes follow the same formula: the usual cliches to shine light on the brand, mixed with this year’s fresh coat of paint and a presentation about what you’re doing and why your customers need it.

And while this formula is easy to pull together by an internal marketing team, it rarely meets the expectations of what an audience came to hear. The audience wants a broader view. They want to hear industry insights and comparisons, they want perspective that is relevant and useful to their companies and their plans, and they want to be entertained by how the keynote speaker weaves it all together.

We’ve witnessed countless keynotes over the years, and this disconnect replays itself time and time again. A keynote speaker takes the stage to great fanfare and spends the next 20 minutes talking about their own company. They don’t connect the dots to marketplace issues, industry opportunities or their customers’ priorities. And the audience is left to figure out: does this matter to me?

It takes alignment on three key elements to make a keynote memorable and repeatable. And it’s why we developed our formula for a winning keynote:

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


The Storyline:

Impactful communication leverages the power and clarity of a storyline to lead listeners to a clear takeaway. It’s the right structure that leads listeners on an incredible journey with a blend of insights, discovery and a little fun.

The journey looks different from one keynote to the next, but great keynote speeches lead to big Aha’s. If there’s nothing new, the keynote just diluted the value of the entire conference. These are the headlines; these are the proof points, and this is the foundation that supports all the other sessions.



Audiences love stories because they’re repeatable when they’re told well. But only about 22% of stories that are told in business settings are memorable. And in our years of research on stories, there’s one pretty clear reason why: the story being told wasn’t aligned to the journey for the listener.

Successful storytelling ties together key points. We often say that a successful keynote can be measured by a listener who remembers your message and can validate it by repeating a story from your presentation.

Stories make a message real and bring complete ideas or data to life for an audience. But by themselves, their impact is limited. It’s the combination of stories within a storyline that gives a keynote its shelf life. Without a set storyline, stories entertain without leaving a lasting impact. And without stories, a storyline often struggles to bring points to life.

A keynote speaker needs both in order to make a message resonate until next year’s conference. And that leads to the differentiating element … the presenters themselves!


The Storyteller:

We tell many presenters that communication is a blend of head and heart. Good data points align with the brain and good stories align with the heart. Presenters who can engage both head and heart have a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

Great storytellers don’t just want you to hear their stories. They want you to feel the story and they inject emotion into stories in the way that they tell them. Think of a favorite speaker in business, comedy, politics, or religion. They all have a certain energy and conviction that seems to pull you in.

Most speakers aren’t willing to invest the time to learn how to do this well. They’re relying on the communication style they’ve had for more than a decade. And while it’s good enough for running a business meeting, it isn’t good enough to engage an audience from a stage. It takes coaching, it takes effort, and it takes the right blend of all three ingredients in our formula to bring it to life.

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


Conferences are back and bigger than ever. Your customers are giving you 2-4 full days of their time, and most companies are counting on only a few people to lead a journey that catapults everything else into place next year.

Are you one of the people they’re counting on?

It’s a lot of pressure, but we can ensure you’ll deliver on it. Invest the time and effort to improve your skills, and you’ll knock it out of the park.

If you’re the next speaker, commit to being the best one.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Harnessing the Power of Effective Communication

From CIO Business Review – Top 10 Most Inspiring People in Leadership Consulting 2023

In today’s fast-paced world, communication has become more important than ever. Whether you are a business leader, a public figure, or simply someone who wants to make a difference, the ability to communicate effectively is essential. And when it comes to mastering this skill, Sally Williamson is the name to know.

As the president and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates (SW&A), Sally has spent more than three decades coaching leaders and teams to deliver impactful messages that resonate with audiences. By coaching clients to organize ideas with a focus on listener expectations, Sally helps communicators develop compelling storylines that engage and influence audiences in any situation.

Taking Steps to Bridge the Gap

Sally’s passion has always been communication, which began with her interest in public relations and journalism. She learned to write with a listener in mind and had a growing fascination with business and business leaders. As she observed how business decisions were made, Sally noticed commonalities in why ideas failed and she soon realized the correlation between individuals who could communicate effectively and those who could not. Sally knew that this was an area where she could make a significant difference, so she shifted her focus to executive coaching. And she began to develop a methodology and supporting tools to help others communicate to achieve their goals.

Building the Business

Sally began the firm as a solo entrepreneur with a keen interest in the impact of communication on business outcomes and a desire to help individuals influence results. The first clients were enterprise sales teams who recognized the importance of coaching to create a winning presentation, and the coaching worked remarkably well.

By 2004, Sally had assembled a team, and SW&A opened its first brick-and-mortar office to host workshops and coaching sessions. As SW&A’s reputation grew, success attracted more success, and the SW&A team continued to expand, with the development of a coaching curriculum and the launch of Tailored Programs across nearly every industry and every function in the corporate world.

Today, SW&A is a consulting firm that helps managers and leaders become persuasive communicators. Its approach shifts communication from a technique-based toolkit to an intention-led methodology that empowers anyone to become more compelling in what they say and how they say it.

Although the firm’s mission remains the same, the skills it teaches have significantly expanded, enabling the team to solve client problems today and anticipate communication needs in new contexts.

Leading with Determination

If Sally had to be described in one word, it would be determined. As the head of the firm, she cannot oversee every aspect of the company’s operations, but she still cares deeply about it. Sally believes that her primary responsibility is to instill that same level of caring in every member of the team. To achieve this, she splits her time between managing some of the more complex projects the firm takes on and supporting other team members to ensure that they bring their best work to every engagement.

Sally’s workdays are never typical, which keeps her work challenging and rewarding. Every client presents a new challenge and a unique situation. Some days, she spends up to 12 hours coaching individuals and then works under a tight deadline to ensure that they are ready for a presentation. On other days, she may deliver a full-day workshop to a small group or a keynote presentation to a large audience. But every day brings the joy and passion of helping others leverage communication to influence and connect with others.

Addressing Major Issues for Impactful Change

SW&A prides itself on embodying its values through its actions, methods, and team collaboration. The company’s competitive advantage stems from its genuine desire to make a positive impact and its dedication to continuing until that goal is achieved. This approach is reflected in their coaching style, which prioritizes adapting instruction to best fit the individual’s needs.

As society and the business landscape have evolved, SW&A recognizes the need to address sensitive and critical human issues in business settings. While progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to solve challenges and evolve cultures. It will require thoughtful communication and authentic and sincere engagement from leaders. Sally hopes to continue to help leaders advance culture change and make a real difference.

Embracing Life Fully to Live with Fulfilment

Balance varies depending on your stage in life. Sally was fortunate enough to prioritize raising a family and during that time, family took precedence over work. She made trade-offs and missed opportunities on the professional side because she prioritized her personal life. Although she missed some significant professional moments along the way, she was able to reset the balance as her children grew older, and she made building her business her top priority. Today’s professional settings are much more flexible and allow men and women to balance priorities and take the initiative to define how aspects of the career journey fit within their life.

As a leader, Sally strives to support each employee on their unique journey. Some are still developing their careers, while others see SW&A as their final chapter. Her aim is to create a culture that allows for all of it and one way they do that is taking the time to celebrate each other frequently.

Gaining Wisdom Through Overcoming Challenges

Through her experiences, Sally has gained knowledge from every challenge she has faced. While reflecting on some of the more difficult situations, she has come to realize the value of hindsight and objective analysis. Despite her small business, Sally’s clients are often large corporations, and sometimes individuals make choices that don’t seem like the right ones through SW&A’s lens. Then, according to Sally, “Over time as more pieces fall into place, we see the full picture and can understand why a poor decision was made. Several years ago, my mantra to my clients and to myself became: ‘everything makes sense.’  If you’re in a situation that doesn’t make sense, you’re missing information. And I’ve learned to seek that missing information or simply move on knowing that it will be revealed eventually.”

Success Hinges on Effective Communication

According to Sally, success for any coach, whether they are coaching communication skills or tennis skills, is measured by their clients’ takeaways. Although effective communication is well-understood, its value is only realized when one can impart it to others. She says, “We see initial success when we improve someone’s confidence or strengthen their impact. And over time, I’ve seen the value of that success reinforced as clients come back again and again because they value your input and partnership.”

Expanding the Reach

Over the last few years, many businesses have faced unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and SW&A was no exception. This compelled her team to reconsider the business’s tools and restructure some of their offerings. It also opened up new opportunities for them to transform communication from being just a skill they teach to becoming a final product they can offer. Apart from coaching individuals to be effective communicators, SW&A now helps companies improve their communication in various situations and uses their expertise to bring teams and ideas together to drive impact.

Looking ahead, SW&A has planned to expand their communication offerings over the next five years. They also aim to publish two new books and develop programs that leverage the insights from these books to influence and impact new communication situations.

Customer Conference Outcomes: It’s Harder Than You Think

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Customer conferences are back, and attendance is strong! The brief hiatus to virtual events didn’t hold up as a viable option. And the data proves it out. More than 70% of event planners say it’s too difficult to mimic a real-life experience virtually, and 67% say the brand narrative doesn’t come through. And that’s why 98% are back in convention centers, ballrooms and other venues to drive their marketing strategies.

But it’s a little different this time around.

Historically, the customer conferences belonged to the marketing team. They built the hype and positioned new products and ideas on a big budget with lots of bells and whistles to create a fun event. Sales jumped in post-conference and scheduled customer conversations and visits to generate an opportunity. The marketing investment was measured by attendance, customer fun and sales follow-up.

In the last year, sales leaders learned the hard way that conference expectations have to go up.

Here’s why:

In-person sales meetings have plummeted by 52% since the pandemic, and over 70% of buyers no longer want to invite a sales rep into an office. The “pitch” has been reduced to a virtual format and is easily delayed or stalled until a company is ready to buy something. That diminishes the sales team’s ability to pick up where the conference ideas wrap up, and in many cases, it eliminates an opportunity for a positioning conversation.

That may be why groups are disappointed in the gap between the event investment and the sales revenue. It doesn’t mean the events aren’t a good use of marketing dollars. But it does mean that focus and format may shift as expectations go up.

As your group begins to think about 2024 conferences, now is the time to add a new lens on your event and adjust expectations with your planning team. And that’s where we’ve jumped in to help sales and marketing teams rethink their conference to ensure outcomes are more than just fun and games.

From our perspective, there are three opportunities for connection: messaging, people and takeaways.



All companies work on themes and topics. But only a few really connect the dots across all the storylines. In most companies, marketing sets a plan and then hands topics to presenters and gives them general direction to build their talk track. When communication teams get involved, the keynotes improve but the thread of ideas across breakouts, demo sessions and all presenters is rarely evident.

That used to just be a lofty ideal state. But now, it’s the only way to ensure that messages are memorable and repeatable. You’re arming the conference attendees with thoughts that they will need to recall months later to consider your salesperson.

It’s aligning all presenters to a narrow group of messages that support a theme. It means that each portion of the conference builds on what came before it rather than heading in a different direction. And it works. Companies that we’ve helped link all pieces together see better results in continuing conversations and generating sales.



This seems like an easy one, but your customers find it harder to walk into a setting where they don’t know people. And even when they’re on site, they make choices not to do it.

You can host a cocktail hour, but you won’t see the easy engagement from a few years ago. We’ve learned this the hard way as small group programs came back on our calendar. People are more reticent to jump in and network. It’s been an awkward reset that hasn’t happened easily.

You have to organize and plan connection. You have to impose opportunities on people. And you have to put small groups together with a purpose. Mini events inside planned events make it easier. Time and time again, we see that people like a plan for fitting in, and they respond well to an activity to do with a small group.

We’ve seen the “miss on connection” play out many times. Earlier this year, we were on-site for a conference that included evening events. In hindsight, the marketing team realized there was little communication about plans for the first night’s dinner. They invited people with a time and location, but they didn’t say anything about what would happen when you arrived. And that’s probably why 65% of their attendees didn’t show up. The marketing team was shocked, and the CEO was mad. I’d seen this hesitancy before and suggested a different approach for the second night. Through light-hearted comments from the CEO, we added details for the second night and shared plans for assigned seating, planned discussion and activity. 95% of their attendees showed up the second night.

Take the hesitancy and awkwardness out of joining in. Make it easy for people to lean in and feel included during the conference.



Once the conference begins and a group settles in, your on-site team needs to work much harder to frame the next steps while your customers are there. This can work in conjunction with a plan to impose engagement. But it often takes a structured plan and a little coaching to help your team execute this.

You need to take advantage of your customers’ willingness to spend 2.5 days with you. You won’t get it again any time soon. Create a 10:1 ratio between people attending and people you have on-site. Leverage every employee to run a playbook that helps you get two steps ahead with needs, ideas and timetables with customers.

Sales teams show up at conferences and see their lead role as entertaining. That’s too low of an expectation. You need to be able to forecast, prioritize and strategize based on the insights you get at the conference. Rotate your top people through these groups and find ways to gather good insight and timing on a customer’s plans in the months ahead.

All conferences use apps, but you may not be leveraging all the capabilities available. You can build small groups in apps; you can change small groups in apps. And you can send a personalized agenda to each attendee every night. It may seem overwhelming to manage hundreds or thousands of attendees. But your employees can easily manage a group of ten. Test different ways to engage and different times throughout the conference for 1:1 conversations.


Conferences are at an all-time high, and customers are showing up in record numbers. But your sales team needs more than just interest and entertainment as a takeaway. It’s a different playbook that drives the ultimate connection through messages, people and takeaways. And we can help you get there.

Let us be your sounding board as conference planning gets underway.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

The Slippery Slope – Do I Have to Come In or Not?

TAKE US WITH YOU! Listen to this article on the go:

It was the business dilemma of 2022. Companies spent hours upon hours debating their strategy about hybrid work. Leadership teams went on retreats, read studies and employee surveys. And then they called the shot:

  • Some said come in two days and stay home for three…
  • Some said come in three days and stay home for two…
  • Others said come in all days…
  • And a few said remain virtual and remote.

The only thing that seemed consistent in policy setting was that every company set a policy.

But it didn’t bring immediate change.

Because while senior leaders set the policy, they relied on people leaders to enforce it. Teams were given leeway to build their own working model and set their own guidelines. Conceptually, a good idea. But actually, it’s been pretty confusing because nothing seemed consistent from one manager to the next, and it still isn’t consistent today.

In the same companies, some people leaders are following the strategy, and others are saying “we don’t need to come in.” Some are setting a few meetings as guardrails and then allowing employees to interpret the rest for themselves. And unintentionally, we’ve ended up in a tug of war between employees and managers which is why the most common sound bite from employees is: “Do I have to come in or not?”

The data shows that most employees need to.

Senior leaders will tell you that initial pandemic insights showed that people were working effectively and efficiently at home. Projects were able to stay on task, and employees actually worked more without distractions and commutes.

But leaders should have also considered that employees didn’t have much else to do. Now that everything is open, distractions are limitless. Those same employees have built new schedules and lifestyles that work best with a lot of flexibility. So, the tug of war continues.

Do people really need to return to offices? Most companies would say yes for reasons that benefit employees more than they’re willing to admit.

Culture, development, connection and trust aren’t happening easily without people being together. If you just cringed, consider this. You may be an outlier. You may be the person who has made all of the team elements work without sitting in a room together. But the data says something different. Overwhelmingly, most companies are seeing that they didn’t deliver on many of the ingredients that sustain a company culture and propel employee growth. And even if you are an exception, companies need to guide a work environment that promotes best practices for all.

Is there a chance that leaders will give in to the employee resistance? Will companies ease off their hybrid strategy and go back to “Just do what works for you.”


Senior leaders can’t let that happen. At this point, it’s not a matter of whether companies are moving forward with a hybrid model. It’s a question of who’s going to buckle down and nudge employees to get there.

Once again, the expectation is on people leaders.

Not the senior leaders. They set the strategy and put the wheels in motion to adjust company norms, company space and everything needed to make a culture conducive to hybrid models. It’s the people leaders who will have to make it work now. We’re back where we were when the pandemic hit, and people leaders were asked to manage so much more than work results. They balanced mental health, personal fears, illness and lack of connection. They spent twice the amount of time on individuals as they had in the past, and they are the key reason we all got through rough waters.

And now, every people leader needs to shift from the needs of individuals to the priorities of teams. It’s a 180 from the direction they took before, and some people leaders are avoiding it. Others are struggling with it. It’s the crux of the problem with resetting. Companies won’t have a vibrant, hybrid culture until people leaders lean in and make it happen.

As we’ve coached individuals and small groups of people leaders to do this, we understand the resistance. We also understand that the success of moving ahead is counting on it.

So, whether you’ve already embraced the ideas below or feel your shoulders tense up as you read them, this is what we’ve coached people leaders to do to step up to the task at hand.

People leaders need to:

Know your own blind spot. The hybrid strategy is one company policy where some people leaders are letting their own desires get in the way. It’s OK to admit it. And it’s essential to recognize it. But it can’t be about you right now. It’s about a group of employees who need to feel like a team. Be careful that you aren’t assuming what worked during the pandemic is still relevant today. Those were different times, more restricted times, and your employees aren’t staying at home. They’re just not coming to the office.

Course correct by example. The analogy of giving 110% has never been more important. If you want people to show up more, you need to be there every day to greet them. If the guidance says to come in two days, you should be there for four days so that your team always sees you. It isn’t fair, and it may not even feel right. But it’s the number one excuse employees are giving for why they aren’t adopting the hybrid model. “My manager isn’t even there.” To change their behavior, you need to go well beyond it until the team hits the cadence you’ve prescribed. Then, you can settle into the same schedule.

Explain the why, not the what. Most messaging around the hybrid strategy wasn’t very good. It explained what companies were doing but didn’t prove out why they were doing it. And employees took away a mandate that felt restrictive, not beneficial. It wasn’t your message, but it’s your mess to clean up. You need to believe in and communicate the value of a hybrid strategy and make it real for your team.

Build a model for a new way of working. In our workshops, we’ve coached people leaders to be intentional about talking through how a team works. It is a reset and deserves discussion to get to an understanding. Every team has tasks that are independent, and tasks that are interdependent. Employees need some help remembering that.

Deliver on development. Many people leaders are leaning on external resources, like us, to develop programming that adds meaning to their monthly or quarterly meetings. That’s a good idea. It allows you to deliver employee development without shouldering all of it yourself.

Expand perspectives. Employees are stuck on proving that they work well remotely. Don’t fight their perspective. They may be right, and they aren’t feeling heard. Instead, expand their perspective to the team view which they can’t really see. That’s the unique view you have and the reason to bring people together.


All companies are dealing with resistance to the hybrid strategy. It’s a key ingredient in the evolving company culture, but it won’t take hold without the efforts of people leaders. It’s a tall ask, and companies need to find those who are willing to step up and make it happen.

A little support through coaching or a group workshop is proving to be a big help. If your people leaders could use a boost and some guidance on moving ahead, we’d welcome a chance to help you accelerate your efforts.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Selling the Big Idea

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Imagine This:

You manage a product team for a consumer electronics company. Over the last few years, customer feedback and input suggest that there’s an opportunity to combine two of your products into one to improve customer satisfaction and usage. In fact, combined capabilities could simplify how customers use the product.

But it’s out of line with the timing of your go-to-market strategy and would require the executive team’s and the Board’s approval to disrupt the product roadmap and push this concept forward. A year ago, you presented the customer insights and got approval from both groups to explore a prototype.

And now you have it! It’s time to sell the big idea from market potential to production costs and forecasted revenue. And while the steps to this point have gone smoothly, there’s more than a 50% chance it won’t move toward production.

Why? Most leaders say they stall ideas at this point because the insights shared aren’t clear or compelling. And that’s a communication roadblock.

How can that be? After almost a year of effort by an innovative product team, the potential of a prototype stalls because of poor communication. And poor doesn’t mean the presenters weren’t confident about what they said. It means they approached the presentation the wrong way and missed the things the listeners needed.

They made one poor assumption as they built out the communication about HOW to get to product launch. They assumed the listeners could reengage with this concept from the discussion they had that launched the prototype. More than a year ago!

It’s the most common blind spot we see in high-stakes presentations: a presenter who communicates from their perspective instead of the listeners. And while that may seem like an obvious blunder as you read this…it’s not. Most communicators can’t recognize the difference between the two perspectives without some coaching to understand and adjust for what a listener values.

Take the example above. The product team has vested almost a year in getting to that prototype and working through details of market analysis, production and revenue forecasting. From their perspective, the point of a presentation at this point is to get approval on a plan and a budget to get this new concept into market. And they’ve worked hard on the HOW behind it. They’ll come in with details, charts and numbers to support the execution. And in under ten minutes, they will be at odds with the leaders.

The blind spot and gap in perspective is significant:

  • The senior leaders and Board members haven’t thought about this concept for a moment beyond when they agreed to a prototype exploration.
  • The product team has thought about it every moment for the last nine months.

It would be virtually impossible for these two groups to be on the same page, and yet, it’s how many organize presentations. They assume the listeners are where they are in understanding, interest and buy-in.

Starting with a listener’s perspective is one of the most critical skills of content development. It’s the component of a storyline that sets up more about WHAT and WHY in order to guide a listener to the HOW of the details.

And if you’ve taken a workshop with us, you know that good messaging drives clarity. The message for this presentation might be: When product X and Y are combined into a single product Z, we will see a 40% reduction in production costs and an additional $30 million in revenue.

At the start of the presentation, the listeners hear value and impact through messaging. Then, we leverage a concept we call “Funneling” to set a storyline that creates interest and validation for WHY it makes sense to disrupt the product schedule and push this new prototype to the front of the line.

Here are the elements of a compelling storyline that gain approval and buy-in from some of the toughest audiences:

Listeners start with External Perspective.

Leaders and board members think broadly, and they want to know that you’ve done the same. Before they’ll take your word for a big idea, they want to know that the concept began from someone else’s: ideally, your customer. In the scenario above, the product team has this, but they presented it a year ago and then left the ideas behind. The listeners have forgotten it and will need it to see value in the prototype. They need to remember that customers gave a lot of input on this combined product idea and in fact, it’s what drove the decision the leaders made a year ago.


Then, the listeners will want Internal Perspective.

This is contrasting what you currently have against the insights above. Why have you not combined the products before? What makes this a viable option today in a way it might not have been before?  Can you leverage change or interest called out in the External Perspective to pivot the listeners thinking on timing and positioning that helps them see a valid reason for considering this now?


And finally, listeners want you to dive a little further into Specifics.

This gives them a way to quantify the magnitude of disruption and interest. How do they think about this shift? What happens to the product timeline if they do it? What happens to the customer interests if they don’t?


These three elements set the compelling storyline that leads a listener to the HOW it could be done. And those are the insights that matter most to the product team at this point. So it isn’t that one perspective trumps another. It’s the skill of being able to put the listener first pulling them to your perspective that gains buy-in.

When I shared this concept of our storyline with a client recently, she said: “Basically, you’re telling me I have to go backwards in order to pull the listeners forward.” And it’s an interesting way of thinking about communication when you’re the communicator. When you start with the listeners’ perspective, you‘re focused on setting the stage and providing context they need to get to your perspective. In the scenario above, it would have made a $30 million difference.

What’s the risk of your communication?

If your team needs to set a more compelling storyline, we’d love to coach a group on how to do it.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Reigniting Ideas & Strategies with Teams with Keith Wilmot

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It’s safe to say we all wish we could wake up every day and bring everything we have to the roles we’re in. Each day would be a new day, every agenda a clean slate. But the reality is that many of us are in roles that are a little messier than that.

So messy in fact that getting to new ideas or exploring an out-of-the-box concept isn’t easy. In fact, with a pile of problems and challenges in our every day, new ideas can feel impossible.

Unless you’ve spent time with Keith Wilmot.

In our latest episode of What’s Your Story, Sally talks with Keith about how his agency, Ignitor, helps teams get unstuck by blending process and creativity to release new ideas and broaden the lens on most situations. And he also has a wild story to share about his own experience with getting unstuck.


More about Keith Wilmot

Keith’s successful career spans over two decades of leading innovation and creativity for global brands such as Coca-Cola, Listerine, Neosporin, Brach’s Candy and many more. Keith has extensive experience in global, publicly traded organizations, as well as leading small, privately held firms. He is described by his team as a student of leadership and disciplined operator with a unique skillset of money and magic.

Show Notes

  • Coca-Cola Company –
    • Built an internal agency called Ignitor
    • Built innovation capability, behaviors, and mindset shifts in the organization to allow creativity to happen inside the organization.
  • McDonald’s
  • Nandos
  • Mercedes-Benz
    • The first company to create the crash dummy and the crash dummy process
  • Leaders get stuck in some core behaviors and mindsets that force certain types of processes and operations and organizations.
    • Impact efficiency
    • Impact teams and organization
  • If they’re not intentional about breaking those patterns and looking differently at their organization, those areas of getting stuck can be pretty damaging to an organization.
  • Decentralization of the innovation strategy – a decentralized approach to creativity in an organization and innovation, meaning that every single person that’s in your organization is responsible for and owns the innovation agenda of the company
  • Virtual vs In Office workers
    • Ignitor believes it’s about engagement and collaboration, If meeting in person teams must make meetings more intentional. If teams are going back into the office, you’ve got a whole new cultural challenge.
  • Salesforce
  • It’s important to make sure companies are still bringing people face-to-face.
  • How to clarify the challenge, and how do to clarify what you’re trying to solve for?
    • Several tools that go into helping organizations, brands, people, and leaders better clarify the challenge.
    • Insight and finding insight in places that you normally wouldn’t find.
    • Suite of eight behaviors and six mindsets that accelerate collaboration, and innovation creativity in the teams and the organization.
    • Growth mindset, and it’s the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.
  • What are the most important initiatives?
  • What are the initiatives that we believe are going to deliver the most value?
  • Coca-Cola Red
  • The worst place for an HR leader in an organization to be is in their office.
  • Why hiring a group like Ignitor for offsite and onsite training is more effective than having the leader of the organization add it to their list.
  • Norwegian Cruise Lines
  • We’re innovators that are powered by inspiration that powers us, but we’re measured by the realization of ideas. So a team has to come to a point where whatever they create together has got an output, and has an impact on the organization
  • When did  Ignitor fail an organization?
  • Ronald McDonald House charities org
  • Animal Kingdom Lodge –
  • What is your 600-pound white Siberian tiger story?

Like what you hear? Hear more episodes like this on the What’s Your Story podcast page!

Speaking Up May Be Harder Than You Think

It’s true that feedback is a gift. But sometimes, managers go beyond sharing insights and they offer the employee the “perfect” solution for how to resolve it. With communication feedback…that can get a little tricky.

That’s certainly been my experience as I’ve coached people who got feedback to “speak up”.

It’s one of those phrases that seems so simple. In reality, it means different things coming from different managers.

  • Some use it to tell someone that they’re soft-spoken and need to speak up so they can be heard… They’re guiding projection.
  • Others use it to suggest that someone isn’t adding to meetings or discussions, and they need to “speak up more”…They’re guiding brand and impressions.
  • Still others use it more generally to suggest to someone that they need to speak up in a setting or with a specific group…They’re guiding executive presence.

As we’ve explored this further with clients across the globe, we continue to learn the meaning of the phrase across different backgrounds and diverse cultures. More formal cultures guide respect by not speaking up unless you’re asked to. There may be a “sir” or a “Ms. Jones” added as part of it. For this employee, “speaking up” may be harder than you think.

Many people have shared their beliefs that they don’t have the right to speak up unless someone calls on them or asks for their input. Sometimes gender plays into it and skews their confidence in speaking up.

Still, others shared their upbringing and beliefs about being assertive. They were encouraged to be assertive, so they weren’t ignored or tuned out. They enter a lot of business settings ready to defend their perspective and may be seen as pushy or aggressive. Their goal has always been to “speak up.”

And the best way to approach feedback with any of these perspectives is to start by understanding the WHY instead of jumping in with WHAT they should do differently.

The manager’s perspective is right. People do need to be seen and heard in settings to establish their brand, their experience and their way of thinking. No one sees you as a strategic thinker unless they hear you as a strategic communicator.

But everyone may not get there in the same way.

Here are a few suggestions for uncovering the WHY behind “speaking up.”

You have an employee who is soft-spoken.
Start this conversation by asking “Has anyone ever told you that you’re soft-spoken?” Technically, they need to understand how to get their voice forward and project more effort behind their words. But they may have known that since they were six years old, and they may have tried multiple ways to do this. Most people have the ability to do it; they hold their voice back for various reasons. It could be because a parent spoke softly, and they learned to follow that speech pattern. It could also be the opposite. A parent spoke very loudly, and they spoke softly to avoid mirroring an overbearing speech pattern.

Some women view soft-spoken as demure, and they may be in a culture that fosters that. Some men view soft-spoken as respectful, and they may be illustrating a more formal upbringing.

By allowing someone to tell you more about the WHY behind soft-spoken, you’ll know whether there are some perceptions to work through as well as skills to support voice strength.

You have an employee who doesn’t speak much in meetings.
Start this conversation by asking: “Do you want to add to conversations?” And then allow the employee to tell you WHY they don’t speak up. It could be that they don’t want to speak up because others speak too much, and it makes meetings run long. They may hear the feedback as a suggestion to show up more like a peer who talks too much. Managers often give guidance by saying “You should speak up like Jeff does in meetings.” Jeff may monopolize conversations more than you realize, and an employee who is more introverted than Jeff will never follow that advice.

As you explore the WHY, you may also learn that an employee doesn’t think as fast as others in the room. They may say that they have thoughts to add…. after the meeting wraps up. They just need more time to think it all the way through.

Every manager should know the make-up of a group and the different kinds of thinkers in the room. Someone who is more process-oriented needs time to think it through before they’ll jump in with an idea or answer that may be wrong. If you knew this, you could help this employee by providing agendas ahead of time. A process thinker will be great if given the time to prepare.

You might also have an employee who isn’t speaking up from a place of respect or a more formal upbringing. And they may literally not know when to do so. You can learn more about this by asking “If you have something to add, what keeps you from jumping in?” If you knew this, you could create openings in conversations and invite a more hesitant employee into the conversation. So, they’ll worry less about when it’s appropriate and speak up more when you invite them into the conversation.

You have an employee who talks too much.
Start this conversation by saying: “You had a lot of enthusiasm today. I felt like you said the same thing multiple times. Why?”

If someone was guided to be assertive, they may continue to “speak up” again and again until they feel acknowledged or as if they won the discussion. They may be seeking some kind of validation or credit that isn’t likely in most meetings.

So how do you guide the “over-talkers” to a better balance?

Their blind spot isn’t really how much they’re speaking. It’s the lack of focus on everyone else. There may be insights in the WHY behind someone who feels the need to be heard the most. For this employee, the real opportunity or learning is the perspective of everyone else. Get insight on how they feel heard by asking “How did the group react to your idea? What was the reaction you were expecting?”

You can guide this person through awareness of team dynamics and the concept of a great team player who not only speaks to share their perspective but also speaks to move a topic toward an outcome that includes everyone’s input.


“Speaking Up” can mean something different to each of us. If you have an employee who needs to show up differently, start with a better understanding of WHY they don’t speak up. Be less quick to solve it from your perspective and more patient with understanding the WHY from the employee’s perspective.

Feedback is a gift, and spending the time to understand the WHY behind a behavior gets everyone to a better outcome. If you’d like to improve the way you give feedback, we can help.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates