Sunday, December 23, 2018

Give seminar attendees what they paid for, and let them decide if they want more

A licensed mental healthcare professional we're calling Lucinda is required to complete a set number of continuing education credits to keep her licensing up to date. To do this requires attending several professional seminars every year. The majority of the seminars charges a fee and feature one or more expert speakers.

While the seminars generally feature notebooks full of handouts and materials relevant to the topic, the seminars also regularly feature a table of books or materials for purchase that relate to the topic covered at the seminar. Often, the books are written by presenters at the seminar.

Lucinda rarely has an issue with presenters' books being sold at these events. As long as the presentations are strong and useful and the presenter doesn't skimp on details and tell attendees that they can get what they need by buying his or her book, Lucinda figures she can decide if buying supplemental materials is worth the cost.

But last week Lucinda emailed me during a break in a professional seminar with the question: "Does it mean you're not selling your book if you say you're not selling your book but your whole talk is contained in the book?" she asks.

From the outset of her talk, one of the presenters told the attendees that she was not trying to sell her book. But Lucinda noticed that the slides the presenter used were much more detailed than the materials distributed to the seminar attendees. To get the material on the slides, attendees would have to buy the presenter's book.

"I don't expect speakers to give us their whole book," writes Lucinda. "But the material they present should be available to us without requiring us to get it by buying additional materials when we already paid for the seminar."

Lucinda knows she's not alone in her observation. "During our lunch break, I overheard a woman complain about the self-promotion of the last speaker so I guess I'm not the only one who was annoyed!"

Two questions loom here. The first is whether the presenter is obligated to provide detailed information from her presentation in the seminar handouts. It's not a given that this is a requirement. While it would be helpful and likely appreciated, each seminar has different guidelines for its presenters and the materials distributed.

The second question is whether it is wrong for a presenter to specifically say "I am not trying to sell my book," when it seems clear to attendees she is doing just that. A quick flash on the screen of a book cover seems fine. Repeatedly pointing attendees to material in her book that should have been provided as information in the seminar is misleading. It also represents poor presentation skills to not recognize that shilling for people to buy something will most likely alienate an audience.

The right thing for presenters at such seminars is to do the strongest, most relevant presentation possible, provide strong materials, and then let attendees decide if they are interested enough to want to read more from the presenter in any additional materials, which might be available for purchase. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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