Speak the Future: Interview with Rachel Pasqua, Digital Strategist and Writer

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Conferize’s “Speak the Future” series features speakers who are currently changing the conference world. For more info check out our “Speak the Future” Manifesto.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a digital strategist and writer with special expertise in mobile, social media, and omni-channel content strategy. I work directly with US and international brands, helping them transform their marketing to meet the demands of a multi-screen, realtime world. At present, I collaborate closely and most often with Token (www.tokenco.com) a NYC based marketing and design agency that I helped co-found. We specialize in digital branding, responsive design, mobile applications, wearable technology, and gestural interfaces. Prior to Token, I founded and managed the mobile group at iCrossing, a marketing company owned by the Hearst Corporation and have held executive roles at Organic and a number of other digital agencies. 


That’s my day job— the rest of the time I’m blogging, promoting my recent book (www.mobileanhouraday.com), working on the next one (tentatively entitled The Responsive Brand), being a wife to my husband (himself a noted speaker) and a mom to our five year old twins.

What is your favorite area of expertise to present?

I talk a great deal about all aspects of mobile— from how to strategically integrate it into your existing marketing mix to the minutiae of how to design and successfully promote a native mobile application. Since mobile is constantly evolving, I never run out of material for fresh presentations, especially ones that are more of a how-to in format. But right now, I’m more interested in presenting on topics that are conceptual and anthropological in nature—for instance, the ways in which mobile devices are changing basic human behavior and the implications these changes have for brands and the way we conduct everyday business.

The idea of Responsive Branding is another favorite topic—essentially taking the concept of responsive design and applying it to digital marketing as a whole, in light of the complexities of the new customer journey. In essence, it’s no longer enough to design responsively— brand needs to behave responsively. I’m also working on a new project that profiles the challenges faced by women in advertising—a series of video interviews with female executives and influencers throughout the industry. So, talking about how women navigate the various channels of the media and advertising and how that’s evolved from the mad men era to today is another theme that’s taking shape.

How did you begin your career in public speaking?
 
I studied acting and filmmaking in college so that’s where I got my earliest experience in public speaking. But it wasn’t until I found my way into the agency world that I began to present at conferences and it was a far different experience than auditioning for a casting director or performing on a stage. There are similarities, of course, but it’s really a whole different process since you are really putting yourself out there—totally the opposite of pretending to be a character. My first conference presentation was at Search Insights in 2007 so I’ve been at it for about seven years now.

What have been some of the key conferences you’ve attended or participates in?
 
I’ve participated as a panelist, solo presenter, moderator, judge, and keynote speaker at numerous events including Ad:tech, Mobile Marketing Forum, ThinkMobile, Paid Content, Search Insider Summit, OMMA, Social Media Week, Apps World, Mobile Monday, Search Engine Strategies, eMetrics, SMX, and Digiday and served as a judge for the 2010 Communication Arts Interactive Design Annual.

Why do you think conferences are important today?

Thanks to the fast-moving pace of technology the arts of marketing, branding, and advertising are getting more complex by the day. We’re all obsessively reading blogs, and Twitter and industry publications in a desperate effort to keep up but I think we still need the human element of in-person interaction and real verbal conversation to help us make sense of it all. Sure, social media is a conversation but often, the best ideas really germinate through real world conversation and interaction with other human beings. I know that I myself most often walk away from conferences more full of ideas and new things to explore and write about than I would from a week spent online. And I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard.
 
Have you noticed any significant trends in the meetings industry in the wake of digital/mobile developments?
 
In terms of digital/mobile technology making the conference experience better? Not so much. There are so many networking apps and tools out there that have potential to use location and social data to enrich the conference experience but usage is fragmented and no one has really got the formula right just yet.

How would you like to see conferences change more in the future?

I’d love to see more of an emphasis on connecting speakers and attendees—it’s really challenging to meet the people you’d like to meet, especially at the bigger shows. But I’d also like to see more of an emphasis on conferences as a vehicle for content creation and distribution. So very few conferences live stream or make their sessions available on video channels like Youtube and Vimeo and I believe that’s a missed opportunity to enrich the community and the conference’s own brand. I understand the line of thinking that what happens at the conference is “premium content” but again, a good 50% of the value in any event is being there physically so I don’t think making the content publicly available after the fact decreases it’s value—quite the opposite in fact. Look at TED, for example! You watch all the presentations online and people will still pay top dollar to attend.

But there’s also the content that’s being generated offstage – the videos being shot, the tweets and photos and blog posts. The single smartest thing any conference organizer could do nowadays is find a way to easily aggregate that content and encourage attendees to contribute. Because those conversations offstage—that’s where the real value lies.

As a speaker, what do you feel you need right now to strengthen your profile in the conference world? Tools? Technology? Network?

For me, it is networking, both in the online and physical world. The real catch-22 of being a speaker is that you tend to get a bit pidgeonholed— you get known for a few niche topics and end of getting invited to the same shows over and over. Which can be great but also a drawback when you want to speak about new ideas, new content you have developed. Getting noticed by the organizers of new conferences is so challenging, in no small part because traditionally, there’s never been one central place to look. And believe me, organizers are always looking for fresh speaking talent! But having organized shows myself, I can tell you it is extremely challenging. You struggle to find the right people for your event, then you struggle to get them to agree to speak, often people have conflicts or travel/presentation restrictions. More often than not, you’re scrambling the week before the show to fill slots and ironically, there are so many people out there who’d love to speak—it’s just a challenge to connect with them! A well networked community— one where speakers could actively promote themselves and organizers could have a talent pool to choose from— would be invaluable.
 
Any conference nightmares?
 
There are so many little things that can go wrong—from AV issues to the room being too hot or cold to no one showing up to your session—you just have to roll with it!

At this point, the one nagging fear I always have (and I think this is a very common one) is, “What if I’m wrong?”. That fear that someone will get up in the QA session and point out that your research is faulty, that your concepts are flawed, etc. And for anyone, there’s always that chance. But you have to get past that fear and put yourself out there—nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Advice to aspiring speakers?
 
Keep at it! Glossophobia—the fear of speaking in public—is the most common human phobia. So if you’re terrified of getting up in front of people and speaking, don’t be too hard on yourself because it’s the norm. Just like anything else, the only thing that will get you over it is practice so take any opportunity to speak that you can. Toastmasters, meet-ups, Pecha-Kucha groups (www.pecha-kucha.com) and local grassroots professional organizations are a great place to start. Gatherings like this give you a chance to get your feet wet with public speaking when you have little or no experience, enabling you to develop your content and style and get some polish before you step up to the industry conference circuit. And remember, once you master this skill, you will be able to do something with ease that the majority of people in the world are terrified to even think about! Talk about competitive advantage.

Anything you’d like to add?
 
Public speaking can be so professionally rewarding-even if you don’t plan to pursue speaking at industry events as a significant part of your career, being able to get up and present to a room full of people is still an incredibly valuable skill. But it can also be a lot of fun and I think that coming at it from a less formal perspective can really help take the edge off. At our company, we like to do something called PowerPoint karaoke to help us develop a more informal, off-the-cuff style of presenting. This is where you take a bunch of presentations at random off Slideshare and everyone has to present one blindly to the group. You end up having 5-7 minutes to present a deck to the group—it could be on brain surgery! Or semiotics! Or needlepoint! The point being, it’s totally random and you probably won’t have a clue about the subject matter, which forces you to think on your feet but also, in an odd way, takes the pressure off. The first few times, you laugh your way through it but over time, you start to realize that you can present literally anything if you approach it with confidence and a sense of humor!