Gregg Johnson
Nov 2, 2017 · 6 min read

If you live in the Bay Area or work in the technology industry, you undoubtedly know that Dreamforce season is upon us. Over 150,000 people will descend upon San Francisco next week to join an event that is part technology conference, part cultural festival, and part philanthropic endeavor. The center of it all is the Dreamforce keynote, a three-hour spectacle featuring musicians, celebrities, high-profile brands, and the founders of Salesforce, Marc Benioff and Parker Harris.

Photo Credit: Salesforce (2015 Dreamforce recap)

It’s easy to get caught up in all the hoopla of Dreamforce — but there’s one rarely discussed secret that is critical to making the keynote a success. The week before the event, well away from the Dreamforce limelight, Marc Benioff gathers thousands of Salesforce employees for a full rehearsal of the keynote presentation.

For years, I participated in this annual ritual with my former Salesforce colleagues and came to take it for granted; I thought this was what every CEO and leadership team did in preparation for a high-profile event. It wasn’t until leaving Salesforce last October to join Invoca, and helping our marketing team run a smaller version of Dreamforce, that I came to appreciate how important the employee all-hands rehearsal is to the success of your event.

A few weeks ago, we hosted customers, partners, and industry influencers in Santa Barbara for the 2017 Invoca Summit. We were fortunate to host excellent keynote speakers: Tim Urban, who writes the “Wait but Why?” blog, Leslie Fine, VP of Product from the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, and innovative customers and partners including Dish Networks, Allstate, Three Day Blinds, Facebook, and CJ Affiliate.

Before the summit, we rehearsed the main keynote in front of all of our employees, and spent 30 minutes collecting feedback from the crowd. This practice, and the feedback we gathered, was crucial to delivering the most effective possible presentation.

Invoca VP of Product Nathan Ziv, presenting during our all hands keynote rehearsal

Here are five reasons why I recommend preparing for your keynote by delivering an end-to-end rehearsal in front of your entire company:

1. It is a forcing function.

No one likes to be embarrassed in front of their peers. Asking your keynote speakers to rehearse in front of the company will undoubtedly lead to better preparation, earlier in the process. It is a great antidote to the temptation of procrastination, which Tim Urban so effectively describes.

It is also very different to present slides or execute a demo in a room of 5–10 people versus being on stage in front of an audience of hundreds or thousands. A dry run is particularly helpful for presenters with limited stage experience; getting them in front of a similar audience to what they will see on the day of your event can get them comfortable sooner rather than later.

2. It gives you an end-to-end view of the content.

In preparing for keynotes, everyone is almost exclusively focused on her / his individual components — slides, demo, talking points. Typically, only a few people are thinking about the holistic message and experience. To complicate things further, early rehearsals typically take place in isolation — so even if you are thinking about the content from end to end, it is up to you to string everything together in your head and make sure it is coherent.

There is no substitute for running a full length rehearsal that lays out all of your content in sequence, and helps you ensure the transitions are smooth, the messages are consistent, the timing is on, and there is no redundancy.

3. It gives you much-needed fresh perspective.

By the time you execute a presentation in front of a live audience, your keynote team is likely too close to the content. After spending hours writing, editing, iterating, and overthinking, you can no longer see the forest for the trees. We drafted the first version of our keynote presentation this year six weeks before our event started, and went through 20+ versions of the content. As much as you might try to keep a proper perspective, it is almost impossible to see things through the eyes of your audience at that point.

This year, our employees at Invoca proved this point as they found dozens of tweaks to improve the keynote, for example:

  • Pointing out data in our demo environments that looked odd
  • Noticing small inconsistencies in some of our video content
  • Providing feedback on new product positioning
  • Suggesting ways to better align speaker gestures with content on the slides. (For my portion of the keynote, we had a few slides with one theme on the left, and one theme on the right. I was gesturing in alignment with the monitors in front of me — but from the audience’s perspective, my gestures were reversed.)

Of course, it is not practical to change your entire presentation the night before the event, so it is important to set expectations on the type of feedback that is actionable. That said, getting fresh eyes on your content “one last time” is critical to delivering the best possible keynote.

4. It ensures your customer-facing teams are prepared.

In my early days at Salesforce, keynote announcements and product launches were a closely guarded secret. As a result, sales and customer success teams, who naturally sit with customers and prospects at these events, were often taken by surprise when new features were announced. When a new product is released and customers have questions about how it works, there is nothing worse for an employee to say than “I found out about this when you did!”

We at Salesforce shifted to sharing more announcement details before the event, with the necessary emphasis on confidentiality, and I generally found that our teams were far more prepared. They also tended to have questions that marketers or product managers had not anticipated. An employee rehearsal provided an opportunity for those questions to emerge earlier.

Finally, I often think startups take the secrecy of their news a little too seriously, and thus hold information too close to the vest. Let’s be honest: Recode and TechCrunch aren’t sitting by the phone, waiting for your latest product announcement to leak (unless you are Facebook, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, or maybe Uber / Lyft). With the proper emphasis on confidentiality, chances are you can share product or partnership news with your teams in advance to ensure they are prepared.

5. It emphasizes a culture of feedback and accountability from the top.

This is the #1 reason you should do an all employee rehearsal, and a consideration that I had never even thought of until a few weeks ago at our event. Having been at Salesforce for nearly a decade, I took for granted many of the things Marc and Parker did to instill a culture of accountability and transparency at the company, including asking employees for their opinions on the keynote.

Photo Credit: Salesforce (2015 Dreamforce recap)

After running our Invoca Summit rehearsal and spending 20 minutes soliciting suggestions, I was amazed at the feedback I received from Invoca employees. Numerous people said to me, “I thought it was so amazing that the entire keynote team, and you as the CEO, stood on stage and asked all of us to critique your presentation, and listened to, and acted upon, our feedback.” In my mind, this was simply part of the job; but I soon realized how mistaken I was in assuming this practice was “the norm” at most technology companies.

I’ve always believed in the importance of leadership being transparent and responsive to employee feedback, but the team’s reaction opened my eyes to the symbolic importance of adopting that approach in such a public, high stakes venue. I now view it as a concrete expression of how we can lead by example and strengthen our performance-driven culture at Invoca.

Still not convinced an all-employee rehearsal is worth the time? Well, far be it from me to act as the definitive authority on the topic. All I know is that Dreamforce is next week, and the mastermind behind the single best show in the industry is probably holding an all-hands rehearsal right around now.

And if it’s good enough for Marc Benioff, I’m going to bet it is good enough for the rest of us, too.

Have a great Dreamforce (and drop me a line if you want to catch up!)

Into the Deep End

Reflections from a first-time tech CEO

Gregg Johnson

Written by

Technology enthusiast, software executive, and father / husband

Into the Deep End

Reflections from a first-time tech CEO

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade