Next-Level Conferencing

Podcast September 24, 2019

New to the conferencing game? No sweat! In this episode, Jeff Ebbing, director of marketing and communications for Southeastern Community College in Iowa, joins Pam Cox-Otto, founder and CEO of Interact Communications, for a discussion on how to make the most of your experience while at conferences. 


Pam Cox-Otto:                         

Welcome to Interact’s Community College Marketing MasterClass. Yes, that’s a mouthful. What were we thinking when we named it that? But we did. Today I have a special guest with me, a man who needs no introduction, but I’ll let him introduce himself anyway. Joining me today is:

Jeff Ebbing:                               

Jeff Ebbing.

Pam Cox-Otto:                         

Come on. Give me more than that.

Jeff Ebbing:                            

Okay. My name’s Jeff Ebbing and I’m the director of marketing and communications at Southeastern Community College in Iowa.

Pam Cox-Otto:                         

And he’s also a district director at NCMPR, and we are here at the NCMPR gathering conference in beautiful San Antonio and I’m pleased to announce that I finally hit puberty. My voice is going through the change. You can hear it. Soon I will have facial hair and I’ll join Jeff with facial hair. It’ll be very exciting for everyone.

Jeff Ebbing:                              

Well I’m looking— My—My voice might pop every once in a while because I’m just working my way through mine as well.

Pam Cox-Otto:                        

That’s nice. It’s good that we’re all here. Okay, so one of the things that we’ve been talking about, and you’d done a post on it, was basically getting the most out of conferences.

Jeff Ebbing:                             

Yes.

Pam Cox-Otto:                         

And since we’re at the largest one, but we’re also soon going to be going into the conference season for all the regional NCMPR conferences. That’s something that’s pretty relevant. So, give me the basics. What does that mean?

Jeff Ebbing:                           

Well, the organization itself really is as most all professional organizations are. They’re really about networking, and certainly you learn a heck of a lot of stuff. But I would say the big value for me has been making the connections and meeting the people and, there, certainly the commiseration, the sharing of ideas, all those kinds of things really make a big impact in the quality of the relationships that you build. And the conferences are the ideal time to do that. We all get to put in the same space, experiencing the same things, and again, whether that’s in the sessions during the day, learning things from very smart people such as yourself. Yeah, exactly. Thank you. And then all the folks, even at nighttime too, I mean there’s, there’s a lot of learning that happens in networking that happens after hours as well, which I think is as important as what happens during the day.

Pam Cox-Otto:                        

A lot of times you go to a conference and it feels like it’s pretty tightly wrapped. You show up, you go here, you go there, you’ve got 10 minutes between passing. How do you take advantage of that? How do you create a relationship when you’re sitting in rows listening to someone and then you have 10 minutes to get to the next one?

Jeff Ebbing:                             

Well, really a lot of it I think has to do during the off-time. So, try to sit with somebody at lunch who you don’t know. That is the most basic thing. If you’re not a night owl, if going out and carousing about town is not your thing, there are opportunities where you can do that, and most of the time it’s during the meals because it’s not structured time necessarily, but there’s an opportunity to sit by somebody. It’s sometimes, yeah, you’ve got to put yourself out of your comfort zone. When I first started my first conference, they had a meet and greet opportunity for like the first hour before the event started on the very first day and my district director put us newbies with an experienced person and I just told myself, I’m not going to say more than just hi, smile, and walk away. I really, I attached myself at the hip to that guy and it was probably one of the best decisions that I’ve made professionally because that, from there, spurred all of my opportunities and comfort level and wanting to engage and now contribute to this organization because of that one little step out of my comfort zone to do that.

Pam Cox-Otto:                     

Well, and you know, a lot of people that are, particularly at smaller colleges, that don’t have staffs of 30 and, and there’s not 15 levels above you where you can move up, you’re looking for opportunities, and this is the place where you can find those opportunities before they’re public. I mean that’s a…

Jeff Ebbing:                     

Yes!

Pam Cox-Otto:                       

—It’s a known kind of piece. Tell me how many years you’ve been coming to these.

Jeff Ebbing:                           

My first one is in 2007.

Pam Cox-Otto:                        

Oh, okay.

Jeff Ebbing:                          

In Austin, just a few hours away from here.

Pam Cox-Otto:                       

I remember that one. That was a good time. So, you’ve been coming to these for 12 years, right?

Jeff Ebbing:                              

Yeah.

Pam Cox-Otto:                     

What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

Jeff Ebbing:                        

The best piece of advice you ever got? Hmm. I don’t know if I necessarily heard any one thing that sticks with me, but it was basically the advice that I got was through osmosis and observation, and basically that was showing up. Just show up, be present, do something in the moment. Again, whether that is something during the day or something in the afternoon, something at lunch, when you’re with people, be yourself. I have a button that I wear. We all got them when we went to Chicago a number of years ago at a conference. We just happened to be walking down Michigan Avenue, stopped in some tchotchke store, and there’s this one little button that spoke to me and it says, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” And it’s written by Oscar Wilde. And that really spoke to me, that particular button. And it’s been something that I feel comfortable with. And so I wear it every time I go to a conference, every time I have the Paragons. I’ll have it on tomorrow night when we have our event. And if anything, that’s probably the best advice that I have. Because once you’re yourself, you become more real to people. And I think sometimes at conferences you’re too, when you first start out, you might be too afraid to not be yourself because you don’t know how you’re going to be received. And if people know me, they know that I can maybe be a little much to take sometimes, but it’s me. And so I think being in an environment where you can be yourself with people, you become real, and that makes a big, I think, a big difference in how people perceive you and how you just make friendships in real life. I mean, the conference friendships and the professional friendships, they’re the same way.

Pam Cox-Otto:                      

When I first started working at a community college, I was coming right out of television, and I had the broadcast voice, which was actually a little bit lower than this one. Elizabeth Holmes, you could be jealous. And I was doing job interviews, and during the job interview somebody would ask me a question and I’d be broadcast. I’d be like, “Huh, that’s a very good question.” So, “I have three ways to answer that,” and I would be very formal and perfectly modulated. And I got the job and about a month into the job, one of my favorite people, who was a vice president of operations, came up to me and he said, you’re not at all like your interview. And I said, what do you mean? And he goes, I hated your freaking guts. He said, you were so perfectly modulated and everything was so, just, fake and not real, and he said from now on, promise me, be yourself.

Pam Cox-Otto:            

Because if they can’t accept you the way you are, you’re not going to do well there anyway. And that’s kind of been one of my guiding points, which was, if I’m in an interview for a an RFP, I’m going to be myself because bottom line is, if they can’t deal with me in an interview, they’re not going to be able to work with me when we’re doing some of the heavy lifting, and you really do have different folks that work better with different schools and it’s important to understand that. Same thing for your own school. Talk to me about being active at the district level. What’s the word of advice for folks? Because it’s fun to come to the national conference, but a lot of times there’s not a lot of money. Your choice is, go to a national conference, then go nowhere else. Talk to me about the importance of being active on the district level.

Jeff Ebbing:                       

I think the biggest thing there is: never sell yourself short, and you know more than you think you do. I wanted to get involved, I wanted to be more active, I wanted to contribute. And as a small shop, I didn’t necessarily have, and even to a certain degree now, because we’re still a pretty small shop, there’s three of us in our organization, in our marketing department. You end up being a mile wide and a foot deep. And so, when you go to conferences, you’re looking for the people who are a foot deep and a mile, whatever, the mile deep and a foot wide. Right?

Pam Cox-Otto:                        

Right.

Jeff Ebbing:              

You want those people to really understand, well, there’s a lot of us who are a mile wide and a foot deep, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have anything to contribute. And so, when I started to realize, you know, I can say something, I can find out ways. There are a lot of people who are just like me. So I took the plunge, I submitted a proposal and I gave a presentation, and it was the worst slot. It was the last presentation of the conference and there wasn’t very many people. The people who were there had their suitcases in the back of the room and they were looking at their watches and they were nice, and I think I delivered, but I had to go through that process of doing it. And just like the presentation, I was myself, I put it out there. It wasn’t formal. I had sat through so many bad presentations with tons of, you know, terrible PowerPoint slides, all that kind of stuff. I wanted to give the presentation that I wanted to hear. And it might be a little bit self-serving, but I think it resonated with people. And once I did that, it made it so much easier to find ways to get involved and to do more at that point. So once I did it once, it was much easier to do it again.

Pam Cox-Otto:                 

Well, and the truth is this: you’re the only one at your school who does what you do. I mean, yeah, you may have a staff that you work with, but you’re on the bubble. You’re the one who has to go to the president’s office. And, in a college, almost every other job position has somebody else who’s like them. Faculty can talk to other faculty about, how are you doing this, or how does that work? Even administrators can do the same kind of thing, right? But if you’re a marketing person, you’re kind of a lone gun, and the only place you’re going to find people who are in the exact same spot on the bubble all the time with nobody else to turn to is here, and in your own local conference. When I had first come to the Midwest from California, we had a group that got together as part of NCMPR, but this was a smaller group that just met on occasion, and during one of the things that happened, there was a large safety issue at one of the campuses. And this, the marketing person in charge of that campus, was under incredible pressure. Media everywhere, state media, even a few national media, and he was a one-man office. And what saved him was literally everyone else in the group said, what do you need? So while he’d be fronting something, the rest of us would be writing news releases to support him. And that kind of friendship and “I’ve got your back.” You don’t find that any place else except NCMPR and those of us who are the lone-gun marketers.

Jeff Ebbing:                  

Uh huh, and that’s exactly right. And I’ve, I, there’s been a number of times when something will happen at the college. I mean, it doesn’t happen every day, but between me or some of the colleagues who I have, we’ll send an email back and forth. As a matter of fact, just the other day I got one, this person doesn’t even work in community colleges anymore, but we still stay in contact. She was asking about some sort of a PR plan for an industry that is not even education anymore, but you know, we worked together on some things. Hey, can you share me some tips or some presentation that you’ve given in the past, you know. Sure. I, you know, I’ll get it to as soon as I get back to the office. And that’s the kind of thing, like you’re saying, you, we’ve all been in that boat and we all really, when we need someone, we know who to turn to, who knows that particular thing. And we’re always happy to oblige.

Pam Cox-Otto:                      

So, number one, make sure you come to the conference.

Jeff Ebbing:                       

Yes.

Pam Cox-Otto:                      

Number two, spend some quality time getting to know people. Don’t sit with your whole herd at lunch. Go find a new herd. Get to know people, ask for their business card or at the very least, circle the name in your program.

Jeff Ebbing:                         

Right.

Pam Cox-Otto:                       

That kind of thing. Number three, spend some quality time away from the training schedule. Right?

Jeff Ebbing:                      

Yep.

Pam Cox-Otto:                

Hang out with them afterward. Go to your district dinner. Spend some time around the fireplace.

Jeff Ebbing:                    

Yes.

Pam Cox-Otto:            

Buy somebody a glass of wine. They get chatty. I’ve heard.

Jeff Ebbing:          

Or two.

Pam Cox-Otto:                   

Or two. Number four.

Jeff Ebbing:                   

Do something that you wouldn’t have done at home.

Pam Cox-Otto:             

Ooh.

Jeff Ebbing:                    

Yeah, exactly. And I have to say what happens on this podcast stays on this podcast, right? Of course.

Pam Cox-Otto:                  

Right. This is between us.

Jeff Ebbing:              

Between us. Us and all the millions of people who have downloaded it. I’ve had some really exciting experiences in doing things that I never would done, you know, if it wasn’t for being— Because you, if you go the nationals, especially, you go to fun, big cities, and doing different things, and it’s not like my little hometown. You don’t get a chance to sing karaoke with the Irish national rugby team on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve done that.

Pam Cox-Otto:      

Wow.

Jeff Ebbing:         

Yes, exactly. You don’t get this chance to see people who do other str— I’ve sang hip— I’ve sang Jimi Hendrix with a hippie, with a battery-powered guitar in San Francisco at midnight. I don’t know how it happened. It just did. We’re walking down the road and here’s this guy singing Jimi Hendrix. And so we sang along with him.

Pam Cox-Otto:           

So you’re living the life.

Jeff Ebbing:            

I am, rock and roll lifestyle, that’s me right here. Marketing director extraordinaire, uh huh.

Pam Cox-Otto:                 

So the answer is to try not to go to bed at nine o’clock, right?

Jeff Ebbing:             

That is exactly right. I have to also say I have, with all the fun things that we’ve done, I’ve never missed a session. I get up in the morning, I go to breakfast. And you can sleep on the plane going home, you can find things to do to recoup, but part of going to the conference is energizing yourself. It’s not resting. It’s making those moments with people because you bond. And it’s a forge, right? You just, you go out there, you have these shared absurd experiences that you can call upon, and you might also have some compromising photos on each other so that way you know, you get to, again. You know, you…

Pam Cox-Otto:

Mutually assured destruction. That’s very important.

Jeff Ebbing:

Exactly right. That’s exactly right. But it’s never, we’ve never done anything, you know, stupid or illegal or anything along those lines, but we just make sure we have fun when we go out and it never fails. We bring people together, we find fun things to do. It just happens.

Pam Cox-Otto:

Well, and my thing that I like to do is when you go back home, take a minute and send a note, you know, email, whatever, find a Instagram if you do that, Facebook if you do that, whatever it is, Twitter, but find time to tell them that you really enjoyed meeting them, being with them, having fun, and that you’ve got their back. What can I do to help you? Because if you need me, I’m there.

Jeff Ebbing:    

Uh huh. Agreed.

Pam Cox-Otto:            

Well, so here we are, beautiful San Antonio. It’s a cloudy day but our hearts are full of light. Thanks for joining me, Jeff.

Jeff Ebbing:                 

It is my pleasure. Thank you very much for the invitation.

Pam Cox-Otto:                   

That’s it for today’s podcast. Join us again for the next one, which is Pam goes through puberty for the second time. Okay, I made that up. Thanks for joining us. Take care, everyone.


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