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A Sarah’s Eye View: The Top 5 Reasons I Love Speaking at SHRM

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By Sarah Noll Wilson


This year, the National Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Conference celebrated 75 years. It was held in Chicago, and over 26,000 people attended. It’s massive in both scope and impact, and I’m privileged that this was my sixth time presenting there. The first time, I was still with my former company, ARAG. I presented on building a coaching culture alongside their Chief HR Officer and my dear, dear friend who is sadly no longer with us, Erin Barfels. (I have a lot to say about Erin and about that experience, but we’ll save that for another time.) 



We had no idea what to expect, but we went for it. And then we went for it again when someone unexpectedly dropped out of their spot, meaning we had two presentations. The first room we spoke to had over 1000 people. It was the first time I’d ever gotten to speak on such a stage. I’ll never forget that my Chief Sales Officer came up to me afterwards and said, “We don’t have you for too much longer, do we?” When I asked what he meant, he said I was made for that stage. “You had the audience laughing while giving them information!”


The reason I share this story with you today is not to brag but instead to celebrate a moment (and some people) I treasure and remember vividly. It was then that I decided it was time for me to start thinking seriously about going out on my own. About a year and a half later, I made my move and founded what is now Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc.


Full circle moments are beautiful, aren’t they? Isn’t it also beautiful to slow down and acknowledge them? I’ve spoken on SHRM stages six times to over 5,000 people since, and it’s been a wild ride. 


Here are the top five things I always appreciate the most when I have the opportunity to speak at SHRM:


1. The volunteers are on another level.


There’s no other way to say it; SHRM is huge. And the volunteers who are there to support the attendees and speakers are phenomenal. Case in point: this year I had to go to my speaker room and upload my presentation, and the woman who was helping me was talking about how she loves the SHRM attendees and speakers. She said, “You’re just so much nicer than every other conference that we work with, and you’re so gracious and appreciative.” She sat with me (even though she didn’t need to) and helped upload my presentation, taught me how to use the podium and the lectern, and overall was just so excited to set me up for success. Let me tell you, you definitely bring your best when somebody gives their best to help you out. Such a cool moment. 


One of the things that consistently makes the annual SHRM conference really great is the volunteers. In the room, our sound engineer, Jim, even offered me a donut from a bakery he has owned for twenty years (shoutout to Beverly Bakery). I’m grateful I got to enjoy that donut with him and that he, like so many people I encountered, was just phenomenal to work with. This theme continued to my book signing, where I had an incredible volunteer assigned to me, Ivy. She took pictures and videos and was just so sweet. The SHRM virtual volunteers and our very own Dr. Teresa Peterson helped keep things running smoothly for the 380 people who joined us virtually.


2. There are so many different people and industries represented.


There are so many different types of people, industries, and challenges represented at SHRM. I talked to a new friend who is in HR for a company of thousands and a new friend who leads HR for a small organization. While they had different challenges, they also had a lot in common, including that those who attend this event tend to recognize that it’s a pretty significant investment of time and money, and they want to take full advantage of it. This year, I spoke at 7:30 AM—an early session on the last day of the event. It was even the day after a Kelly Clarkson concert. Basically, it was the day when everyone was packing up because the conference ended that afternoon, and we still had close to 400 people in attendance (725 total, including those who joined us online).


3. The people come to learn, and they want practical solutions and tactics.


At SHRM, I’ve found that attendees consistently show up to learn. They don’t want to just sit through presentations; they specifically want tactical, practical solutions they can apply in their actual, everyday work. When you’re able to create a space that feels real—because you’re not talking at them, you’re talking with them—they respond in a big way, participating and taking notes to bring back to their teams, lining up for meet and greets and book signings, and more. I can’t tell you how many of the books I signed were for someone’s team, which was really, really sweet. 



4. I always learn, too.

I always leave SHRM with an even more expanded understanding of the breadth of challenges happening in the workplace. I can remember so vividly the first time I stepped on stage—and now, this is what I do all the time. What a life! I have SHRM to thank for that, for giving us a chance to speak twice that first year and then being able to continue to do it. I’m hopeful I’ll get to continue to bring meaningful information to my SHRM family—and learn from my SHRM family in return—for years to come.

5. It’s fun!

Our dog, Sally, came with me to SHRM this year (her first SHRM adventure), as did my husband (and our Conversations on Conversations podcast producer extraordinaire) Nick. My colleague Mary also joined, and we had a blast! Our book signing, in particular, was so much fun. People waited in line for over an hour, and the bookstore contact there shared that it was one of the longest signings the conference had for a female author. I’m so grateful to get to be in conversation with these wonderful humans and to have them trust me and the team. 



Until next year!


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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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