We all knows it’s true – most of the time, at most conferences, most speakers won’t be very good. Public speaking is hard, but the low quality of speakers is strange given how most conferences focus on their agenda of speakers. It’s not like they market their event based on free beer or tasty food – they pitch the potential for learning from experts as the primary reason to buy tickets. That’s the fundamental premise and often it’s broken.

Here’s why:

  • Organizers have 3 tough criteria: 1) find experts on a topic 2) who are good public speakers 3) and who are available and affordable. It’s hard enough to nail 2 of the criteria, but 3 can be impossible – organizing is a tough job. That said, organizers are typically rewarded for #1 and #3, and only hear about #2 when the conference is over. If attendance is good, concerns on #2 are easy to ignore.
  • Speakers are chosen based on expertise, not performance. Most speakers are invited based on books, blogs or experience, rather than their ability to communicate or teach an audience. Public speaking is a kind of performance, yet it’s rare for organizers to have seen their speakers speak before the event. The biggest gamblers are academic conferences, like CHI, where people are invited to speak solely because they had a paper accepted. What does writing a paper have to do with being a good public speaker? Almost nothing.
  • Confusion between entertainment and value. Some speakers gain reputations for being funny or charismatic, but that’s not the same thing as teaching. Even speakers who are known as “good speakers” often fail to provide the value suggested by their talk/workshop descriptions.

What can be done:

  • Train speakers for the event. Serve speakers and the audience by providing voluntary coaching. Give them a checklist to guide their preparations. Most presentation mistakes even by expert/guru types are basic and I wrote Confessions of a Public Speaker to teach solutions to these problems. There are dozens of other books and resources it’s just up to organizers to use them. [Update: I am the speaker coach for Ignite Seattle and you can see how I coach speakers here].
  • Evaluate video samples of them speaking. It’s rare I’m asked for this, despite how easy it is to provide in the youtube era. Conference organizers should sample what they’re hiring for, instead of reviewing slides, proposals or other trivia. And why not put the samples on the conference website? Then attendees can sample the speakers, instead of guessing blindly from the descriptions at who will be good.
  • Give speakers their real feedback . Most conferences do some kind of audience survey for the event, but rarely does the feedback make it back to the speaker. And sometimes when it does, it’s filtered – all the rants and complaints are filtered out. Who but the conference organizers can point out to speakers that there is a problem or room for improvement? Human nature dictates that most of the informal feedback speakers will get will be polite and positive, not balanced or constructively critical. Someone has to fill in the feedback gap and only organizers can play that role.
  • Performance based pay. Speakers should earn part of their fees (if they are paid at all) based on feedback from the audience. This forces them to pay more attention to the value they’re providing and places greater power in the audience to recommend future speakers. UIE 12 is the only conference I’ve ever been paid performance based pay as a speaker and I wish more would follow their lead. If I suck, I want to be paid less. And if I do a great job, I want to be paid more. Even an audience favorite vote, where the winner gets a $1k
  • bonus or something is easy to do and in the right spirit. This audience shouldn’t be the singular arbiter of evaluation, but certainly should be a primary one.

See also:

What else can conferences do to improve the quality of conference speakers?

[Note: minor edits and updates 2/21/2014]

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16 Responses to “Why conferences have bad speakers”

  1. David Malouf |

    Hi Scott,

    What a timely question for me as I’m part of the organizing committee for IxDA Interaction08 | Savannah (http://interaction08.ixda.org/ – please excuse blatant plug).

    First off, I think you need to be fair. Organizational conferences are not the same as corporate conferences like UIE’s great events. I’m a former speaker for UIE’s conferences UIConf## and Web App summit and like you I was amazed at the sheer leap in caliber of the event compared to almost any organizational-based conference I have previously attended.

    Organizational conferences serve different goals than corporate conferences. Yes, education is key, but it is not the only goal or value setting the agenda. Organizations also are about community building and creating a space for community participation. Now I don’t agree with the CHI or DUX model of “full papers”, but even the short abstract acceptance model of IA Summit and now IxDA is difficult.

    In the case of IxDA we are “making up” for this by having 1/2 the conference be “invited speakers” (All of UIE’s events are invited speakers). The list of invited speakers while not all fully auditioned, was chosen b/c of content and reputation. Some people were rejected/not considered despite great content due to past exposure to those speakers. But I’m still sure we’ve failed our audience on 1 or 2 speakers, I’m sure.

    As for the “lightning submission” process, this is almost impossible to Vet out. I can’t imagine who anyone using papers or abstracts could ever get this right and still maintain a lack of nepotism. If you want new people, you have to just take risks and coming to an organizational conference is well a part of this.

    Organizational conferences should not be purely about consumption. I’m not declaring that everything is a BarCamp, but I am saying that organizational conference attendance is as much about “building” as it is about consuming and learning.

    Some might argue that “building” is not enough of a value proposition to earn my money. I would suggest that “building” is the greatest form of selfishness and value. Building YOUR organization can only pay you back 10 fold. Consuming for its own sake is just a one time experience. This all goes back to the “give a man a fish … teach a man to fish” scenarios.

    Then there is the other aspect of value, which is bringing the virtual community to reality. Organizational conferences, do this great. While UIE makes great conferences, it is not a community conference. I leave that conference and maybe I networked well, but I did nothing towards adding to my existing community, support system and expanded network.

    I think your suggestions though are interesting in terms of creating mentorship opportunities around thought leadership. It might be good to pair first time speakers with existing thought leaders who can guide slide presentations and then give real feedback afterwards.

    Further, I think a HUGE thing that people don’t take advantage of us hitting up local groups as a form of preparation for their submission and presentation creation process. Local groups need content and need speakers and sponsorships. If you want to head in the area of speaking, you need to practice. You need to prepare. Speaking locally before a global conference should be part of what you do and maybe a way to think about bettering the global conference is to make slots that are derived from the local chapter-leaders themselves. Maybe a part of the local content should be about scouting talent for the global conference, or better training talent up to be ready for the big time. This is something I suggested at the first AIGA/SIGCHI joint conference at CHI2001 and nothing every happened from it. The case study process is interesting for DUX, but w/o proper support this is very hard stuff for most practitioners.

    Anyway, I think you bring up an important topic of conversation. I just think that we can’t treat all conferences equally.

    – dave

    Reply
  2. Scott |

    Hi Dave:

    Much thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree: all conferences should not be treated equally. No argument there.

    But by defining the agenda and deciding who gets to speak and who doesn’t, all organizers are accountable for the quality of their speakers. Paid or unpaid, corporate or non-profit.

    My core point is that few conferences take responsibility for their speakers, either by 1) training them, 2) coaching them, 3) rewarding them 4) choosing them based on ability or 5) giving them useful feedback to improve for next time. All 5 of those things any organizer can do – they don’t require money, just time.

    There are certainly other responsibilities organizers have, including, as you mention, making the conference a community building experience if that’s the ambition of the conference. But if the spine of the event is a series of speakers, and the quality of speakers is low, the above criticisms are reasonable to raise.

    Reply
  3. Paul Williams |

    Scott:

    I agree in part with Dave. When I was picked to speak at the ProjectWorld conference last year, I looked for every local organization who would have me to try out my material, gain valuable feedback (local groups are much more willing to provide honest feedback than national conferences) and adjust as needed.

    Also your follow-on blog entry regarding the opportunity to view yourself via video is key. You’ll learn a lot by watching yourself!

    - Paul

    Reply
  4. David |

    What conferences do you go to? “most of the time, at most conferences, most speakers won’t be very good”

    We obviously go to different conferences, because bad speakers, for me, have been the exception, not the rule. It’s not like I have low expectations – I’ve done quite a bit of speaking myself, since high school, so I’m quite practiced.

    My simplest advice for people who are uncomfortable with speaking is to read it three times, say it three times. If possible, practice the presentation on a small group first. It’s only when you step through the actual process of speaking, showing slides, handling questions do you start to see things that will slow down your presentation. If your presentation doesn’t flow, the content won’t rescue it.

    Just MHO.

    Davo

    Reply
  5. Augusto |

    Speakers get paid? Somebody should have told me that before signing up to speak at a JUG in anther country next month :-)

    Good post btw.

    Reply
  6. Scott |

    Davo: Hey, it’s entirely possible that as high as your expectations are, mine are higher, or that I’m just an unreasonable jerk (always a possibility). I’ve probably been to 70 or 80 conferences/events, and now, as a speaker, average speaking at 4 or 5 a year.

    You mention comfort, which helps with the skill part – but more often it’s not presentation skill that’s the problem. It’s their ability and willingness to pick a strong message, make clear points, and establish an intelligent and useful narrative for 45 minutes. A person with lousy speaking skills who can do the above is perhaps more likely to earn my attention than a great speaker who fails at these things.

    Reply
  7. Scott |

    Augusto:

    As David points out, there are many different kinds of conferences. Typically the more attendees pay to attend, the greater the likelihood that speakers are paid as well.

    For academic or community conferences, invited speakers who have to travel to attend often have their travel costs covered, which is a kind of payment.

    Reply
  8. Shawn Lea |

    Free things organizers can do to ensure quality of speakers:

    1. Get references. Ask peers locally and from around the country who they’ve heard speak and enjoyed. Ask speakers for references – and call them.

    2. Go to national conferences yourself. See what bores you, engages you, captures your interest.

    3. Explain the audience. (An audience of CEOs would have different criteria for “success” than an audience of nurse managers or marketing execs.)

    4. Network. Ask you cohorts in national organizations you belong to what speakers and topics they’ve used recently.

    5. Don’t assume big bucks = better speaker. (A corollary: Don’t assume great writer = great speaker.)

    Reply
  9. Nathan Ketsdever |

    Interesting convo!

    At the end of the day its who can bring the crowds and who can bring the advertisers/sponsors. Who is the most visible? Why is Jason C all over the place? He’s entertaining and hes pretty visible.

    He also cuts through the crap on panels….but I think the first two criteria are far more important in the conference’s estimation than if the speakers have information.

    It would be nice for conferences to coach folks, but I fear that the time and cost. Sure, the long term value is there. Perhaps people will return next year. I think there’s also the risk that a speaking coach would just dumb down the presentation in an effort to simplify it.

    Reply
  10. Sarah Milstein |

    I’m the co-chair for Web2Expo–a multi-track conference held annually in SF and NY. Last year, we did two things to improve the quality of our speakers.

    1) We made video mandatory with all proposals (we get nearly 1,000 for our SF show); the submission guidelines are below, and not a single proposer has complained. Not only have we found it *much* easier to assess speaker quality since implementing the video requirement, but the average rating for our sessions has gone up. I think we’re getting fewer poor speakers rather than more great ones, but that still makes a difference in the overall conference attendee experience.

    2) We’ve added 20-minute breakouts to the standard slate of 50-minute breakouts. Y’know how writing is usually better when it’s edited down and shorter? Same deal with speaking. A lot of our speakers do much better when we constrain them to 20 mins.

    From our submission guidelines:

    A link to a video clip is mandatory. Submissions for single speakers and co-presenters should include video clips of the presenter(s); panels must include video of at least the moderator. If you don’t have video of the speaker(s) in action at an event, please create a very short clip (2-3 minutes) of the presenter(s) proposing his/hers/their session. We don’t care at all about the quality of the video; we care about the quality of the speakers. Feel free to use your phone or Flipcam to take the video, and don’t worry about editing it in any way. If your video isn’t already online, post it to a third-party site (YouTube is fine), and then share the link with us.

    Reply
  11. Shannon Jones |

    Scott,
    Love the pay for performance model for speakers. But why do it only for external speakers? Can you imagine if execs were required to meet speaker satisfaction and key message goals in order to get a full pay check the month they deliver at their big company meeting, or even better tracked throughout the year and tied to their overall compensation? So many leaders don’t do the work either.

    Reply
  12. Jess McMullin |

    The IA Summit has had a Speaker Mentor’s program for several years now (submitters can request a mentor when they submit a talk). And for the last couple years the Summit offered an onsite Speaker’s Studio with a rehearsal room setup like the actual conference session rooms with AV, staffed by speaking coaches like Adam Polansky https://twitter.com/AdamtheIA (the major force behind speaker’s studio).

    Also, Dan Willis’ Cranky Talk workshops have been outstanding for teaching presentation skills in the UX community. Unfortunately can’t find any 2013 versions. See one participant’s reflections here: http://www.kubitsky.net/archives/310

    All of that has done a lot to raise the bar at the Summit.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      That’s excellent. Glad to hear about it.

      Reply
  13. Sara |

    Who in their right mind would work for free for a CONference that is charging thousands in registration fees. Is the venue free? Food/bev–free, A/V, PR free? How about your development and presentation time for speaking–free no value?

    DOes the party planner/CONference organiser get paid, how about their boss–does she collect a paycheck?

    Say no to moochers, say no to freebies. IF they value your expertise/time, they will pay you; refunding travel exp is not acceptable. Akin to telling a plumber that you;ll pay up to 900$ in materials and labour is free, and anything about 900 is on them!?!

    The exposure nonsense is a schtick for sheeple. As real, paying clients/grantors will come out and watch you plum for free, then maybe, perhaps, might result in some leads. What a joke.

    Say to free speaking on expert topics, unless it is a charity, rape victims, abused animals, kiddies, or open to public for free with unpaid volunteers.

    When you pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Perhaps, those CONferences will enjoy the amateur show filled with “speakers” that obviously do not value their time, and/or need to pad their CV/do the sales pitch to lemmings.

    get watcha pay for.

    Reply
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Berkun, Dux Raymond Sy, PMP and Kevin Smokler, kalen. kalen said: RT @berkun: Why conferences have bad speakers http://wp.me/p4vkk-dy #events [...]

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