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.
- Organizers have 3 tough criteria: 1) find experts on a topic 2) who are good public speakers 3) and who are available and cheap. 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 hired based on knowledge, not performance. Most speakers are invited based on books, blogs or job titles, rather than their ability to communicate or teach. 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:
- 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.
- Request video samples. 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 paying for, instead of reviewing slides 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.
- 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.
- Train speakers at the event. Serve speakers and the audience by offering speakers voluntary coaching at the event itself, the day before the conference. Most of the presentation mistakes I see at conferences, even by expert/guru types, are basic: unfamiliarity with own material, monotone delivery, unreal name dropping and pretension, no examples, unclear goals, slides crammed with 25 bullets in 8pt type, etc. I’ve volunteered to do this at CHI and other conferences, but no one has taken me up on it, and I’ve yet to hear of it being done. [Update: I am the speaker coach for Ignite Seattle]
What else can conferences do to improve the quality of conference speakers?