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 primarily on free beer or tasty food – they pitch the potential for learning from experts as the primary reason to buy tickets. The speakers are the fundamental premise for attending and often it’s a broken one.
- 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. (See An open letter to conference organizers)
- 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” earn that reputation for charisma, not for the value of the lessons they teach or the quality of their ideas themselves.
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 prize, where the winner by vote gets a $1k bonus 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.
What else can conferences do to improve the quality of conference speakers?
[Note: minor edits and updates 2/21/2014]