Blame the speaker or the organizer?

Linda at Cook for Good asked me about Godin’s recent post Communication is a path, not an event:

The other day, I heard the CEO of a large corporation drone on for twenty minutes. He was pitching a large group of strangers, reading them a long, prepared speech that was largely irrelevant to their needs. They weren’t there to hear him and in fact, weren’t even able to hear him over the buzz in their heads… this was classic interruption, no permission granted.

If you’d interviewed the 150 people in the room an hour later, no one could have told you a single thing about what he had said. If your tactic is to have a one-shot, the equivalent of a pickup line in a singles’ bar, it’s pretty hopeless. You can’t sell anything complex or risky in this way.

Many speakers are bad, it’s true.

Organizers have to balance 3 improbable criteria of: find experts, who are good speakers and are available. Many CEOs have lawyers vet their talks, reuse the same material and are boring speakers anyway. But a CEO of a company can be a draw for an event, helping fill the seats, an objective that has only some relationship to the quality of speakers.

He mentions three classic mistakes:

  • Long speech
  • Poorly prepared (you can spend 10 hours preparing poorly)
  • Irrelevant to the audience

But he offers a curious suggestion:

On the other hand, what if he had taken three minutes (just three) to say, “Let’s talk.” Give out his personal contact info or an easy way (and a good reason!) to engage with his staff. And then give up the podium and let the event go forward.

But the problem isn’t the speaker alone, it’s the organizer too. The organizer asked for what he saw. The organizer could have asked for something else, but didn’t. The organizer chose that speaker out of 6 billion people on the planet and gave them that particular slot. The speaker could have suggested something else, but they’d need the organizer’s permission to do it. And besides, speaking is an ego-centric activity: to ask for less time is nearly unheard of.

TED and other events have 3 or 5 minute slots to mix up the pace, which is a good. But this needs to be planned. To surprise organizers and the audience with a 17 minute gap makes their work harder. It’s good manners to use less time than offered to help the day catch up, but more can cause problems.

More broadly, people want to see speakers speak, that’s why they paid money to come to an an event comprised of a series of speakers. Organizers want speakers to speak too, and carefully plan how much time they need each speaker to have the stage for. Both audiences and organizers are optimists. They assume the speakers will do well and will feel insulted if someone slotted for 20 minutes left the stage with 17 minutes to spare.

Doing what Godin suggests might be preferable to a bad twenty minute talk, but not as good as a well done 10 minute talk.

The simplest answer is in the middle ground of basic advice Godin skips over:

  • Make your talk shorter – if given 20 minutes, use 15
  • plan the talk around questions the audience wants answered
  • practice the speech, but don’t memorize it

In summary, when I see a bad talk I blame everyone:

9 Responses to “Blame the speaker or the organizer?”

  1. Phil Simon

    I couldn’t agree more, Scott. I always try to end 15 minutes early on a 60-minute talk, allowing time for questions. The organizer can then take only 10 minutes of questions if we need to make up time.

    You can’t entirely blame the speaker, unless s/he had a really bad day. Most speakers have on their sites many samples. To that end, the organizer really shouldn’t be surprised if someone disappoints.

  2. Craig Hadden – Remote Possibilities

    Scott, I think you’re spot-on when you say “plan the talk around questions the audience wants answered”.

    Olivia Mitchell provides a great free e-book about that, which you can get via this link:

    So many talks are awful, which is such a waste. Starting from what the audience wants is the best way to avoid that problem.

  3. Robby Slaughter

    A great speaker can rescue a terribly organized event, but a great event organizer cannot do anything once a bad speaker is let loose on an audience.

    I’d prefer that event organizers take more responsibility—especially with regard to the notion that you get what you pay for. But if you’re not a good speaker, get off the stage.

  4. Heather Bussing

    Don’t forget that organizers are often beholden to sponsors who insist that their CEO gets to talk. There is no check on quality. And the speaker’s motivation is to sell rather than give value. I try to avoid going to those sessions.

    1. Phil Simon

      Great point, Heather. Most people don’t realize that the number of slots available to professional speakers is very limited. For $250k, a company buys a platinum sponsorship which typically includes letting its CXO give a sales pitch.

    2. Scott

      Better events at least make clear it’s a sponsored talk, with designated slots for it.

      But I’ve yet to see a sponsored talk that didn’t feel canned. I’d love to see a sponsored talk that made fun of sponsored talks. It’d be great PR for whoever did it.


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