I posted earlier about a terrible speaker experience at a conference I attended recently.  It was an American who gave his country of origin a bad name by giving an awful speech at a conference in London.

What happened next was just as tragic.  He was followed by a pair of Americans, young start up guys who were doing very cool things with their biz.  They were from the West Coast, and were possessed of all the usual West Coast mannerisms and speech affect.  Pretty soon, the irony was flying, the “dudes” were dropping, and the Silicon Valley in-jokes were sailing past the audience, most of whom were by and large oblivious to the irony and the jokes.

The first of the pair was a bit over-caffeinated, but his energy was undeniable.  And he was working hard to earn the audience’s respect.  The second speaker was more self-assured, and he enjoyed cracking nerd jokes that would have worked in Silicon Valley but didn’t in Grosvenor Square.

Both were competent speakers.  They were aware of the cultural differences and made jokes about how their jokes were falling flat, making the audience chuckle.  So had they followed anyone else, the audience would have found them perfectly acceptable.  Problem was, we just weren’t ready to hear from more Americans (in London) after that initial disaster.  It wasn’t their Americanness, per se; just that they were too much like the previous speaker in one particular way.

And they didn’t know it, because they hadn’t seen the speech.  They’d been in the green room getting ready.

I have always joked that I much prefer to follow a bad speaker, because it’s easy to shine in contrast.  But this case proves that if the audience perceives you to be like the previous speaker, and the previous speaker was bad, then you’ve got more work to do, not less.

Context matters, in speaking.  Where you speak in the lineup matters.  Try not to go right after lunch, or just before quitting time.  Just before lunch isn’t that great either.  But most of all, if you’re going to follow a bad speaker, do your best to distance yourself from him or her as you begin.

The right way to follow that awful speech would have been to walk to the middle of the stage, pause, and say to the audience, “I don’t love you.”  The audience would have howled, the break would have been made, and the difference established.

Otherwise you’ll find yourself having to work way too hard.




  1. Nick, your content gets better and better.

    I guess you would have to be really confident that the other speaker had egregiously flopped, b/c poking fun could be considered mean-spirited. But agree that line would kill.

    What about the reverse? How do you feel about the whole “wow tough act to follow ” approach when you follow an excellent speaker esp one w an emotional appreal. Is there a good way to reset expectations so people don’t feel you are a let-down comparatively?

    1. Hi, Andrew — thanks for the seal of approval! Yes, you run the risk of being mean-spirited — never, ever a good idea. In this case, the tension had built up in the room over the profound horribleness of the speaker, and the line “I don’t love you” delivered with a smile would have released the tension. BUT it is a risk, and you’re right to point it out.

      A tough act to follow? Two things: acknowledge a wonderful speech, and do your thing. I once worked with a speaker who followed Elie Wiesel and preceded Andrew Young. She was very, very worried about the speech going into it, but her ratings beat both those remarkable human beings. We had worked out some audience interaction elements, and good audience interaction will trump even the best of speakers who do all the work, because audiences love to be involved (almost always — there are exceptions).

  2. Actually, I’d recently had a chance to watch some of Gary Vaynerchuk’s keynote speeches which he comes out with on a regular basis as part of his e-outs…

    I cannot fathom nor see the value in Gary’s constant cussing f-, s-, and d-bombing (the latter being d–kead) his audience — the last serious keynote “The Gary” gave was chock-full of vomitorious language…and I’m hardly a prude…I just can’t see the value in Gary doing that.

    The first time he comes out with it, we giggle at his seeming audacity — almost as if it’s not the sort of thing uttered in private discourse and, hence, the fact that it comes out is so super incendiary and risque that we’re willing to give him the bye on it. I mean, it elicits a nice long laugh and paradoxically build rapport…

    But then he CONTINUALLY draws from the profanity well and literally carpet-bombs his speaking engagements with all manner of vulgarity…I don’t know what some of the older audience members must feel when present for this sort of thing…

    I mean, Gary is a multimillionaire and he’s succeeded wonderfully in his life with Wine Library…and he makes the cover of mags like INC. all the time…but is all of the swearing really necessary?! Gary’s beginning to become known around the speaking circuit as “the swearing guy,” and this is self-help upliftment, not a comedy routine.

    Wanted to get a sense how you felt about that, Nick. Because I personally don’t find it so much reprehensible as I do total overkill and a major shifting away from the talk’s central premise…and I almost would feel shortchanged after spending all that time and an expensive entry ticket.

    Swearing occasionally is cool — like a bunt in baseball when you’re expecting your power hitter to tee up and launch it over the outfield fence.

    But f-this, s–thead, d–khead, and the rest of it every third sentence? Really Gary? This is what you want the kids to learn about keynote speaking?

    1. Hi, Adam —

      There are rules, and then there are people who break the rules successfully and make it work for them. Gary has made an extraordinary success out of vulgarity, and he gets away with it in this era. I would never recommend that someone else do the same. Personally, my reaction is similar to yours — “really, Gary?” — but it is a way that he signals passion and he makes it work. I also think that he overdoes it — if the passion is genuine, the audience will get it, and you don’t need to cuss to get it across. And the impact of a four-letter word diminishes rapidly with repetition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.