When speeches go wrong, most often it’s the speaker who gets the blame. But a better way of thinking about the problem spreads the blame evenly around between the organizers, the speaker, and (yes) the audience. Most often, a speech goes wrong because there’s a serious mis-match between the speaker’s expertise and the audience’s expectations.
And for that mis-match, the organizers – the go-betweens, in effect – must shoulder some of the blame.
The dance begins when the organizers begin to reach out to the speaking community to find the right speaker. Can we afford Malcolm Gladwell? Would his brand of wonderful storytelling work for our audience? It might, unless the group was beaten down and in need of a motivational speaker to lift the audience up. In that case, perhaps Simon Sinek might be a better fit.
Motivational speakers have gotten something of a bad rap of late. Ever since 2008-9, the call has been for practical takeaways in the speaking world. But the service motivational speakers offer is more than just enthusiasm and their purpose is more than just feel-good propaganda. A good motivational speaker inspires the audience by example and by story, pushing the audience to redefine what’s possible and encouraging them to set their sights higher and to try for something grander than they are currently attempting.
But a motivational speaker might be precisely the wrong fit for a conference of entrepreneurs already stretching to the limit and in need of practical takeaways to improve their effectiveness right now.
In order for the organizers to pick the right speaker or speakers, they have to have given serious thought to what the purpose and structure of the event is to be. All too often, I see event schedules that are simply a collection of expensive keynoters and inexpensive breakout speakers, with no particular plan or structure beyond spending the budget and filling all the time slots.
A conference or event needs to have a clear structure. Otherwise it’s simply a collection of too many presentations to absorb in too short a time. The attendees rapidly get glazed eyes and information overload and begin to crave the networking moment when they can finally stop cramming and start meeting a few of their fellow travelers.
To assemble an event in this way is not a matter of putting as many high-value speakers into as efficient a package as possible. Rather, it’s a set of building blocks that together create a clear edifice. You put a story together with the right speakers, breakouts, and other sessions that have a rhythm and a coherence that makes the conference both enriching and comprehensible.
Once the organizers have put together a coherent conference or event structure, and reached out to the potential speakers, it’s up to the speakers to see how they might fit in. It’s difficult to turn down a paid speaking opportunity, but it is absolutely the obligation of a speaker to say “no” if the fit is not good.
It will save everyone pain in the long run.
Speakers need to insist on fulfilling their brand promise. If you called up Malcolm Gladwell and offered him the earth if he would talk for 15 minutes about business strategy, you’d be wrong to make the offer, and he’d be wrong to accept.
Finally, it’s the job of an audience to do their level best to get something out of the talk that their organizers have vetted and that the speaker has done her best to deliver. If you’re sitting in the audience when a speaker comes on stage that seems to be in the wrong place, or talking about the wrong thing, ask yourself, what is the unique offering this person has, and what use can I make of it? A speaker who has done her work has developed a unique voice, and a unique human voice always has something to offer, even if the insights are mostly negative.
Rather than just giving up, you may learn something surprising. And that’s never a waste of time.