It’s been nagging at me for some time now that the speaking business is changing, because audiences are changing, and speakers are responding in precisely the wrong way. Meeting planners, speaker bureaus, and speakers everywhere take note.

What’s happened? A little history is in order. In 2008-9, the speaking business – the conference business – tanked, like a lot of the rest of the economy. Travel budgets were slashed, meetings were put on hold or made virtual, and motivational speakers saw 80 percent of their business vanish overnight. With the economy on life support, companies could hardly justify junkets to exotic locales, even if the benefits of getting out of the workplace once in a while for professional renewal are well-established, good for the business, and hold up to pretty rigorous cost-benefit analyses.

The optics, as they say, were just too wrong.

The business started coming back as the economy recovered. But to survive, the industry underwent a massive change in response, one that has remained even though today the conference biz is better than ever. I mean, of course, takeaways.

Every speaker, even is she really is about changing your thinking (and that’s really important to do), must express what she is doing in terms of immediate, practical, measurable, instantly-applicable takeaways. Speakers who want to work regularly simply must offer three to five practical tips that the audience can start doing instantly that will easily improve their productivity in simple ways.

It’s the speaking business equivalent of the promise of losing 10 pounds overnight or getting rock-hard abs without any effort.

And just about as useful.

Anything that is that easy to do is not likely to help much and is that easy to forget. Sorry.

But something else has changed as well, and it’s really the two trends that have gotten us to where we are today in the speaking world, and it isn’t good.

Everyone got smart mobile phones. We forget, because it seems like they’ve been with us forever now, but our world really only went 24/7 after 2007 and the introduction of the iphone and its competitors shortly thereafter. Not yet a decade.

You put immediate takeaways and 24/7 connectivity together and what do you get? An industry that’s desperately afraid of losing the audience, and an audience that’s eager to have a reason to tune out and check messages.

And, unsurprisingly, the industry has responded in the worst possible way, acting on the fear of losing the audience’s attention by pandering to the shorter attention span.

So we’ve got more entertainment, less meat. We’ve got shorter speeches. We’ve got more slides, at a faster pace. We’ve got more razzle-dazzle and less thought. Serious has a bad name. Snazzy is in. Don’t trust the speaker or the material to hold the audience – like action movies, just keep everything moving so fast no one notices that the result is largely empty and devoid of truly useful, life-changing mental work.

More chaos, less sense.

But here’s the problem with that. Like the proverbial take-out meal, it leaves you hungry again soon after. What audiences want right now is a deep, powerful story that will help them make sense of the chaos they’re experiencing. Instead, what they’re getting is a little more chaos.

Speakers, resist. Tell your audiences a real story, with character, conflict, and change – and tell me what the lesson learned is from that change. Stories like that are hard to come by, hard to craft, and hard to get right. But when you do craft a genuine one, the effect on the audience is magical. The audience stays engaged, not for the length of a TED talk, but for 45 minutes or even 60 — or even a day.

I always say that the only reason to give a speech is to change the world. To change the world, change the audience in front of you. With a great story, you can change the audience in front of you by changing their experience of time, their perception of time and place, and their idea of reality. You can take them out of the chaotic present and show them a new way to think, to be, to act, to experience the world.

The magic of storytelling – great storytelling – is the answer to the 24/7 chaos. Speakers, will you answer the call?

Spend a day with us in Boston and craft a great speech at our Powerful Public Speaking seminar – October 28th.  Sign up here!





  1. Dear Nick

    As always a great insight & call to action. The story and not the soundbite. The story and not the 3 secrets of instant success. The evidence of the power of story is found in Pixar today but maybe we see only as kids stuff.

    Thank You.

    John Keating
    Cork – Irealand

  2. I wanted to think of one word that would sum up my feeling as I read this post, but too many came to mind, words like YESSSSSS and YAY!!! and WAHOO!

    Thank you for this, and for challenging the status quo…which is what leaders do.

  3. When the audience stops looking at the clock on the wall and loses their sense of time…..that’s a good speaker! Great post Nick. Speakers CAN speak for a full day and KEEP the audience….only if they have a story worth hearing; a story that challenges perspectives. You state it so eloquently and I love the history of it all, too.

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