Speaker Lessons

I have had the opportunity to work on both sides of the speaking realm as both a regular speaker and event organizer. Over the years, there have been a number of interesting incidents which lead me to write this post. For the most part, I believe the majority of aspiring speakers behave professionally, but there are definitely those who don’t fit the bill. I thought I would share a few stories and some takeaways. This is certainly not a full list, just something that hit me as a valuable post for those who plan to be a speaker at different events. I have excluded any names from the stories to protect the guilty and avoid making someone look bad.

Once there was a keynote speaker that provided an abstract that sounded great. The abstract talked about how things had been in the past, what we have done to make things better and the bright future ahead. All was well with the world until the speaker started talking. The keynote content was one of the most boring and disliked sessions in the history of the event. Attendees were blasting the speaker and his illustrious keynote on Twitter as the blather continued to spew. I was in the back hallway crouched down by the floor with my head in my hands wishing for time to speed up so he could be finished and get off the stage.

LESSON TO SPEAKERS:

  • Your abstract is not just a quirky little paragraph to make people think you are witty and come see your session. It is a tool for attendees to determine what content makes sense for them and if the content doesn’t match the abstract you have missed the point. Make sure your abstracts are clear in what the intent of the session is and who should be there as well.
  • Know your audience, if you are going to present content that is focused on a specific audience be sure to indicate that in your abstract. Additionally, look at the event to get a feel for whether the attendees will be interested.

I was once contacted by a speaker the week of the conference letting me know that a family health emergency had come up and they could not attend. Obviously, I was understanding and cancelled their sessions with my hopes that all would work out well. Then one of the conference staff members mentioned that the speaker just posted on a popular social networking site how great their vacation with their family was going. After a quick look, the speaker was indeed having a wonderful time with their family, which is great for them. I don’t care that the speaker was on vacation and would have understood if he had been honest. Why did the speaker feel the need to lie? Who cares, the fact is that they didn’t have the courage to be honest.

LESSON FOR SPEAKERS:

  • Don’t lie to organizers about why you can’t make it to the event. You show your character, or lack thereof, and it will be remembered. P.S. We can use Twitter and Facebook too. πŸ˜‰
  • When you are accepted as a speaker, put it on your calendar and manage other activities around it. If a priority comes up, immediately notify the organizers so they can make alternate plans.
  • Do everything possible to be there if you can, don’t think that it isn’t a big deal to cancel because it can wreak havoc on organizers. I have had last minute cancellations in the past, but did everything possible to find a replacement beforehand so it wasn’t on the organizers plate.

I remember a time when a speaker showed up to the conference asking for a session to be delayed so they could finish up their presentation. After giving them the schedule change, they asked again saying that they were not able to get it 100%. We rescheduled again, but the speaker didn’t show up to their session and instead attended an Open Space session. When I found the speaker it was nothing but excuses. The problem here was that the speaker had no understanding of the impact their actions had on attendees. People had really wanted to learn what the speaker said they were going to present.

LESSON FOR SPEAKERS:

  • Get your content together for sessions that you have committed to deliver before the week of the conference. Tweaks and updates are fine, but it is always difficult to get a quality session together without the proper time.
  • If you won’t be ready for your session, let the organizer know immediately to give them an opportunity to make alternate plans before it is too late. It happens, but there are always options like having another speaker who knows the content help you out with one of their sessions.

During one event we had a visiting speaker from a major software company who gave a session at the conference. Unfortunately, they left their luggage in one of the rooms which we locked for security purposes while the closing keynote was going on at the end of the event. So we sent the speaker and a volunteer down to wait for security to bring the key. Security took their sweet time getting there and I arrived at the room to find the speaker and volunteer having a cordial conversation. Once I approached them the speaker said something regarding me saving him from listening to the volunteer talk anymore. While he meant it as a joke, his personality (kinda Prima Donna) came across as an insult to the volunteer.

LESSON FOR SPEAKERS:

  • Just because you are an expert in your field, doesn’t mean you are a better person than anyone else. Check your ego at the door and be watchful of how you treat others. Speakers are highly respected by most people and should act professionally in all their activities. This seems to be a major problem with some speakers who have Huge Ego Disorder (HED) also known as having a “Big HED”. That was me being witty. πŸ˜‰

Another interesting time was when a speaker had two of the most popular sessions at the conference. During his first session there were over 100 people in the room, but the speaker was nowhere to be found. Finally, before his second session was set to begin the speaker leisurely arrives at the conference announcing his presence. I informed him of the issue with the earlier session and he explained that the schedule indicated it was in the afternoon. He was correct, except that was not the actual schedule, it was the tentative schedule from over a month earlier. Updates were sent to speakers about the final schedule before we printed the guides, which he obviously didn’t pay attention too.

LESSON TO SPEAKERS:

  • When a conference organizer sends you an e-mail, READ IT
  • Always check the schedule online the week and night before an event. This ensures you are always on time and don’t cause the organizer a problem.

Now I would like end on a positive note which is one of my favorite stories ever.

Once there was a speaker who didn’t show up to his session or even the conference. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the speaker was not present because his speaker badge had gotten misplaced. So around 30 people sat patiently in the session waiting for the speaker to arrive for around 5-10 minutes after start time. Another speaker who was in the room because he wanted to hear what the scheduled speaker’s thoughts on the topic decided to take action. He strolled to the front of the room, introduced himself and let everyone know he was willing to discuss the topic if they were interested. With no presentation and everyone’s agreement he delivered a great session. At the end of the session, I was grabbed by an attendee who raved about the opportunity to hear this speaker and other attendees shared the same thoughts later. Now that is amazing!

LESSONS FOR SPEAKERS:

  • Be on the lookout for opportunities to help out at an event. The people in that session were talking about it months later and they also learned about the topic of interest.

Hopefully you would never be a part of the negative stories I shared. There are plenty of other instances and lessons that I have learned as an organizers to battle these problems as well. In the end, a speaker must have respect for the organizers/attendees and their commitment. I hope these stories will spark some thoughts about your pursuit of being a good speaker. Obviously, there are many more stories I could share and lessons to be learned. If you have a good one, please feel free to post them. Remember I am a speaker too, so it is always good to see where I can make improvements.

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4 thoughts on “Speaker Lessons

  1. John, what a great post. We feel your pain man! So sad that common sense has to be pointed out to people isn’t it? But hey, next year is a whole different event. Things could turn around.

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  2. John, I believe I was your last example. I never got a chance to do so but I apologize profusely for my lapse in professionalism. To be honest I kept telling myself the event was the following week until I got the tweet from you asking where I was. I took a break from speaking and a lot of other community activities because I realized I was running myself ragged. Please accept my apologies. I’m glad someone was able to step up in my place though.

    Like

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