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:

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