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Passion, People and Principles

The Keynote Speech Charade

post # 84 — May 22, 2006 — a Client Relations, Managing post

A significant proportion of the phone calls I receive enquiring about my services are invitations to speak at in-house conferences and meetings. I actually get hired for only a small proportion of these, because I am, it appears, a demanding and difficult person to hire.

The problem derives from the fact that, in choosing when and where to get involved, I try to select engagements where I have a chance – at the very least, a chance – at doing something meaningful and purposeful, and making a difference through my presentations.

However, I am constantly astonished by what a small percentage of people organizing conferences and meetings actually want this, or have even thought about it.

Most of the time, they want a speech that is entertaining, informative, stimulating and motivating. What they don’t seem to want is anything that specifically addresses the way they run their firm or the real-world changes they are really trying to make.

They don’t, it seems, want anything that appears challenging, provocative, controversial or potentially divisive. They don’t REALLY want to address the topics they ask their speakers to talk about.

cover of David Maister's book, True Professionalism

For example, I recently received an enquiry asking me to speak about the topic of a book of mine, True Professionalism, and convey to the audience the importance of living up to the organization’s “sacred values.” They wanted me to be inspiring.

However, when I asked if I could take votes at the meeting as to how well everyone thought the organization was currently living it’s values, the organizers were terrified – “No, that would stir up things too much!” they said.

I also discovered the problem in the few months that I experimented with working through a speakers’ bureau. I met with their agents to explain the type of work I was willing to take on. I was astonished to discover that this was a relatively unusual request for them – most speakers and most clients operated on the principle that if the date was available and the date was free, then a booking was made.

The idea that a discussion should take place, to see if the speaker could be used to further the organization’s goals, and fit into other changes that management wanted to bring about, seemed to be an uncommon desire.

Of course, the clients’ experience with speakers could have contributed a lot to this situation. Many speakers have only their “fixed” presentation, and make no attempt to custom-tailor it to the specific situation.

Whoever is at fault, the fact is that, most frequently, meetings and conferences are organized as “stand-alone” events, with a life of their own, disconnected to the firm’s progress.

This is also evidenced by the fact that, most frequently, it is not someone in management who calls me, but a “conference planner” or someone in “administration” – people who are not in a position to discuss what changes the organization is really ready to tackle.

Most meetings, and most keynote speakers, have agenda topics, but no clear goals. Twelve years ago, I wrote an article called Meeting Goals, available on my website, on the possible goals of a meeting- but to this day, most of the calls I receive are from people who haven’t begun to think that through.

I think it’s perfectly valid to want an entertaining speaker, and I’ve tried throughout my career to be both entertaining and inspiring in my style. But the thought of being JUST an entertainer no longer excites me – there’s so much more that could be achieved with a conference presentation or seminar, if companies only had the courage to plan that version.


Eric said:


It is refreshing to see someone with your experience stand firm to the principles you teach.

I was at a leadership workshop about 3 months ago and the main speaker told us that he went to do a session with a company. He met with the execs right before the presentation. He explained what the agenda was and the 2nd in command said “No.” They were not comfortable with digging into the mud – the real issues.

The speaker told them that they had the wrong person to speak at their company. He packed his bags and left.

If we aren’t going to put into practice what we learn, why read the book or attend the conference?

I have over 250 channels of entertainment on cable that I could watch.

Denial is pervasive. I see it everyday.

posted on May 23, 2006

James Bullock said:

First thank you. A place to have real, perceptive conversations about the practice of real, valuable consulting is a treasure indeed.

The all too typical “rah-rah” kind of keynote thing simply feeds the cynicism that prevents real progress. It’s powerful, that cynicism, because it is justified. On the othe hand celebrity speakers are a fine thing, if they are recognized as such. The give away – actually – is in how they are managed, booked, and so on. Exactly like the talent is handled in modeling agencies, and similar.

One of the best questions I know for rapidly calibrating any ask goes: “So, who will be different when this has happened, and how so?” “Who”, not “what.” Look for the commitment of the people who might be influenced. That’s so seldom considered for keynote-infested gatherings.

Riffing on these examples, I’ve really touched on only three things: – Lining up authority with responsibility. – What are we about doing, anyway? – Consulting is influencing people. Other things, called “consulting” are work in-process, on task. Valuable, yes, but different in kind.

Tune to that.

posted on May 23, 2006

Bruce Lewin said:

What a double edged sword!!!





posted on May 24, 2006

Mark Lee said:

I attended a speakers bootcamp recently and learned that the difference between being a keynnote speaker and a trainer was over £2000 a day – sometimes much more.

It struck me as bizarre for the very reasons in your post David.

As a trainer one generally devotes time beforehand to getting to know the organisation, their objectives and also something about the attendees. Material and focus are then adapted to suit the organistion and participants. A keynote speaker however will sometimes find out the name of the organisation before he/she stands up to speak. They however command much higher fees than trainers.

‘Twas ever thus I’m told. As I migrate from training to speaking I’m trying to redress the balance in the same way as you – by trying to ensure I provide greater value than someone who just turns up to speak. There aren’t many of us about however. Jii the club!



posted on June 28, 2006