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.
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.