Why there are so many bad speakers at conferences these days

Speakers wanted: bring cash.
Speakers wanted: bring cash.
Image: Getty Images/John Moore
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Colin Shaw here.

Have you ever been to a conference where the person presenting is awful and you wonder why the conference organizer booked them in the first place? I have been to many. Why does this happen? It’s because of a fundamentally poor practice that seems to have been growing in the conference industry over the last few years. But first some full disclosure: I am a professional speaker. I get paid to speak at conferences and therefore my view is biased and I accept that. But my view is one that is held by a growing number of people, if my discussions are any indication. It will be interesting to read your view in the annotations.

Let me explain. Each month I get at least two or three phone calls from conference companies. The call goes like this: “I have been speaking to ‘John Smith’ at ABC company (these are normally senior people in prestigious companies). They suggested that we should invite you to speak at our XXX conference.” This is a fairly obvious sales tactic to appeal to my ego and give credibility to their company. It’s also a tactic to lull me into a false sense of security and make me be willing to listen to their pitch. In my view starting a relationship off by lying is not a good idea! They then proceed to spend 20 minutes telling me how many great delegates will be attending the conference. Finally they inform me I would have to pay them to speak at this event. I decline their kind offer and inform them I do not pay to speak at events—when this happens the rest of the speakers are usually not very good.

My challenge is that the people that will pay to speak at conferences are often the wrong people to speak at conferences. As they are paying to speak, they obviously want a return on this, which is entirely reasonable. Therefore, their speech will be selling their product or service. While the conference company will protest that they vet the companies, my experience is they don’t do this very well as they are interested in the bottom line.

I also think that conference organizers find it very difficult to vet speakers for a conference. Can you imagine the situation when a CEO of a major sponsor is being told by the conference organizers that he/she isn’t good enough at presenting to speak at the conference? It’s not going to happen—the relationship has changed from the conference organizer being the customer and paying the speaker, to the speaker being the customer of the conference organizer.

What I think is wrong is that the conference companies do not tell participants that these speakers have paid to speak. If they did, I am sure participants would realize why the subject matter is so boring and in many cases irrelevant. Conference companies should be more transparent about how they run these events.

Professional speakers such as myself and many of the other LinkedIn Influencers, who have thought-leading things to say and are good at engaging audiences, do not attend as they are not willing to pay to speak. I personally think there is a big market opportunity for someone to gather together some of the best minds in business. I also believe that delegates would pay more money to see a good line up of thought-leading speakers rather than what they get at the average conference that is held today.