Why You Should Not Hire A Speaker That Will Alienate Part Of Your Audience

Right Where it Belongs

Learning is a fragile thing.

It is a biological process that happens in the brain. Provide the wrong stimulus and the brain responds by shutting down the learning process and instead protecting the human body.

In order for people to learn something, their basic needs have to be met first. They must feel like the learning environment is safe and that they won’t be threatened or embarrassed. If not, they cannot learn.

When Learning Can’t Occur

In the 1990s I worked for Keep America Beautiful and Keep Texas Beautiful, both nonprofit associations. We dealt with environmental issues on a daily basis.

Often our audiences were citizens of local municipalities. Announce that you’re going to put a landfill or waste management plant near someone’s neighborhood and you can watch the fireworks fly.

We frequently were called in to help facilitate friendly conversations about these environmental issues. We had to be trained on how to navigate the minefields that audiences bring with them when they have low trust (didn’t trust governmental officials) and high emotions (my kids are at risk of health hazards.)

This is currently the situation brewing with ASAE’s announcement of the 2012 opening general session speakers of James Carville and Karl Rove. ASAE’s goal is to educate members on political advocacy and the current political landscape.

Some members are thrilled. Some are ambivalent. Some members don’t trust these politicos. Those that don’t trust them feel that one or both of these men have discounted and harmed them in some way mentally and emotionally.

These two speakers are already alienating part of the membership. Some of the members are offended that ASAE would actually pay these two men to speak. While ASAE’s goal to educate is admirable, the goal will not be achieved for all because it is a low trust, high emotion environment.

Creating An Emotional Ambush

Our brains are hardwired to protect us from predators. Our evolutionary brain’s primary goal is to keep us alive and help us survive.

Years ago, our brains were trained to respond quickly to harmful situations. If we encountered a lion in the jungle, our amygdala flooded our bodies with adrenalin and cortisol. We responded with a fight or flight reaction so that we could live. We didn’t have time to analyze and evaluate the situation. It was important to react quickly to protect ourselves.

When we encounter a new situation, our amygdala scans the environment to ensure that it’s safe. If we feel that the situation will be unfair or that we will be threatened, we default to an emotional amygdala ambush. We move into a fight or flight syndrome. And all learning comes to a halt.

Our logical brain defaults to our amygdala in every situation. The amygdala acts as a traffic cop letting us know if the circumstances are safe and fair.

Hiring The Wrong Speaker Can Halt Learning In Its Place

The best emotional state for learning is curiosity, motivation and excitement.

If you secure a speaker that intentionally or even unintentionally alienates part of the audience, learning stops dead in its tracks for some. The amygdala goes into action and takes over the body.

Your challenge is to find speakers that promote hope, affirmation, excitement and even surprise so that the audience’s brains don’t default to an emotional highjack. Then they are open and even curious about what the presenters have to share. Then they can learn.

What recommendations do you have for hiring the right speaker that puts the majority of your audience in the right emotional state? Do you think a controversial speaker will ever benefit your audience’s preconceived perceptions?

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  1. I think your low-trust high-emotion framework holds some of the potential answer. If you want to use a speaker who might fall into that territory for some of your audience, is there something that can be done in your marketing materials, pre-conference, as well as on-site that could (1) build some trust and (2) let out some of the emotion in order for people to be open to the potential learning that occur.

    It’s not the same, but it makes me thing about customer service situations when you’re dealing with someone who is upset. Sometimes until people have had their say, they can’t really engage in discussing how you might be able to help them with their problem. In some respects your blog posts may be serving folks who need to let out some of their emotions prior to hearing the speakers.

    I also think we can distinguish between people we generally trust, but with whom me may have significant differences of opinion. If I respect a speaker, but see a particular issue very differently, I find I generally learn from them because I’m mentally fighting what they say from an emotional standpoint, but exploring and debating it form a cognitive one.

    Thanks for continuing to help us think through how to handle comparable situations.

  2. Dave Will says:

    Good points, Jeffrey.

    Jeff, I don’t know where I stand on this one for sure, but it made me think of a video I saw recently that came out of the Obama camp… (OK, going political now… cautiously) He made this video focusing on his new organization called “African Americans for Obama”. Although, all successful politicians segment their audience, this is a case where the message and segmentation create a division beyond simple difference of opinion. Here’s the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=BdjoHA5ocwU

    So I relate this to your topic in wondering if ASAE’s decision will divide the audience or make the community wiser and more informed as a whole. I think the former. Same with Obama’s video.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      According to the Covello’s research, there are a specific set of steps that speakers in low trust, high concerns environments must do in order to gain any trust and credibility. The speakers also have to answer questions a specific way, highlighting their empathy/care for the audience as well.

      I agree that you can distinguish between people we trust and those which we disagree with. Those people exude a specific amount of understanding and empathy for the people that disagree with them. In the case of ASAE, it’s very clear that a segment does not trust these speakers and never will. The emotional outbursts I saw from folks at GIC was a little alarming to me and just highlighted the low trust, high emotions.

      It’s yet to be see if the actual presentation will do more damage or help. What’s unfortunate is it’s already offended some including people from ASAE’s diversity and inclusion volunteer group as well as others. Will be interesting to watch how it unfolds.

  3. Thanks for the additional info Jeff. I’m going to spend some time learning more from that research.

  4. justin locke says:

    well pardon my cynical side but i think it’s pretty clever to bring those two political polarizers together. will get lots of free press.

    here in boston we hate the yankees, but when they come to fenwway, it’s the hottest ticket in town.

    how much “learning” goes on, well, that’s another story. is that always the purpose? -jl

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ASAE has stated in writing that the goal of the general session with these two politicos is education and learning, not press and not entertainment. If the goal is learning, then this implementation will fail. I agree that had ASAE written that the goal was entertainment and hype, it makes sense.

  5. Maddie Grant says:

    To me this whole situation denotes a huge lack of transparency and trustworthiness on ASAE’s part. They suck (REALLY suck) at education. But they refuse to just be honest and say that this is pure entertainment. They refuse to just say “our general sessions are going to be for pomp and circumstance and that’s how we like it”. They continue to pay lip service to things like diversity, and learning, and social responsibility, when they really have zero intention of really truly being any of those things (just look at what has happened to all of those initiatives). They could be such a force for good but they aren’t even close.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your honest and straight-forward talk here. We need more people to share their truth instead of swallowing it.

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