Your Conference Speakers’ Skills Gap Is Causing You To Lose Money

Neri Oxman - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME

The majority of your conference speakers have a major skills gap!

They are relying on pedagogical mimicry–presenting the same way that their teachers taught them.

That causes you and your conference to rely solely on a foundation of mimicry for education success. And this foundation is the exact the opposite of what your speakers should be doing if the goal is learning! Your dependence on this approach is ultimately causing you to lose money as it does not meet your attendees’ needs and it leads to a learning mirage.

Conference Speakers’ Presentation Method Based On Speculation

Currently, most conference speakers lecture to their audiences. They have assumed that the lecture is the best method that leads to learning. This assumption is based on speculation and not the real evidence. The evidence is that the lecture is the equivalent of distributing a report to your audience. There is not a guarantee that the audience will read the report, use the report, learn the report or apply the report.

Here’s the real truth: most speakers like to hear themselves talk! The more they talk, the more important and expert they feel. The lecture is more about the speaker than the attendee.

But their talk, talk, talk, gets in the way of our attendees’ thinking. It’s time for speakers to stop talking some and allow the audience to talk to each other. I am not saying stop talking all together. I’m saying cut the lecture in half and let the other part of the time be dedicated to audience peer discussion.

The One Who Does The Work, Does The Learning

I am a believer in science. I believe in evidence-based-education and the evidence points to the one that does the most work in a conference education session does the most learning. That work means the one who does the most thinking, does the most learning. The one with the most mental engagement does the most learning.

In most conferences, that’s the speaker. They had to think through their outline and how to present the information. The speaker had to decide what to present and make sure that their information clearly explained the topic. The speaker did the most work.

I’ve written it before: You cannot give your attention to listening and give your attention to thinking at the same time. It’s one or the other. So if you’re listening, you are not doing the work.

So the majority of speakers that lecture to their audiences are mimicking what their teachers did. And if they’ll stop and think about it, they still had to study when their teachers lectured. They still had to learn the information. The lecture didn’t automatically translate into them having the knowledge.

The Conference Speakers’ Skills Arsenal For Success

Conference organizers need to focus on helping their speakers develop presentation expertise that leads to learning. If we don’t take the time, spend the money and learn how to build world-class presenters for our conferences, we will not be able to compete.

Let me state that another way. Your conference education success is dependent upon the skills of your presenters. Your competitors are starting to realize that if they want to compete, they must help their speakers improve.

Some speakers are great orators. They are great at talking to their audience. Ultimately, we don’t want an entire conference of talking heads. A few great orators are enough. We want presenters that help their audience learn!

Speakers with expertise in evidence-based education presentation strategies are the new arsenal for conference success. There’s not a speaker talent war in our conferences and meetings. There’s a war for speakers that have the right skills to facilitate learning.

There’s no better way to win the conference competition than to build an army of presenters equipped with the right skills to facilitate participant-centered learning. When audiences walk away from the conference and say “I learned some things here,” then the conference won’t lose money because of bad speakers.

As long as we continue to hold up the lecture and panel as the best practice for conference education, the more we will continue to lose money. Why will we lose money? Attendees will go elsewhere to get their education needs met where real learning occurs.

Why do so many conference organizers and conference committees ignore presentation skills that lead to learning as a speaker qualification? How can we help our speakers become better presenters?

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  1. Kyle Hillman says:

    The problem is and always has been expectation of attendees coupled with expectation of the authoritative board. With the meetings industry that would be CIC but every profession has one.. and in corporate events it is C Suite employees.

    There is an expectation from attendees that education will be provided in a specific methodology. (Regardless of evidence based research) the attendee expectations directly reflect the conversion rate of the event. If the expectation is that the event will be group work rather than lecture work, our attendees reactionarily search out other experiences that fit their comfortability.

    Now as more unconference work is done, that may be shifting but that is still such a small number of attendees.

    Even with expanded attendee acceptance, the governing body around the education isn’t. CIC won’t recognize 2 hours worth of unconference material for CMP renewal (neither will my social work board). So while the research might point to a better retention rate, the board assigned to oversee the quality of the education are creating a disincentive to creative methodologies. And in the end, a planner has to meet those two expectation levels.

    I will also still throw out my personal pessimistic belief that education isn’t why attendees goto conferences. It is how we justify our presence.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      One of the things you mention is that some audiences rebel against participant-centered methods. I agree. When they’ve falsely believed that they can receive knowledge as the speaker hands it to them and that is removed, some complain. When suddenly the learning is put back into the participant’s own control and they have to do the work of learning, some may not like it. However, attendees that have been to conferences that use participant-centered experience rave about them.

      I believe that participant-centered methods include more than unconferences. There are tons of formats that many governing bodies do approve because the focus is on the audience learning specific content. Let’s not confuse how the content is delivered and education methods/formats.

  2. Kyle Hillman says:

    Fair enough, what other format do you think governing bodies understand enough to quantify the expense to send employees to and can’t speak to intelligently enough to warrant their stamp of approval?

    I am not saying you are wrong Jeff, I am just saying the industry has to do a better job of explaining these new methodologies to the governing bodies and the attendees prior to their experience.

    Otherwise there is no incentive to change. Our industry is buried under the weight of event paradigms.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      My experience with governing bodies and evidence based education is that we need to focus on getting the attendees to discuss, digest, reflect upon, deconstruct and apply the content. Asking the presenter to simply chunk the content into 10 min segments and then allow the audience to discuss with their peers for 10 minutes makes a dramatic improvement on learning and retention. This process is repeated several times during the session. Buzz Groups, Horseshoe Groups, Pair Squared, Peerology, Fish Bowls, Station Rotation are just some methods that most governing bodies approve.

      All of these methods identify learning outcomes before people register. There are specific points that will be presented. That’s one of the challenges with “traditional” unconferences. Unconferences, by their very nature, do not identify learning outcomes and the content that will be covered. It is left open on purpose to those that gather.

  3. thom singer says:

    The other problem is that the “Content is KING” attitude leads people to get the wrong speakers. I had a planner tell me that they did not care if the speaker was experiences as long as they were seen as “smart” by their participants,…. as she believed that audiences these days only want content, and boring is just part of the equation. YIKES.

    My mantra… “Just because someone is smart or has done something cool — it does not mean they belong on stage”…. it is NOT too much to ask for content and speaking / training skills and experience.

  4. Justin Locke says:

    Well this point extends far beyond the “learning” in a conference. There is a massive push-pull now between the standard educational industrial complex factory-model classroom learning, and new ways of greater engagement (e.g.,, edutopia, etc.) And I assume you know of adrian Segar’s “unconference” book/technique? Of course, as a speaker, I always recoil in horror at any changes, but then again, there are two very different types of “speakers”; there is a big difference between someone teaching a dry class and someone putting on what is really a “one (wo)man show.” One can be highly engaged in a single speaker if the stories resonate, even better if they are funny, and classrooms are still an efficient/cost effective way for a large number of people to at least be introduced to entry level knowledge. But for attaining mastery, of course, passive listening will never get you there. Got to do the one-on-one mentoring and the individual trial and error process. Again, classrooms are one part, a viable part, just not possible to do it all. In the arts world you have master classes but you also take private lessons and you also have to practice by yourself. We artsy types never got taken over by the TWI/factory model. Now, in the digital era, hopefully y’all are coming back to our multi-tiered way of thinking 🙂 -jl

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, so true that content-is-king-attitude. I often say if Content is King than Engagement Is Queen and Visuals are the Prince.

      I am not surprised by the planner’s attitude that you described. To paraphrase my best friend, “Not all meeting planners graduated at the top of their class.” Clearly the one you mentioned does not get it. I doubt that person will ever transition into a “meeting professional.” Thanks for reading, writing and sharing.

      I’m with you that the institutionalized factory-model education is done, finished, broken, kaput! And it never worked anyway. I’ve been reading some fantastic work by college professors that discuss how many of today’s college students will not tolerate the traditional, sage on the stage professor-lecture. Since they are paying for their degree, they have no problem going to the dean and demanding that their professors use education strategies that lead to learning and require student interactivity.

      Similarly, I don’t believe that most conference attendees are there for “awareness” of an issue. They’ll tell you that expect a solution to their problems which requires a very different presentation method than the two you’ve described. There are a lot of ways to get mental engagement during education and unconferences are only one method. We have to remember that the content delivery method should match the session goal.

      Thanks for commenting and reading too!

  5. Justin Locke says:

    indeed, where have you heard of such college kids making such demands? am curious. I see in the k-12 realm ever more emphasis on standardized testing, and prep for it . . . and politicization of the grading process.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      There are a plethora of new books written by college professors on LCT (Learner Centered Teaching) including professors from the following universities: Ferris State University, The University Of Texas, Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University as well as work in Singapore and Hong Kong…so it’s an international trend. The National Science Foundation, the monthly newsletter Teaching Professor, the Biological Sciences Curriculum Studies (since learning is actually a biological process), the US Dept of Education and The Center for Study of Higher Education are just a few organizations that are also involved in research as well of application of evidence based education. Ignoring this trend will only hurt conference organizers in the future.

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