The Job Of A Speaker Must Drastically Change For Successful Conferences Today

Social Innovation Fellows Program - Pop!Tech 2008

Today’s audiences expect more from a speaker than the traditional lecture.

They want to be inspired, motivated, entertained and learn relevant take aways that they can apply immediately.

They are not satisfied with sitting passively listening to monologues and panel platitudes. They want to actively participate in an education session.

The End Of A Speaker-Expert Era

For the past 10-20 years, the focus of conference education sessions and keynotes has been on the speaker. Speakers acted as performers on the stage. They were the center of the attention. Conference organizers spent considerable amount of time securing speakers that could wow audiences’ with their oratory skills.

We marketed their names and expertise. We felt that speakers attracted our audiences.

We now know differently. It’s not the speaker that drives registration. It’s whether the content solves the attendees’ problems.

Don’t get me wrong, there will probably always be a place for one or two inspirational, motivation conference speakers but they are limited.

The Shift From Speaker To Facilitator Won’t Be Easy

The emphasis is shifting. We are shifting from a speaker-centric, expert-emphasis conference to attendee-emphasis and learner-centric conference.

This shift is not one that will be easy for most speakers, especially professional speakers and professors that are stuck in traditional lecture models. It is not the way most of us were taught in school. And it’s not the way most of us usually present.

Some professional speakers will denounce these methods of shifting to a facilitator and exclaim that the old ways will still work. They do not believe in evidence based education that proves lectures don’t provide the ROI for learning.

As Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and author of the indispensable 2012 Thinking, Fast and Slow, says, “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story the mind has managed to construct.” Other cognitive psychologists like Dr. Daniel Willingham call our beliefs based on our experience “conformational bias.”

And trust me, many professional and industry speakers will denounce this needed change based on their flawed conformational bias.

Speakers Have To Shift From Being The Focus To Facilitator

Audiences are demanding that speakers shift from being great orators and entertainers to facilitators of learning experiences.

Speakers as facilitators:

1. Let audiences become participants and do more learning tasks.

These speaker-facilitators don’t come to session with scripted presentations and everything planned. Instead, they come prepared and part of the plan is to allow participants to do the work of learning.

2. Do less telling so the audience can do more discovering.

Speakers are known for telling audiences too much content. They tell them what they are going to talk about, they talk about it and then they recap it. This much telling is a vicious cycle. Speakers spend extraordinary amounts of time preparing their speeches. They do all the learning and then think they can hand that knowledge to audiences.

Instead, speakers should be asking, “Why am I telling them this? Have I bought into the myth that I can distribute knowledge from my mouth?”

3. Focus on instructional design work more carefully.

Instead of organizing the content that will be spoken, speakers as facilitators spend time and effort designing activities that now engage adults as learners. They focus on creating significant learning experiences which is different from have audiences listen to a lecture.

4. Design learning experiences that motivate participant involvement and participation.

The object is to draw an adult into the content so they are energized before they realize it. The adults do the work instead of just reciting what the speaker said. These experiences take audiences from their current knowledge and skill level to a new place of competence. These learning experiences develop content knowledge and learning skills at the same time.

5. Explicitly model how experts learn.

These speakers demonstrate how experts approach learning and tasks. Presenters specifically discuss learning processes they use when solving problems, discovering new content and confronting difficult issues.

6. Encourage adults to learn from and with each other.

They value peer to peer learning and group work. They place their beliefs in the evidence that peer learning and group work increases knowledge retention and application.

7. Promote evaluation that leads to learning.

Speakers as facilitators are not satisfied with smile-sheet evaluations and butt-time lectures. They realize the importance of providing feedback during peer and group work. They look critically at their own work and ask audiences for feedback as well. They care constantly evaluating the session to see if their participants are really learning and understanding.

Sources: “Where the evidence of actual learning works,” by J. Michaels, Advances in Physiology Education, 2006; Improving Learning New Perspectives, P. Ramsden, 1988; Learning Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer.

This is part five in the series: It Is Time To Revolutionize Conferences

How can conference organizers help volunteer committees understand the shift from expert-centered to learner centric education sessions? What types of resistance do speakers and some audiences display towards a more participatory conference education session?

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  1. Ton Soons says:

    Your blog is also like a lecture. What’s wrong with that?!
    Of course more than in the past the audience should be part of the content exchange process and interact with the expert but well prepared presentations will ever stay welcome as well.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thank you for adding your perspective. I agree that well prepared presentations will always be welcome and well prepared presentations that increase learning through audience participation will be the shining stars.

      Oh, and by the way, a blog is far from a lecture! You listen to a lecture which involves a different part of the brain than reading a blog. According to brain science, reading trumps listening any day when it comes attitude, behavior and skill change. So they are very different indeed.

  2. Jim Kelley says:

    Jeff I could not agree more with this one. I am fortunate to have clients who include us in the their strategic planning discussions and as a general rule they really are making efforts to create a more dynamic and engaging experience for the attendee and put significant effort into laying the foundation for change. Then when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road at the event the speaker does what they have always done and a years worth of planning, time, and energy is flushed away. In my opinion to see this come full circle organizers need to alter their speaker selection process and in some cases even provide speaker training or become the conduit for the training so theta the speakers can learn to present in a way that aligns with what the experience the organizer is trying to deliver to the attendee.

    Keep doing the good work you do!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks so much for reading and adding your perspective and insights You definitey hae a great view from the work you do with organizations. Your observations are an added benefit to our readers!


      Thanks for reading and weighing in with your comments. I so agree that the peer to peer learning can lead to great networking with others, one of the top reasons people attend conferences. Keep up the great work challenging your clients to improve!

  3. Chris Ballman says:

    I completely agree with this article, in particular point number 6 – encourage adults to learn from and with each other. The added benefit is the potential networking opportunities that arise when this option is available to attendees. From my experience, the two main reasons professionals join associations and attend conferences are to learn and network. By focusing on peer to peer learning and group work, you allow not only the ability for the attendee to learn, but also meet and network with other professionals.

  4. Don’t tell everybody this . . . I will get competition (smile)

  5. Lois Creamer says:

    Thank you for this post Jeff! The speaking industry continues to evolve. Those who don’t make necessary changes to their business model will find their calendars empty.

  6. Jeff Korhan says:

    Spot on Jeff.

    I drafted a similar article over the weekend that is congruent with your comments here. It is based on some recent hybrid approaches that worked out surprisingly well – not to mention being a lot of fun!

    Here’s my question. Do you feel that meeting planners recognize that something is amiss, but aren’t how to go about solving the problem?

    You call it instructional design, and I may use other terms, but whatever we call it, I believe THAT is where we’ll break through.

  7. Lois Creamer says:

    Just want to add a thought Jeff! The traditional keynote style of presenting, which many would describe as “lecture style” will always be with us. Do agree with you that engagement is here to stay!

  8. Jeff Korhan says:

    Agree Lois, for the simple reason that not every audience gives us permission to collaborate with them.

  9. I am 74 years old, been in the speaking biz since 70’s- orig for Dale Carnegie and then on my own since 1978. I was always entertaining and fun but had a powerhouse message and it was one that the big boys and girls wanted: 3 M, Cargill, School Systems, Government folks.. Your truth is true. Audiences don’t give a rip about you you you. The secret is having the patience delivery skill and intuitiveness to ask those W questions and WAIT, WALK INTO and INVOLVE the listeners, to ASSIGN and MAKE THEM work with each other and become a spontaneous panel. Folks see shows on TV- internet. they are willing to say their piece on a passing mike- but YOU MUST be experienced to save, serve and enlighten as well as lighten as you see them fade or whatever. Yesterday I had 77 people from the probation arena- they worked, I worked and the day 6 hours- of my material dredged from everywhere formed the day of enormous diversion. I looked in the mirror when I got home and said, “My God woman, you know how to do this and if you never do it again those people went away with the goods.

  10. Stacy Klone says:

    Hit it dead on! As a speaker and as someone in the audience I agree with your steps and feel the information is relevant to capture the listener.

    So often I find myself counting how many time the speaker uses ‘Um and like” or notice how they get lost reading their own notes. That I miss the topic I came to learn about. I read this article and ponder sending your approach of engaging and teaching the audience to the next speaker on my schedule.

    Also plan to revisit the points before each of my engagements so I can give a dynamic and engaging topic of interest to my audiences.

  11. I agree with much of the article – well done. Let me add to this by pointing out the obvious: one of the greatest impacts of Social Media has been the increased expectations of readers to contribute, be engaged, and create. Eventually these expectations will bubble up to those who hire speakers, and then eventually, the speakers themselves. As a speaker, we have a unique opportunity to bridge the grassroots desire for participation, with the meeting planner’s desire for the traditional broadcast-style keynote. In other words, innovate.

    On the other side of the coin, let’s recognize that there is value in bringing new expertise to the organization. “Pure” facilitation is the expertise of using process to extract and organize the knowledge from within the room. Where do I see the future? The intersection of the two: yes facilitate, but also add your own ingredients – research, experience, frameworks, stories, and expertise.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      thanks for reading, commenting and sharing this post. I agree that there will always be a place for the traditional lecture…and that the demand is starting to decrease.

      Thanks for adding your insights and a great question.

      Do I think that meeting planners realize that something is amiss and are not sure about how to solve it? Yes, and yes! It really depends on who is responsible for the programming of the conference. Strategic meeting professionals get it fast and start asking tough questions. Some meeting professionals feel pressure as some of their customers need a higher ROI. Often, meeting professionals don’t know if there’s a better way because they don’t have that experience.


      Thaks for sharing your speaking experiences with all of us reading this! You are a wise presenter for sure.


      Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion. We appreicat it much.


      Wow! You’ve summed it up nicely and raised the bar. “Yes, facilitate and add your own ingredients–research, experience, frameworks, stories and expertise!” Well said!

  12. I see a split in the conferences I’ve attended or spoken at. The larger audiences still require more of a lecture format – partly because of the difficulty managing any exercises in a group that large, and partly because of the expectations of those groups. Smaller audiences (whether 50 or 400) are expecting and responding to more interactive work.

    I haven’t seen anyone do any extensive interactive material with larger groups. I doubt it’s possible to be entirely as interactive with those groups as with smaller groups, but I’d love to hear from others any successes they’ve had with exercises in large groups.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and asking for additional information. Audience interaction does not mean Q & A with the speaker and audience members. It means audience member to audience member (1 to 1) sharing with each other in audiences of any size. It scales very well with 40, 200 or 20,000 as one peer turns to the person next to them and shares. I’ve done it with 600, 1K, 2.5k and 12K all with no problems. It’s not about the size of the audience. It’s about the ability to facilitate peer to peer discussions.

  13. So what you’re saying is that “size DOES matter!” IMHO meeting planners are just as reluctant to let go of the traditional speaker format as some participants – and speakers. They often rely on the trap of “you can’t do that with 1,000 people.” No, you can’t, if you just show up. But given some thoughtful preparation and planning, you CAN engage the audience beyond a stand and deliver format.

    I have also sat with a few participants who say, during a paired share look at me and say, “I didn’t come here to talk to you! I want to know what the expert has to say!” Who’s to say that I am not an expert in my own domain and there might be crossover? I think people can be extremely shortsighted and self-centered. It’s our job to lift them out of that miasmic cloud.

  14. Great points. Traditional models change slowly. Unless there’s real interaction, I’d rather watch the speaker on YouTube at my convenience.

    Talking to fellow participants is fine at a low cost event like a TEDx. For pricey events, I’m expecting more value from the speakers.

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