Are Your Conference Speakers Tickling Ears Or Transforming Lives?

012 Nagasena (Scratched Ear) by Photo Dharma

012 Nagasena (Scratched Ear) by Photo Dharma

Several months ago, a well-known established professional speaker chided me publicly in Facebook because of a post I wrote about how our brains thrive on images.

This speaker said that he didn’t need to add visuals to his presentations because all of his clients were extremely satisfied with his keynote presentations. And he had been doing his presentations without images or PPT for years successfully. Sound familiar?

I laughed when I read this speaker’s public denouncement of my post. Why? Because I had previously hired this speaker and his scores were terrible. And I never hired him again. But he ignored that. He was smug and satisfied with his own ego!

Your Speakers’ Real Presentation Beliefs

Are your conference speakers committed to presenting based on evidence or tradition?

The professional speaker I mentioned above showed his stupidity and ignorance publicly. He refused to acknowledge the empirical research and data about the effectiveness of his presentation.

As neuroscientist and biologist Dr. John Medina has pointed out in his book Brain Rules, we are all visual learners.

We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%. ~ Dr. John Medina

Note: More empirical evidence listed below. Don’t miss it!

The fleeting value of this professional speaker’s message is lost and forgotten quickly. If he would add visuals to his presentation, he would increase his chances of transforming lives.

Five Major Missteps By This Ignorant Professional Speaker

True, this professional speaker has been successful in the past. He makes a nice, hefty fee for each of his speeches.

True, he has become somewhat of a legend in the professional speaker circuit.

True, he has been a leader in the National Speakers Association.

But, and it’s a big BUT…

Here are four reasons why this professional speaker gets it wrong.

1. Confirmation Bias Is Stinkin’ Thinkin’

This speaker thinks that his experience is proof and evidence of what is right. That is stinkin’, thinkin’ and is so wrong! His experiences will mislead him, time and time again. Our life experiences are not based on sound scientific research.

His thinking is a byproduct of a myth. Many of us are misled by the stories we construct to explain the world around us and our place within it. It’s confirmation bias at its best.

2. Bad, Biased Evaluation Process

To paraphrase education researcher Dr. Will Thalmeier, most conference evaluation is not correlated with learning. Smile sheet evaluations tell us very little about learning.

We measure conference education at a time that makes speakers and organizers look good. It’s a biased metric and it doesn’t show if learning occurred! ~ Dr. Will Thalheimer.

We should stop evaluating the performance of the speaker and start measuring the outcomes, or lack thereof, of their presentation!

3. This Speaker Only Wants To Tickle Ears

This speaker’s own comments in Facebook illustrated his real beliefs that he’s not there to help the audience learn or change their attitudes, behaviors and skills. He has no desire to create a presentation that is transformational for the audience. He’s there to tickle the audience’s ears and give them a fleeting moment of levity.

4. This Speaker Thinks His Presentation Is For Him

This speaker loves to hear his voice. His presentation is all bout him. He has forgotten that his presentation is for his audience, not him!

Note: When you start securing speakers that need to present in order to attend or that need the public recognition for their college tenure, you’ve shifted the presentation focus from being for the audience to being for the speaker. That’s backwards!

5. Dismissive Of Empirical Evidence

This speaker favors tradition over scientific evidence. He favors his immediate client, the meeting planner that hired him, over the audience and the audience’s needs. He believes that he can change lives with his spoken word.

Evidence Trumps Tradition

The empirical evidence found here and here and here and here and here is loud and clear. An audience, even STEM groups, that listens to a lecture is more likely to fail than an audience that has been involved in active learning such as peer to peer discussions, activities, sense-making and mental exercises.

Speakers cannot hand their knowledge to an audience through the spoken word and then the audience has it. If that were true, all we would have to do is reach out and receive it!

Why are so many organizations willing to pay $15K-$50K, or more, for a keynote presenter? What do we really expect to gain from hiring an expensive professional speaker? (Yeah, I know I’m going to make all the big-name keynote presenters mad…but it’s time to hold them accountable for real learning and not tickling ears!)

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  1. Bob Rowell says:

    Amen to measuring outcomes rather than audience reactions! I bet that suggestion makes most speakers cringe. As you point out, lecture is not very effective for transferring info, much less skills acquisition, much less audience members making a meaningful change in their lives. But conference organizers and audiences and speakers all love the ear tickling, don’t they?

  2. Janine Moon says:

    Excellent post…so glad of your direct message to professional speakers. So many in this profession (mine, too) are stuck in past successes and business models, usually a model that is built around ‘sage on the stage:’ ego-driven with an “it’s all about me” belief system. In my experience, even when customizing programs, professional speakers don’t readily focus on participant learning.

    Thanks for your posts and your thinking…so relevant!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, it’s time for us to start measuring speaker outcomes and not audience reactions. Of course some professional speakers don’t like this message, however I’m seeing a trend that some get and are making changes. Those are the ones we need to continually promote. And yes, most of us have a love affair with tickling ears versus transformation.

      Thanks for reading and commenting too.

      Thanks for reading and continuing the conversation. I’m grateful for speakers like you that have focused more on helping attendees take ownership of their learning and facilitating learning experiences. Thanks for leading the way!

  3. Excellent insight and so true. I am disheartened that in today’s demand for high-meeting ROIs that the “feel good” celebrity speakers still get attention. Although I’m not against entertainment, the outcome of a workshop or speech should be behavior change.

  4. Janine Moon says:

    Back again to get your thoughts on the rebranding that the National Speakers Association announced today during their annual conference–Platform: Inform, Influence, Inspire. My initial reaction isn’t entirely positive, as it seems to reflect the concept of “sage on the stage.” Your thoughts?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for the additional thoughts.

      I’m glad NSA rebranded itself for the 21st Century. I initially had a similar reaction to yours and then decided to reframe my thinking.

      In the 21st century, the word platform could be a metaphor for thought leadership or it could refer to a tool (like a technology platform) or it might even refer to a personal manifesto and aims. I can’t wait to hear directly from NSA leadership why the change and why the word platform.

    2. Thanks for approaching this. I am not an ‘NSA’ member yet but plan to be very shortly. I LOVE the rebranded name and what it stands for. My absolute and only issue with it is that NSA made it crystal clear what the organization was for and about. With Platform, you have to dig a little bit. But, I love the rest of it. Can’t wait to join.

  5. This post should be required reading for ALL new speakers and re-read monthly by the established ones.

    Given NSA’s new rebranding – PLATFORM – Inform, Influence, Inspire – it reinforces what you wrote and just tickling ears is a one way ticket down.

    Thanks for a great post and for exposing the difference between big name vs big impact speakers.

  6. Teresa Allen says:

    Thanks to Lois Creamer for sharing this message. There are too many speakers who make it all about them. Egos, expecting to be pampered etc are ridiculous. As a customer service speaker I have always felt it was about how I could serve my customers who are both meeting planner and participants. I am always shocked when someone says ‘you are so easy to work with’. Why would anyone given the privilege of sharing ideas with a group at a considerable investment by them be any other way? And how could the speaker focus on anything but the outcome and ROI?
    No longer a member of NSA, I would agree with those who do not like the platform word – my first reaction is that it is backward because it implies that it is all about the speaker and not the group of people to whom you are presenting.

  7. Surely the most effective informing, inspiring and influencing can only happen with participation of the audience. A speaker or a teacher who has interests of audience or students foremost must choose the best medium for that group. LIke many speakers who have been around awhile I find working without visuals easier for me but certainly not necessarily best for those listening.Thank-you Jeff Hurt for such an invaluable reminder for all of us who are both speakers and teachers.

  8. Thanks for reinforcing the main message I took away from the recent National Speakers Association–now PLATFORM–convention. IT’S NOT ABOUT ME (or you) as the speaker.

    Given all the evidence, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to essentially be a facilitator of a highly interactive, highly visual, playful learning experience. I’ve also been thinking about how best to accurately measure the outcome of that experience, months later.

    I’d love to hear if anyone is measuring impact with anything besides the obvious survey. I know they work, but I think many people have survey fatigue.

    Here’s to lives filled with lasting learning!
    Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer,

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Oh, you so get it! Your presentations actually have the power to transform lives. I’ve been a fan of your insights from afar.

      I highly recommend Dr. Will Thalheimer’s research o0 smile sheet evaluations which you can find here. He’s looking for some volunteers to implement his upgraded evaluation process, if you are interested.

      Thanks again Scott for reading, commenting and thinking about practical applications in your profession!

  9. I agree whole heartedly with what you are saying and sounds like the speaker in particular is digging his heels in even though I’m sure he recognizes that pictures could only enhance his message. That said I’m curious how you would measure the impact of a speaker after the conference, would you ask them to complete a survey a designated amount of time after the session and ask them for an impact assessment? I deliver team building programs and I really would love to have a better gauge of how much of an impact the sessions have. We see great feedback on enjoyment after the event but as you have pointed out, enjoyment and ongoing impact are not the same thing. Appreciate your thoughts.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. We greatly appreciate it.

      You’ve asked a great question about evaluations and our education sessions or speakers. This post, Conferences Need Quality Measurement Tools, has an example of a better type of evaluation tool that we can use for feedback on learning. Hope that helps!

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