I used to be a keynote speaker. I
have recently resigned from my past role in favor of what I believe to be a
more beneficial way to deliver a speaking presentation.
Is this a Sci Fi
You have now entered The Conference
Zone, a dimension as vast as it is phony and as timeless as it is vapid.
It’s no exaggeration than these
events are more like something out of a science fiction novel, a hyper-imagined
reality created by overzealous marketing people (like me).
Another water bottle with a compliance firm’s logo on it? Oh, I can personalize it with my name? You know I have always wanted a water bottle personalized with my name. Then there’s some shot of people running around interviewing attendees with a headset on like they’re the air traffic control.
The speakers on stage as if they’re giving The Inaugural Address but the people in the audience look brain dead. I mean they literally look like they’re going to keel over from boredom. Even the people on the panels look brain dead.
Is this real life or are we on
another planet? Here’s the reality about what all this grandeur really comes
down to – and unfortunately it’s not much.
The reality is that people are forgetful by nature. Here’s an article from Rad Ed Asia that says that we humans forget half of what we learn within an hour, and even more by the end of the day. Do you doubt that to be true from your experience?
I recently asked a bunch of my business colleagues and most of them said they tune out after 7 minutes into a keynote speech. Yes, 7 minutes! That’s how short our attention spans are nowadays.
In my experience I’ve seen very little actually gets absorbed from these speeches. Maybe for the first session of the day but not for anything after 11 AM. Nobody listens to anyone talk for more than seven minutes without taking an iPhone break.
So if this is true, here’s what the
millions spent on conferences essentially means:
- All the money the participants spend
(airfare, hotel, time spent away from work, money spent caring for household in
their absence) does not align with value gained
- The money spent by conference
organizers is really going not to the benefits of the participants but rather
to create a forum to appease the exhibitors – the speakers and firms who
exhibit at the pavilion (booth people) – who are essentially paying for the
- Speakers are normally not paid
(unless they are Simon Sinek or a famous athlete or a Navy Seal), and as a
result they take to the podium with the sole purpose of advertising their
product (without blatantly appearing to do so). And they are very good at the art of subtly
sliding their services into the discussion. If it’s a breakout room it’s worse.
I’ll admit – in the past as a keynote I maybe fell into this. Then one day I woke up to the fact that and asked myself these questions. Are we making progress here? Is anyone really being enlightened? Am I really doing anyone any good other than myself?
It’s a glorified
Did you ever wonder why all
conferences are held in places with palm trees?
Because if it were held in Detroit
in the middle of February then nobody
would go! That’s not somewhere that anyone goes on vacation.
Admit it everyone. You go to a
conference to go on vacation. Think about what you do on vacation:
- Eat a lot of buffet
- Drink alcohol
- Take a lot of pictures
- Sit down and relax
- Walk around and look at things
- Socialize with people you don’t know and will never talk to again
- Stay in a hotel
- You can bring a friend (Ever wonder why some people travel with their spouse to these things? Because they’re tagging on a day to the beginning and end and knocking out the whole week disguised as a business trip without having to count that as their family vacation!)
Not that much difference, is there?
Look, I get it. Everyone needs a
break from life. Do you know that I honestly took a business trip one time to
get away from my ex-boyfriend? If you need to go on vacation by yourself then
just tell your spouse, pay the divorce fees, and forget about calling it a
The vacation buzz normally wears off
normally within 20 minutes of you returning back to your email account after
being gone for a week. Then you’re slugging down coffee and doughnuts barking at
your intern for not sending out the holiday party invitations on time while you
You call it networking – but it is
really just curiosity? People go to conferences for the same reason they go to
high school reunions – to see, be seen, and find out how they stack up against
the people in their peer group.
I want to see if I can meet someone powerful.
I can impress them so they’ll think I’m cool. We’ll be so BFF. Maybe I can join
the cool kids club. We can go to a secret dinner that only other cool people
Unfortunately we’ll all agree the
people you are more likely to meet are the people running around trying to meet
everyone and hand out their business card. You know, the vendors who want to
convince you to sign up for a free trial of their trading platform? As much as
you try to avoid those people most of the time that is who you end up talking to
Let me ask you this.
Would people go to conferences if
there were a quiz on each topic that they would have to answer at the end? If
you didn’t just get the CE credit but
instead had to earn the credit?
Nobody would go.
I remember I once attended a
training workshop and there was a test at the end that was reported to your
boss (who paid the workshop fee.) Well we all found out about this quiz upon
arrival and there were some people who went off the deep end. I mean, they
really lost it.
Face it. At the end of the day, what
you get out of a conference experience doesn’t warrant the time and money it
costs to go.
Here’s what I think can be done, and
that I am personally going to do as a keynote speaker, to change things in the
future. If you’re not a speaker but rather a participants or an organizer,
there are items on this list as well.
Now what I’m going to tell you is
going to cause many conferences to go out of business but I think that’s about
right. I think many conferences shouldn’t exist. There are too many and like I
said most are a waste of time. People can get their CE credits by taking online
classes if they need to.
- First of all, speakers have to be
paid. Yes, that’s right. I don’t go to a Cardi B concert because I get to see
some no name rapper who stinks whose record label paid the promoter for stage
time. Cardi B is not paying to be on stage. She is the real thing, she is who
people come to see. Give the people something to come and see and they will pay
- And how do you create that kind of a
sensation? The selection process should be more stringent. They should be selected
on the basis of the learning outcomes of their talks rather than just a pitch
with a flashy title or their reputation. They should be required to submit an
outline, a thorough point by point outline (almost like a college syllabus). If
they pitch, self refer, or describe what they do with clients during the
presentation, their pay should be withheld or reduced depending on severity.
- If you can’t afford to pay speakers,
then don’t hold a conference. Save everyone the expense and have a webinar
instead. Use technology to build your following until you get enough interest
where you can get thousands of people attending and then charge them to attend.
No more conferences with 100 people in a room. More like 10,000.
- Poll the attendees prior to the
speaker’s talk and ask the audience what points they want the speaker to cover.
Ever since I have started listening to my audience I have found that my talks
align better and engagement is much higher. Then tell the speaker to include those points
in the talk. Since you are paying the speaker you should expect them to work
for the money.
- The talks should include a periodic
review every 10 minutes. Literally have the speaker stop talking and review the
key points. When you do this, you re-engage the audience. I also started doing
this in my talks and found it made it harder to lose people.
- Each talk should have a takeaway
sheet. Now, I don’t mean some glossy big old brochure. I mean an index card. It
should be an index card with the key points of the talk printed on it for each
attendee to take home.
- Each talk should have a quiz at the
end that the speaker creates. Tests will be scored and reported to whoever paid
for the participant’s ticket.
So now that I’ve resigned as a keynote speaker of the old regime I’ll have to call myself “A keynote speaker formerly known as Sara Grillo.” Thanks for reading and please refer here if you want to hire me to speak at your event.
Rad Ed Asia. (n.d.) Why you will forget more than 50% of what you learn within an hour. And how to change that. Retrieved on August 13th, 2019 from https://radedasia.com/why-you-will-forget-more-than-half-of-what-you-learn-within-an-hour-and-how-to-change-that