Skift Take

This is not your grandfather's keynote. Choosing the right speaker to engage an audience is more complex than ever before. And that's a good thing.

The days of booking a famous name to deliver a canned speech full of platitudes to a conference or meeting are long gone — at least for gatherings that want to succeed long term.

Today’s speakers need to be armed with some savvy skills if they hope to hold the attention of an increasingly diverse and often global audience. And woe is the booker who ignores potential political minefields.

Sheldon Senek, executive vice president of Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau, which books a huge stable of superstar speakers, including Suze Orman, Jon Kotter, Barbara Corcoran and Bob Woodward, said the key is to understand your client.

“With political pundits, you know what side of the fence they’re on, and groups hiring those speakers know what they’re getting in to,” Senek said. “Corporate groups may not want hot buttons pushed, and most speakers are aware of their audience. For example, Laura Schwartz, the former White House director of events under President Clinton, her presentations aren’t political at all, and she has made a point to be both professional and personally non-partisan,” said Senek, adding that Schwartz focuses her presentations on the power of networking.

On the other hand, Senek noted that certain groups might bring in a political person to explain how a policy decision or new piece of legislation will affect their industry. He said he hasn’t seen a shift to more or less political speakers since the election, but that there may be a shift in the next few months if there are changes in legislation, social and world issues, or the economy.

For now, the buzzword is different, according to Debi Scholar, a strategic meetings and management coach with 20 years experience in the field.

“No matter which colleague I’m talking to, and I’ve talked to a lot of meeting planners in the industry, they all say, ‘We want a really great speaker, but not a talking head. We want something different.’ That’s where it’s a challenge,” Scholar said.

Scholar said that speakers, moderators and facilitators have to have many more skills than in the past, adding that a TED Talk is different from a role-playing exercise or a talking head. There are also generational differences to take into account.

“If nothing else, they should consider how the three generations (Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials) absorb content. In some industries there may be a fourth generation – Traditionalists, who came before Boomers.”

Beyond that, Scholar says that conferences and meetings are much more interactive than in previous eras, and speakers need to not only be tech-savvy, but culturally sensitive.

“Good speakers have to engage with the audience a lot more than in the past. Our attention span is shrinking and we are multitasking. It’s critically important to engage the audience and make them part of the speech, rather than just talking at them,” Scholar said.

Speakers are now required to understand how to integrate different engagement activities, such as audience response surveys and Q&As, throughout their talks, and Scholar noted the growing popularity of virtual and hybrid meetings.

“You’re at a conference today, and the first thing you do is download a mobile app to your phone. So, you’re interacting with the speaker, and the speaker may be answering questions throughout the discussion. The speech may also be broadcast to four or five locations around the world, and those attendees want to participate, too. The speaker needs to direct content to the entire audience and be highly engaging,” Scholar said.

Being an effective speaker to multiple audiences in various global locations requires an awareness and finesse that speakers of yesteryear may not have possessed. For example, English may not always be the first language of attendees, so the speaker needs to be careful of the types of words used, Scholar advised.

For Chloé Langevin, vice president of partnerships for C2 Montreal, an annual business conference designed to spark innovation and creativity, it’s all about disruption.

“We want speakers who both challenge C2’s own point of view and the way leaders see their role as heads of organizations,” Langevin said. “Our mission is to transform the way leaders see creativity, so we choose speakers who use creativity to transform business, and those who will help others see their biases and perceptions.”

Langevin said there are three factors she takes into consideration for C2. They’re looking at who is a disrupter, who can be provocative and think differently. Secondly, they are looking for innovators. For instance, she mentioned chef Massimo Bottura, owner of Osteria, ranked as the world’s best restaurant in 2015, for his innovative approach to using the food waste from Expo 2015 in Milan to create a soup kitchen. Lastly, speakers must have a very clear fit with their theme.

“This year, our theme is about eco-systems, so we’ve gone and chosen some thought-leaders who align. Linda Boff, for example, the CMO of GE. Their entire positioning is about the eco system, and getting people to embrace imagination to transform the world. We share this point of view and it aligns well with our theme: it makes perfect sense,” Langevin said.

She said that C2 is not a political conference, so she is not seeking political leaders, but added that the political landscape helps define their point of view.

“In our post-truth world, there is a rise in cynicism. We see our purpose as resetting imagination to unleash progress. We will use imagination and creativity to unleash progress again. The political climate has reinforced our point of view and perception that the best agents of change on which we can have an impact are business leaders,” Langevin said.


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Tags: meetings and events

Photo credit: The audience at C2 Montreal -- the best speakers today are those who know how to engage with their audiences and balance cultural sensitivity with interactivity. Arianne Bergeron / C2 Montreal

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