5 Conference Speakers That Can Kill a Conference

If you have ever planned a conference – or even just attended one – you know that one of the key elements that can make or break the event is the quality of the speakers you book. Get great speakers delivering great content, and attendees are happy (and rave to others and come back the next year). Use “less than good” speakers and you have wasted people’s time and hurt your credibility for future events.

Here are five conference speakers that can kill a conference. When you go to book your next speaker, make sure you don’t use one of them!

1) The Winger

The Winger is usually an industry leader or expert who feels the he doesn’t need to prepare. He can just “wing it.” He has so much experience and knowledge that he can just get up and start talking and everyone will love it. Sadly, that rarely works.

I considered calling this person “the Rambler,” or “the Incoherent Babbler,” because that’s what their presentation ends up sounding like. Even if the Winger has good content and good delivery, without a little bit of preparation the presentation usually lacks structure and direction. Without structure and direction, the audience is left wondering, “where is this going?” or “what the heck is he talking about?”

A common version of of The Winger is the speaker who takes their normally longer presentation and tries to fit it in to a shorter time span with no preparation. They don’t change their slides, don’t edit their content, and don’t think in advance about which points they will drop and which they will keep.

For example, I once saw a speaker do the opening one hour keynote, and at the start of the speech she said, “this is usually a three hour workshop, so I am going to skip over some stuff.” By “skip over some stuff” she evidently meant that she would literally skip over slides. She couldn’t be bothered to simply remove some of the slides in advance.

I may step on some toes here, but if you do this you are disrespecting the client, the event, and your audience. You have been asked to speak; that is both a privilege and a responsibility. Take fifteen minutes to think about your presentation and pull out the unneeded slides. Your materials are not that good; you can cut stuff. I’ve also been in the industry long enough to know that some people will intentionally do this with their slides so that the audience will get a glimpse of what is being skipped over. That way they will be enticed to

  1. Hire them back or
  2. Buy their products.

If you do that, you are doing a disservice to your audience by putting “future selling” over “effective speaking.”  If you’re any good, you don’t need those cheap tactics.

The sad thing is that since the Winger is often an industry or company leader, everyone wants to kiss up. As a result, no one ever says:

  1. “Hey! You need to prepare for this.”
  2. Or afterward, “Hey! That was terrible! Next time, prepare.”

If you are booking a speaker:

  • Spend a few minutes on the phone and ask the presenter what they will cover. You don’t need the full program, but if they can’t share a few key points they will cover then they may be a Winger.
  • Ask for bullets or “learning objectives” in their program description to force them to think through their program in advance (at least a little bit)

If you are a speaker:

  • Spend a little time planning your talk. Even if you like to be “extemporaneous,” at least spend some time thinking through the key points you’d like to cover and the overall timing of the session.
  • Update your Powerpoint so it matches the talk you are about to give.

2) The PowerPoint Assassin

So deadly, he can kill with his bare hands. Or a PowerPoint presentation

Speaking of preparing…

Here’s a sad fact: most non-professional speakers interpret “preparing” for their talk as “putting together my PowerPoint.” Here’s a sadder fact: A lot of professional speakers do the same thing.

PowerPoint is like a hammer: it’s just a tool. If you use a hammer properly to pound in a nail, it’s a great and effective tool. If you use it improperly, say to open a tightly sealed jar of Maraschino Cherries, then it’s kind of a liability. In the same way, good PowerPoint can enhance a speech. Bad PowerPoint – by far the more common version – will kill your audience. It’s all in how you use it.

The PowerPoint Assassin is the most common conference killer you will come across. She will create slide after slide of boring, boring text and bullet points. Then she’ll read the slide. Then at some point she will pull up a slide with ridiculously small text and say, “you probably can’t read this, but it says,…” and then proceed to read that slide.

Some people love their PowerPoint, but they have no idea how to use it effectively.

If you are booking a speaker:

  • Pay close attention to videos of the speaker and get a sense of whether they are having a conversation or if they are “reading.”
  • Send speakers the two links below in advance as “helpful tips”
  • Ask the speaker to send you a slide deck from a previous presentation (PDF would be fine here too). Many speakers hate sending slides in advance, but if you can get them to send you a sample from a recent program you can get a sense of how “text-heavy” their slides are.

If you are a speaker:

  • Create your entire presentation first, without PowerPoint. Then go back and add the visuals.
  • Read this page. And check out this site. Very helpful.

3) The Fluffologist

The Fluffologist is the speaker who doesn’t really say anything. He kind of throws out some cliches, some platitudes, and plenty of quotes. You know, lots of “fluff.”

His sagacious “wisdom” will include one or more of the following:

  1. Fables that have been etched into millions of plaques sold at Hallmark stores everywhere
  2. Quotes from ancient philosophers
  3. Tales from the Bible, other spiritual texts, or from “the Native American Tradition” (even if they are not Native American)
  4. Motivational sports lines
  5. Stories of other, more experienced, more successful, more effective speakers and business leaders (attributed or not!)

Nothing wrong with any of these (well, except number 5…), but if that’s all your speech has, you just might be a Fluffologist.

Also, the Fluffologist will usually not have read the original work, will be taking the quote out of context, and will probably be using it in a way it was not meant to be used…

Note: the Fluffologist is not to be confused with a good motivational, inspirational, or humorous speaker. In a lot of ways, the Fluffologist is trying to be one of those, but really just doesn’t have the chops or experience to pull it off.

You actually don’t need to book the Fluffologist to speak to your group. My friend and Marketing Speaker, David Newman has created a video with all the fluffy quotes you could ever want:

If you are booking a speaker:

  • Ask for a few “action items” that the audience can implement after the program. If they struggle to come up with anything other than platitudes, they may be a Fluffologist.
  •  Be critical when looking at materials and proposals. They content may sound great and appropriate for your group, but if are pretty sure you could find the same thing said the same way in other places, they may not have a very original take.

If you are a speaker:

  • Come up with your own material. Mine your own life and experiences for stories, as opposed to telling great stories you have come across elsewhere. No matter how “perfect” they are.
  • Have real “content.” Make sure you give the audience tangible things they can do as a result of listening to your talk.

4) The Beaker

The Beaker is named after arguably the greatest Muppets character of all time:

You know, the one who only says, “Me me me me me me me me me me me me…”

The Beaker spends her entire time telling you about how awesome she is. She is successful, you are not, and now you are going to hear all about it. It’s like being on a first date where the other person goes on and on about all the stuff in their life but never asks you a question about yours…And then doesn’t even make the token offer to chip in for the bill…And then doesn’t kiss you goodnight…And then doesn’t return phone calls…(I’m speaking hypothetically of course, not from any personal experience…)

Generally, people are asked to speak because they are successful at something and the conference planner wants them to share their experiences. However, there is a fine line between sharing your experience and sounding like a blowhard. If you can actually feel your head growing as you speak, you’ve crossed that line.

If you are booking a speaker:

  • Don’t ignore your gut when having initial calls with potential speakers. If someone seems a little self-centered in advance, it’s probably not goig to get much better when they come to speak.
  • Carefully vet their website and/or proposal. If it’s mostly about how the audience will benefit, that’s a good sign. If it’s about how great they are, you might have a Beaker on your hands.

If you are a speaker:

  • If you’re going to talk about how awesome you are, keep it short and make sure to give the audience plenty of info on what they can do to achieve the same results.
  • Unless your name is Martin Yan do not use any variation on the phrase, “if I can do it, you can to!” Don’t. Just…Don’t.
  • If you want to talk about yourself, tell us about how you messed up and what you learned from it. Don’t be afraid to tell us how much you messed up. They probably already know.

5) The Anti-Gump

Forrest Gump was a fictional movie character who had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The Anti-Gump, therefore, is a speaker who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. (yes, I realize that you math and grammar nerds are going to point out how “wrong place at the wrong time” is a double negative and not exactly the opposite of “right place at the right time.” To you I say: It’s my blog. Get a life, nerd…)

Not every speaker is right for every occasion. A great speaker in front of the wrong group will fail 9 times out of 10. Celine Dion is one of the biggest most successful singers in the world, but if she were to be the opening act for AC/DC, there’d be some trauma. Some serious trauma.

And yes, I specifically chose Celine Dion and AC/DC for that example so I would have an excuse to include this clip:

The point is, if you put a speaker in front of a group that isn’t right for them, the audience will be bored or annoyed. And the planners will have no idea what happened.

If you are booking a speaker:

  • Don’t look at potential speakers in a vacuum. Think through whether their style and message will fit your group.
  • Pay close attention to the time slots you are trying to fill. I have seen some presenters who would have otherwise done well but they were in a bad time-slot for their content and style.

If you are a speaker:

  • Spend some time thinking about what kinds of audiences are good and bad fits for you.
  • Learn as much as you can about the group and the environment. Don’t be afraid to say no. Remember, it’s better to say “no,” than to be the Anti-Gump.

So the next time you are planning to put on or preparing to speak at a conference, keep these five conference killers in mind. Your attendees will thank you…


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