The Eloquent Speaker

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

For several weeks now I’ve been watching YouTube clips to create a short list of potential keynote speakers for my 2016 Users Conference. I’m searching for inspiration, leadership, outstanding achievement and above all—eloquence. I also need to strike a chord and relate to the 400 people sitting in my audience. I’m coming up short.

After listening to nearly 100 clips, it’s clear many of the speakers have less than stellar speaking skills.  They lack the eloquence their price tag speaks to; especially the business leaders and most especially the women.  I’ve listened to CEOs, astronauts, athletes, military heroes and most recently Chelsea Sullenberger, the pilot who put his plane down in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds.

So far they have three things in common: they’re very expensive, I’ve never heard of most of them, and many are mediocre speakers—with the exception of Captain Sullenberger. Sully is eloquent, well-known, and comes with a $50,000 fee plus first-class expenses for two. Before his ordeal he was an unknown pilot. Now he’s a hero (deservedly so) and on the speaking circuit. That $55K buys me 45 minutes.

After listening to nearly 100 clips, it’s clear many of the speakers have less than stellar speaking skills. They lack the eloquence their price tag speaks to; especially the business leaders and most especially the women. I hate to dis the sisterhood, but the truth is the women just don’t measure up. They are less polished than their male counterparts (though topically relevant), peppering their talks with ums, ahs, awkward pauses and way too much hand and body motion.

What Makes a Speaker Great?

I realize not everyone is born with the gift of public speaking. All of the great speakers were at one time not so great. Greatness requires a commitment to one’s craft. I accept that some will be better than others, but if you are represented by an agent, charging many thousands of dollars plus expenses to speak your 45-minute piece—well, you need to be really good. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

I realize not everyone is born with the gift of public speaking.  All of the great speakers were at one time not so great.  Greatness requires a commitment to one’s craft. I have a small budget when it comes to speakers, it tops out at $30K. You don’t get much for $30K; retired athletes and one-hit wonders fall into this price range.  Some of them are good, but they speak to a very specific audience type which narrows the field, and often to accomplishments that occurred decades ago.  Millennials won’t know what they are talking about.

I dream big. I want someone to entertain, inspire and motivate, and do it all with relatable, slightly self-deprecating humor and verbal brilliance. And I want them to do it within my budget.

What Makes an Eloquent Speaker?

This got me thinking – what makes an eloquent speaker?  A recognized name helps, but it’s not a guarantee. First and foremost they have to be able to speak well.  A poor speaker, no matter how interesting the topic or accomplishment will lose the attention of an audience. World-class keynote speakers are rare and cost a lot of money. Mediocre keynote speakers are common and dreaded by conference attendees everywhere.

With a great keynote speaker there’s an instantaneous emotional and mental connection, a stage presence, with tangible energy. The audience sits up and pays attention. They want to listen.

First and foremost they have to be able to speak well.  A poor speaker, no matter how interesting the topic or accomplishment will lose the attention of an audience.  To start with, speakers are selling their subject matter expertise on a particular idea. They are trying to convince you to think and act differently. That comes from the inside, with a real passion and belief for what they are saying. I listen for unique, spontaneous storytelling abilities wrapped around inspiration and motivation.

I want my audience to walk away with two or three actionable concepts—things they can relate to and incorporate into their everyday lives. If they can’t do that, the keynote speaker has failed.

And that’s the most important point of all—being a good speaker at conferences and events is like being a great performer. You need to know your material, intuitively understand your audience, and bring something unique to the table.

The Value of Entertainment

A good public speaker pays attention to the audience. Authenticity takes a speaker from rehearsed repetition to engaging an audience in the journey, unifying them with a relatable message. If you want to hold their attention, you have to build a relationship with them.

There is value in humor. Properly timed, humor and anecdotes will lend credibility to the message. Misplaced or poorly chosen humor can be deadly; with little opportunity for recovery. Speakers who think they are funny had better be, or they will be laughing alone.

The best keynote speakers use minimal props and let their words take center stage. Video, properly time and relevant, brings a presentation to life. Power point is a horrible thing to put an audience through and I will not allow it at my conference keynotes. For the record I am biased—I love an Australian accent.

The Differentiators

  • Presence: Own the stage, let them feel the power of what you have to say.
  • Humor: Know how to use it and make it work.  Timing is everything.
  • Imbedded Knowledge: No props needed, know what you know, apply it well.
  • Relatable Experience: Draw the audience in and make them believe.
  • Passion: You can’t fake it.  When it’s not there, it’s a deal breaker for everyone.

I have found one exception that most often applies to speakers new to the circuit.  The potential is there, they just need more experience. At a recent college commencement I attended, the featured keynote was a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Her speaking skills were rough around the edges, but her message of embracing all that life offers no matter the circumstances resonated with every graduate in the room. She was her own best proof of concept.  Her presence and passion for life were genuine and tangible. She held the audience with warmth, humor and hope.

I am heading back to my on line research, armed with ear buds and hope for one amazing keynote speaker that will…speak to me.

1 thought on “The Eloquent Speaker

  1. “You don’t get much for $30K”
    Actually, you do but the problem is you need to look for an international speaker. The American speaking industry has matured to the point of un-affordability whereas recognized international speakers can be had for a fee that is well within your budget.

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