The Vicious Cycle of Conference Mediocrity

Skimping on speaker expenses is a near surefire way to leave attendees wanting.
Jul | 22 | 2015

Jul | 22 | 2015



Think about the last five proper conferences that you attended. (Forget Meetups.)

I’ll wait.

How many of them were actually worth your time and the expense? (Forget for a moment if your company footed the bill.)

Again, I’ll wait.

How many of those conferences really wowed you?

I’d be willing to bet that that number is two or fewer.

I’ll also wager that the largest problem with these conferences wasn’t the venue. I doubt that your biggest gripe was the quality of the food or the beverages. You probably weren’t happy with the Wifi, but that alone is unlikely to completely sour the event for you. Ditto if you didn’t get enough time to network.

Nope, in my experience, the fundamental problem with conferences typically lies with the people on stage. Bad speakers make for bad conferences, and I’m hardly the only one who thinks as much.

Here’s an important corollary: Great and even really good speakers almost always negate the effects of lousy accoutrements.

To wit, nobody has ever said the following:

  • “I learned a great deal from the conference speakers but wouldn’t return because the coffee was lousy.”
  • “Although the speakers bored the hell out of me, I can’t wait to come back. The coffee and lunch were amazing!”

Asking the Big Question

If you believe—as I do—that quality speakers are part and parcel to a satisfying conference, then riddle me this: Why are so many people on stage so mediocre? Put differently, why do conference organizers routinely place so little emphasis on the most important aspect of their events?

While the specifics vary among conferences, the answer usually isn’t rocket surgery: Many conferences lack the funds to hire proper (read: professional) speakers. Many organizers attempt to lure dynamic professional speakers with the vague promise of “exposure”, expenses covered, and the opportunity to sell books from the back of the room. Few if any established orators will go for this, though. With anything in life, though, you get what you pay for.

Unable to catch the big or even medium fish, conference organizers often resort to Plan B. They try to fill their speaking and panel slots with a combination of the following:

  • Calls for talks (read: speakers are chosen via some formal vetting process)
  • Volunteers
  • Employees from sponsors

Speakers are no exception. As with anything in life, you get what you pay for.

Is this understandable on several levels? Of course. From the standpoint of the conference organizer, the speaking slots are filled. (Check that box.) What’s more, some amateur speakers are actually quite good, but make no mistake: the average professional public speaker trumps the average amateur any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It’s not even close.

The unwillingness of many conference organizers to bring in true professionals results in the following vicious cycle:


Let’s say that you’re thinking about attending an upcoming conference. Consider the following two options:

  • Option A: $1,000 for a truly valuable two- or three-day conference staffed by informative and provocative speakers.
  • Option B$600 for a mediocre conference with a few decent speakers—and a bunch of terrible ones.
  • Option C: Go to neither.

Which one appeals to you more? I’d bet that you or your manager would pay 67 percent more for Option B. Why waste the time and money on Option A? In fact, I’d rank them as follows: A, C, B.

In case you’re wondering what a bad speaker looks like, see below.

Click to embiggen.

The horrible slide and willingness to turn his back on the audience are telltale signs of an amateur speaker.

Simon Says: How to Break the Cycle

Look, few conferences can break the bank and bring in rock stars like Malcolm Gladwell (rumored to get $80,000 per speech). Economics is about scarcity and choices. Think about this next time you’re planning a conference.

Make attendees buy their own booze. Charge a little bit more. Find another way of making the numbers work without skimping on speaker expenses. It’s a near surefire way to leave attendees wanting.


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  1. Wayne Turmel

    Phil, while paying big bucks for a big name is no guarantee of quality, paying NO bucks is a good way to ensure mediocrity. A professional is by definition, someone who gets paid for their expertise and experience. If you want a great audience experience, and someone who will be low-maintenance to work with, you need to find people with a proven track record, and pay them for their expertise. When faced with bookers who tell me, “We don’t pay because this is excellent exposure for your business,” I have to remind them as a Canadian, the first thing we learn is, you can DIE from exposure. Thanks for the post.

  2. Phil Simon

    Well put, Wayne. No argument here.

  3. Mark A. Cenicola

    Most of the conferences I’ve attended recently have had mediocre speakers. I’m now judging conferences by the food and beverage. 2 out of 3 were great. Plus, I’ve found the networking better around good food and drink. Maybe there’s causation.


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