The Different Types of Conference Speakers

What kind of speaker are you?
Apr | 6 | 2013

Apr | 6 | 2013


I’ve been attending and speaking at conferences for a while now. I’ve noticed over my career that speakers tend to fall into one of three buckets:

  • Sponsor
  • Practitioner
  • Professional Speaker/Thought Leader

In this post, I’ll examine each type of speaker, laying out the pros and cons of each.

Disclaimer: I fall into third bucket, although I have tried to write this post in a more informative than self-promotional manner.

Type 1: Sponsor

Most of us have attended conferences in which an organization’s VP of Marketing or CXO has taken the stage to give the keynote. From the standpoint of the conference organizer, this is entirely understandable. After all, Company XYZ has paid a sizable amount of money as a sponsor, typically with the expectation of some prime time on stage. And the “sponsor” speaker costs the conference nothing extra.

Aside from costs, many CXOs are rock stars. Speaking to large groups isn’t exactly old-hat to them. Presidents, company founders, and senior executives come with a certain amount of cache.

As a general rule, however, the sponsor comes with a pretty obvious agenda: marketing. In my experience, I find that more often than not attendees look down (at their devices), not up (at the speaker). This is not a good thing. Sponsors almost always promote their companies’ products and services, some more overtly than others. Finally, they are only speaking about their companies, and usually at a high level. They often lack a broad perspective.

Type 2: Practitioner

Practitioners are a different breed of cat. They often speak about what they themselves have done on particular projects. They rarely talk about strategy and 30,000-foot views. They’ll describe specific outcomes, challenges, and results. To be sure, attendees can learn a great deal from these folks, with the caveat that the speaker’s industry and/or project matches theirs.

On the downside, practitioners do not speak to large groups frequently, and this almost always shows. Over-reliance upon complicated slides is not uncommon, and speaker voice projection tends to be less than ideal. (Case in point: In 2010, I saw a brilliant Yahoo! scientist speak about data, but attendees’ attention waned as he presented very busy slides and rarely looked at his audience.)

Also, attendees get less out of the talks if the practitioner’s case study or examples drastically differ from their own professional lives. For instance, the ins and outs of Hadoop implementation in a retail environment probably won’t resonate very much with healthcare professionals who don’t understand the very idea of Big Data. Here, the cart is clearly before the horse.

Type 3: Professional Speaker/Thought Leader

Professionals speak for a living. As a result, they typically bring to the table more enthusiasm. They take time to prepare each talk, customizing it as necessary. They can sustain the attention of large audiences better than most.

It’s important to strike a balance between cost and quality.

Thought leaders don’t have a horse in the race; they are not there to hawk a specifically company’s wares. Some speakers focus on specific industries, but they can often bring lessons from unconventional places. For instance, MIT Blackjack team member Jeff Ma spoke at a data management conference that I attended in 2012. His gambling stories accentuated points made by other speakers, but in a very different way. In short, thought leaders tend to have a more global view than the other two types of speakers.

The primary drawback to using professionals is that we add to the overall cost of the conference. (The very definition of a professional is someone who charges for his/her services.) In the course of booking events, I’ve sometimes had to answer questions from organizers like, “How many people did you personally sign up?” I typically can’t answer that question in an accurate manner. The ROI of an individual, professional speaker is tough to discern, although I’d argue that mediocre speakers don’t auger well for future conference registration.

Simon Says

There are pros and cons to using all types of speakers. Understanding them helps conference organizers make necessary tradeoffs, striking the balance between cost and quality.


What say you?

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Receive my musings, news, and rants in your inbox as soon as they publish.


Blog E Data E Big Data E The Different Types of Conference Speakers

Related Posts

Looking for Case Studies for My Next Book

A few days ago, I announced the upcoming publication of The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace. The writing and research are going smoothly, and it's time for my regular post to solicit case studies. Make no mistake: Case studies matter and all of my...

Book Review: Wonder Boy

In 2011, I moved from NJ to Vegas. It didn't take long for me to hook up with the Vegas tech scene and the Downtown Project. Over the course of my five years in Sin City, I attended events, spoke at Zappos's HQ a few times, met plenty of smart cookies, and learned a...

Professional Scribes vs. Amateur Writers

Certain tenets apply to all vocations. The guys who play weekend hoops at the Y take a few jump shots before playing a game to eleven. They don’t practice like Steph Curry. Whether you get paid to play golf, belt out tunes, or give speeches, pros don't just wing it....


  1. Mike Taubleb

    My company works with many conference planners. For the 1-3 years after the financial crisis, many were keeping their heads down due to budget cuts and press scrutiny. As a result, they would put their executives or sponsors on stage and hope that would draw. Many have come back asking for professional speakers, often with recent books. The driving force was lower speaker evaluations, less timely content, more competition for attendees’ attention and their need to rebrand as a forum for thought leadership.

    What they saved in speaker fees, they lost in lower attendance, less sponsorships and buzz. We’re seeing smaller meetings with senior executives. It often takes an independent expert with excellent presentation and facilitation skills to make the most of them.

    Professional speakers are usually more adept at handling questions and answers – one of the best ways to engage attendees.

    They are also less likely to drop out at the last minute vs executives who don’t depend on speaking for their livelihood.

    Mike Taubleb – Promenade Speakers Bureau

    • Phil Simon

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. I’m completely with you. You get what you pay for.

  2. Paige Roberts

    I just got back from a speaking engagement at Big Data Tech Con, and saw your tweet about this post. Interesting timing as my own style as a speaker is one of the things that is in the front of my mind.

    I met Steve Sarsfield for the first time in person at the con. We were both speaking in the 5 minute lightning talks on the first day that were all done by sponsors. After my speech, he made a comment that my speech was more like a thought leader speech, which I took as a compliment. I got several compliments from folks about that speech, so apparently it went over well.

    Then I spent a couple of days standing at the Actian booth and answering questions about the product, which was definitely sponsor style speaking, even though it was mostly one on one, so each conversation was unique to what that person was interested in.

    Then I taught a class on the third day on cooperative analytics architectures. I’ve been an implementer at my company, and at a couple of other companies over the years, and I found that was the mindset I tapped into when I was speaking. When you’re talking about how to make good architecture choices, you have to think like the person who needs to build it. What problem are you solving, what latencies do you need, what SLA’s do you have to meet, what infrastructure does the customer already have, that sort of thing. If I had spent a fair amount of energy talking about my company’s products, those guys would have left.

    As usual, I look at the boxes, and feel like I don’t fit in any of them, or maybe I fit in all of them, depending on the need.

    That was a bit introspective, but I doubt I’m the only one who fits into multiple categories, or who tailors their speaking style and content based on the situation. Nearly every thought leader that I know has been, at some point, a spokesperson for a company, and most have also been implementers at some point. That’s where they got the experience in the field to become thought leaders.

    One thing I think it is important to remember when someone offers you a speaking engagement, even if you’re a commercial sponsor, is that no one travels to a conference to listen to a commercial. And boring people, or annoying them, rarely makes them want to buy your products. If you’re speaking, your primary job is to communicate something that the audience will find interesting and useful. If you’re deciding who will speak, (without going broke, of course) your primary job is to pick people who will give the audience something interesting and useful.


    • Phil Simon

      Agreed. The categories are general by design.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *