Social media speakers: A dime a dozen?

Over the last few months, I’ve been a part of a number of social media-based events. I spoke at the first-ever WordCamp here in Minneapolis last weekend (great event, by the way). I spoke to the APR study group for the local MN PRSA chapter (on the subject of social media/technology). I organized and introduced speakers at BlogWorld last month. I spoke on a panel with Bob Brin, Tyler Olson, John Bernier and Kate Madonna-Hines at a Tech.MN event in October.

At WordCamp, they had more than 30 speakers. BlogWorld? More than 100.

And there are a number of industry events across the Twin Cities–and country–each week. Just check the hash tags on Twitter. In fact, there are a number of events running just within the social media/PR industry on any given day.

This over-abundance of conferences and events has led me to one question recently: Is speaking at these kinds of events still a credibility builder?

I only ask because with so many opportunities, is it really a differentiator anymore? After all, if everyone’s a speaker, then can it really build that much credibility?

Here’s what I see happening. With the explosion of events and speaking opportunities, we now have people speaking who may be subject matter experts, but they’re not great speakers. To be completely honest, I probably fall in this group. Do I know my subject matter? I think so. Am I an engaging, off-the-charts I-have-to-see-this-guy-talk speaker? Not as much as I’d like to think (OK fine, I’m not. Period.).

And, I’m definitely not alone.

In fact, I can probably count the number of speakers that I’ve found entertaining, engaging AND educational on one hand (Peter Shankman remains one of the best public speakers I’ve seen in our space–hands down). Literally.

So, I guess my question to you today is two-fold:

* Does speaking really matter as a credibility builder anymore since there are so many opportunities?

* Is the art of public speaking slowly disappearing?

Would love your thoughts.

Note: Photo courtesy of TECHdotMN via FlickR Creative Commons.

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38 comments on “Social media speakers: A dime a dozen?

  1. Is the art of public speaking disappearing? On the contrary! I think the things you outlined — the proliferation of conferences, events, webinars, chats, etc. — is exactly why public speaking is such a big deal.

    Think about it: If the demand for “content” for these events is so great and the pool of engaging speakers is so shallow, now is a perfect time for stars to emerge! The speaker’s podium is the new public market, and it works just like any market: The cream rises to the top and wins the repeat business.

    Not everybody’s a dynamic speaker, but that’s okay. We’re lucky to live in a time when so many people — regardless of orating skills — are contributing to a public discourse.

  2. As someone who puts on an event 3-4 times per year (Minnesota Recruiters) I find speakers depending on the style of event. If it is half a day with 3 speakers and each gets 50 minutes then yes, content and speaking ability matter. If it is small group, unconference, peer to peer learning then content matters and speaking ability can slide a bit. In those sessions it is much more about sharing, Q&A and conversations than the presentation itself.

    Is the “art” dying? Sort of. More people doing it with less skill hurts it for sure but I am seeing rates of the pros going up.

    Maybe our worlds are a bit different.

    In the HR and Recruiter world it is still (mostly) about results and track record. Where have you worked, what have you done still matter.

    The Social Media world may not yet have a way to “prove” who has done what they are talking about and achieved results.

  3. Nancy Lyons says:

    I think you are asking two questions here – is the art of public speaking disappearing? And is the social media space saturated with mediocre public speakers? Ok you didn’t ask that second question, but that’s what I read into your post.

    I think that speaking in public really is one of the hardest things anyone ever does. Trying to connect with an audience takes real skill and practice. We only get practice from actual experiences – and since the discipline is still emerging so are the speakers. And they are practicing on us. I do think those of us in the field might be a bit more discerning of who we look to for expertise. While people outside of the social media vacuum may not be so lucky. I worry about those folks that are still trying to hop on the cluetrain. They know that social is what they should be learning about, but they don’t have enough information to determine the real teachers. You don’t need a pedigree to be a social media ‘expert’ – you need only be doing it, or have a ton of followers, or be very prolific on your blog. I know plenty of professionals who called themselves something else entirely just a year or two ago.

    I think we can expect experience and a real history with the subject matter from our speakers. Not just followers – but proven methodology. Real strategic thinking. Maybe even, *gasp* results. And beyond that I think we need to be sharing information about speakers, their style, their level of engagement with their audience.

    As a public speaker I struggle with how to differentiate. The Geek Girls Guide is not a gimmick. We have a real mission and a real chemistry between the two of us that (we hope) allows us to be inclusive and familiar. But we aren’t just social media. Since that’s all anyone is talking about right now we tend to get included in that very wide, very deep pool. We have a passion for technology and for people and we have been doing this for 15 years. Beyond word of mouth, though, how do you impress that kind of real experience and enthusiasm on potential opportunities? So far, from what I’ve seen – more often than should be the case – getting booked at conferences is more about who you know than what you know. You make one solid, industry leading connection and you are set.

    I could go on and on – but my answers to your questions – the one you asked and the one you didn’t are – no the art of public speaking is being rediscovered. That doesn’t mean all of the speakers are great. It just means they are speaking. And – is the social media space suddenly saturated with ‘experts’ on the speaker circuit? – yes. Everyone’s an expert. They may not be practitioners or have any clients – but they are experts. Unfortunately, people booking conferences are still so green they don’t know the difference, and that is where we all lose.

  4. Arik Hanson says:

    I respectfully disagree. It’s the *quality* of speaking that’s hurting now. Again–not so much the content. It’s the style. But, that’s a BIG piece of public speaking, isn’t it? I agree, this is the time for stars to emerge. And, we’re seeing that with Shankman and folks like Amber Naslund. And, I’m not sure I agree with the “not everyone’s a dynamic speaker and that’s okay” comment either. Again, it’s about content AND style. Without the style, couldn’t I just read their blog? And, I’ll agree, it’s great to have so many voices contributing to the discourse–I just don’t want to see them all up at the podium up in front of 300 people. That’s all.

  5. I have thoughts. I loved wordcampmsp. It wasn’t about being entertained for me. The speakers I listened to did a great job educating me. They gave me something special. Knowledge almost for free and I thank them all for volunteering. I also spoke. I am not a social media expert and I wasn’t there to sell anything and the event will probably not impact my business at all other than the fact that it got me behind on a couple of things that I need to get out. Halfway through the day I met someone in the hallway and she said that my presentation inspired her. That was my goal. I helped her just like the presenters I learned from helped me. I need the mental stimulation that these conferences provide and I need the conversation and the social aspects. By speaking I feel as though I am giving something back. I am not a professional speaker but I go that extra mile to engage my audience and put a lot of effort into making it about them and not about me. What could be better than inspiring someone else?

  6. Arik Hanson says:

    Good point, Paul. The smaller sessions do demand a slightly different skill set. I was more referring to some of the larger speaking opportunities.

    I think you’re right about the social media landscape, too. Still trying to figure out who the great speakers are. The other issue at play as it relates to social media marketing/digital, is we see the same speakers pop up over and over again. Need to find a way to identify the up-and-coming and emerging speakers in our marketplace.

  7. Lisa Peters says:

    I thought you were a fine public speaker. And I’d still love it if you ran your full list of 24 ways to feed the blog beast. I wandered into your presentation in the middle. Thanks!

  8. oh and thank you for speaking. I attended your session and for me it is pretty basic but I never heard you speak before so I went. I did have an important take away and that is about conversations on blogs. My blog used to have conversations but I don’t pay enough attention. You gave me something to work on. I enjoyed your session. For me it was full of reminders of things I used to know but forgot over the years.

  9. Steph says:

    In this girl’s opinion, I think it’s going to be different for different people. I’ve heard dynamic speakers who offer absolutely no value in content. I went to a conference earlier this year where the speaker (she was dynamic) swore, used tech. jargon etc and (obviously) thought she was pretty special. The problem was that she offered no valueable content. To be a professional speaker (IMO) you need to know your audience, know your topic, share information that may help others (like Theresa above) and if you are lucky or blessed enough add some pizazz. I go to conferences to learn from the industry experts who can share ideas/ information that have helped them succeed and may help me with my business. But, I do my due diligence. I don’t just attend a conference based on the “flashiness” (is that a word?) of it. I research speakers, read their bios, check out their work, find their results (if available) then determine whether it will offer any value to my me/my position/my businesss. I’ve heard some very boring speakers before, but if they are able to offer up content that will help me advance my learning/my business, then (for me) it doesn’t matter. Again, that’s just my approach. What I find the most difficult is weeding through all of the “experts” who are crowding the playing field. We are living in the age of self-promotion, so the information I’d offer up is do your homework 🙂 Thanks for the post (and bummed to have missed the Wordcamp).

  10. Wow – Thank you, Arik! I’m flattered!!

  11. ANSHUL GUPTA says:

    Good thoughts!

  12. Lisa Grimm says:

    Speaking absolutely matters in what appears to be a saturated environment (I share your opinion). What I often forget and have to come back to is that there are far more audiences than we’re aware of. Sure, we see the same faces on the event/speaker circuit, but there are also the ones we don’t recognize, from different walks, places, industries, etc. I think that strategy behind content and event choice has so much to do with this. There are likely events or ‘markets,’ if you will, that you’ve already tapped and if you continue speaking there it almost works more against you than it does for you. It’s all about branding, the choices you make and what your message is. The other thing I think we often forget is how small the world of social is, from the perspective of digital folk. Sure, ‘social media’ has a gazillion users worldwide, but they don’t think about it like we do. They think about it from a ‘how can I see pics of my family, the party I was at and rant about meaningless things that matter to me.’ There are so many opportunities because from a business standpoint people are desperately trying to figure out ‘social media marketing’ and the term ‘expert’ means something entirely different in our business because of its revolutionary and fast-paced nature. There are the digital elite and then a bunch of ‘experts,’ some of which have only been doing digital for three years. Thanks for making me think about ‘stuff’ Hanson:-)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Interesting post, Arik. Let’s look at it this way. If I were to go see Amber Naslund speak, for example, a couple things would work against me. 1) Her accessibility because everyone will swarm around her after the event, and 2) the way her material is presented: how will I be able to share it? I think we’ve now entered an age where following event hashtags to engage in discussions and replying to questions via Twitter or blogs is much more valuable — because it’s more ACCESSIBLE. If Amber was to share her presentation via SlideShare or Scrib’d — Voila, I can share it quickly and with insightful comment. Plus, not sure if you’ve noticed but people who tweet from events is an irritant to many on Twitter as compared to people who just follow events and reply when they see fit.

    I seldom go to events anymore, unless they’re association networking opportunities like Minnesota PRSA or IABC. That, or someone I know personally invites me.

  14. A good question to ask the “cool kids” is who would they want to hear speak. Or who do they follow in a tier “below” them? Maybe they can help find the “up-and-coming and emerging” that we all want to hear from.

  15. I love this post…I’ve been wondering this myself lately, from the perspective of, “How many more ‘social media experts’ can I listen to a lecture from?” I’m a PR student and every conference I attend has several speakers…generally only one of which I enjoy. I agree with Teresa, that it’s not about being entertained. It’s about learning something I didn’t know before I got there. I “bought” that information with my registration, and if it’s generic things I already knew, I often feel as though I “didn’t get my money’s worth.”

    I have heard countless speakers cover the generic brush-over of how to use social media right down to the “what a hashtag is” nitty-gritty. I do, however, think that part of that is necessary. The best speakers I have enjoyed have told me something I didn’t know, in the context of something I did know and the practical application and integration from there. Good luck!

  16. Arik Hanson says:

    Very fair and solid, points, Teresa. I think we definitely agree on the inspiration angle. Also one of the reasons I enjoy speaking. And, of course, folks are in it for the eduction. Me, too. One reason I attended WordCamp this weekend was to get smarter about the technical side of WordPress.

    But, the entertainment factor during presentations is big for me. I’m ADD in many ways at events. Since my computer is usually open (I know, that’s the first problem, right?) during these events I’m inclined to start following Twitter or checking my email if the speaker loses me early on. And despite what others may say, I KNOW I’m not alone there. Come clean, people.

    So, style is big. But, you know what, it’s not even just style. It’s confidence. I think back to the Ignite event earlier this year (still one of my faves of the year). Meghan Wilker gave a prezo about Bollywood. I had no idea what Bollywood was, but she got up there with a ton of confidence and rocked it. She had great energy. And, she kept my attention. So, maybe for me it’s more about energy and creativity. But, I guess I equate that with style in many ways. Interesting discussion though. Thanks for chiming in!

  17. Arik Hanson says:

    I always say if I come away from an event with one small nugget of information I can put to use for my clients, it was worth it. So, yes, education is definitely important. But again, the way in which you deliver those nuggets has to count. Storytelling is a big piece of that, for example. Think back to the presentations that really rocked your world–I bet one of the reasons you remember those folks is because they told great stories.

  18. Arik Hanson says:

    I think you actually highlighted my point for me, Tim. And Amber’s a great example. I can LEARN all I need from Amber because she’s so great at sharing online (blog posts, Twitter, presentations, etc.). But, I would pay to go SEE her present because she’s funny. Engaging. And she tells great stories (at least what I’ve seen of her). She’s actually one of the speakers that really nails is–great content with a style that’s engaging.

    On the flip side, I completely disagree with the notion of attending fewer and fewer real life events. Most of the relationships I’ve worked so hard to build may have started on Twitter, but they never really matured to the next level until I met that person in real life. And, more often than not, that happened at industry events (locally and nationally).

  19. Arik Hanson says:

    Coming tomorrow or Wed. Thanks for stopping by, Lisa.

  20. Arik Hanson says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Nancy. You made two interesting points that I want to expand on for just a moment:

    * This notion that getting booked for conferences is more bout who you know than what you know. Bingo. But, is that always a bad thing? Having sat in the organizer seat twice in the last three months, I can tell you I relied on personal connections heavily. I had to. Did I make a few mistakes? Yep. But, did I learn from them? Absolutely. I’ll be reconsidering a few things a bit differently for the MN Blogger Conference and BlogWorld (if I have the opportunities) again next year.

    * You talked about differentiation. For me, there are two things that set apart “OK” speakers from “can’t miss” speakers: 1) Results/Data (as you mentioned), and 2) Energy. For example, we both saw your partner and friend Meghan Wilker present at Ignite earlier this year. She rocked it. Why? Because she brought huge energy to the stage. That carried her presentation. Sure, it was part of the format. And sure, she only had five minutes. But, that energy really came through and she definitely kept the audience’s attention. Second, we asked Dallas Lawrence (Burson Marsteller) to present as part of a digital crisis panel at BlogWorld this year. And I thought he was great because he was FULL of data points and results. And that stood out–because so few people include this information in their presentations (again, to your point). Want to differentiate–hit on those two points and you’ll get invited back. Again and again.

  21. Jon Burg says:

    It’s funny because I had this discussion just the other day. Some speakers are just beyond the norm. Outstanding, worth hearing every time.However, most presentations these days are more or less the same. Aside from broad networking, I’m finding seriously diminishing returns at many events I used to love for the education and inspiration value. Most events could be boiled down to one or two panels or speakers at the most.That said, it’s almost like social is becoming like most other industries.

  22. Is the art of public speaking slowly disappearing? No but the respect for it is. Far too many speakers today build their PowerPoint deck from the first class seat on the flight they are taking to the city in which they are speaking. They pull from a small toolbox of presentations, often recycling material and seldom saying anything new.

    There are exceptions of course, Jeremiah Owyang, Jay Baer and Sarah Evans (especially when she is doing a boot camp style event) immediately come to mind and outside the realm of social media (yes, there is an alternative universe), Temple Grandin.

  23. Scott Meis says:

    Fantastic topic Arik. To bridge off your storytelling comment, I’ll let you in on a little plan of mine. Convince Ira Glass to take 6 months off and cruise around to agencies big and small to do storytelling workshops. That’s one storyteller I’ll always pay big bucks to see.

  24. Abbie S. Fink says:

    I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a variety of organizations. Just finished writing curriculum and teaching a two-day course on digital communications for non-profits. Yes, I think speaking builds credibility, but you’ve got to be able to deliver content in an engaging, informative manner and give your audience a chance to experience it. Whether I’m speaking on digital communications, crisis management, traditional pr, etc., those in the audience will also have an opportunity to practice what I preach.

  25. David Murray says:

    There is a fine line between being a good speaker and entertaining. Good speakers entertain, but they should also educate. I think people are starting to tire of the social media superstar. Throwing money down at a conference doesn’t ensure that you are going to get good content for your investment, but this is where people should raise their voice.

    Can I learn something from you? That’s great you have a book, but what can I take away from your presentation that I can implement into my daily business practices?

    Speaking for the sake of speaking doesn’t build credibility. What does build credibility is the value and knowledge you bestow upon others, and this comes from an unselfish point of view. Speaking to audiences who don’t know you and who you are unfamiliar with should be the objective if you want to raise your value proposition. If your objective is to just sign books, then that is a different story.

    I don’t believe the art of public speaking is disappearing. I do believe there is a saturation of familiar faces and this is consternation within the community. The shelf life of any individual these days is shot, especially if you live within the social web world.

    I enjoy speaking. Not going to lie, but I am always making sure I am bringing a level of value to my game. I am always checking and double checking 1) who my audience is and 2) what do they want to learn? I truly get fulfillment out of teaching others what I have learned so they can go do it themselves. So I guess you can say I am an educator who speaks.

  26. jaybaer says:

    Sorry I’m a little late to this party. Excellent post that’s clearly stirred up a lot of feelings on both sides.

    Between Webinars and live events, I’ll do approximately 100 presentations this year, so I’ve witnessed a lot of what you describe here. As I continue to do more paid speaking, this issue of relevancy and differentiation concurrently becomes more and more important to me.

    I do not believe social media is in any way “worse” at speaking that any other industry. The fact is, most people are adequate public speakers, the same way most people are adequate at any particular task you put in front of them. What I do feel is lacking in social media are people that consistently over-deliver and raise the expectation bar for others. Many of the “name brand” social media consultant types are quite average in terms of their public speaking capabilities, and that creates an unofficial downdraft on excellence industry-wide.

    Specifically, I find that the social media community does not practice and polish presentations enough. It’s quite common for paid speakers to create a new presentation a day or two before the event, either because they are speaking on a very focused issue, they want to create a custom presentation for that audience, or because they are just bored with their existing presentations. Even if you’re a very gifted speaker, you cannot do your best work unless you know the presentation cold, and too often social media folks do not. Guilty as charged, as I probably will do 40 different presentations in my 100 gigs this year.

    I’m doing a lot more work with speakers’ bureaus these days, and these organizations book people that are professional speakers all day long. These speaking pros give essentially the same speech over and over and over until they have every second choreographed perfectly. It makes a huge difference.

    Somehow, the social media world has adopted the perspective that giving the same speech you’ve already given is somehow “cheating” the audience, which prevents the type of repetition and polish necessary to go from good to great.

    As to your other question of whether “I’m a speaker” lacks meaning because there are so many opportunities, I guess I never thought of it that way. The fact that you speak about anything doesn’t really confer any status whatsoever upon you, regardless of industry. What matters is whether you can take an audience and educate and entertain, and then get them to advocate on your behalf. It’s not about speaking, it’s about what you do with the speaking opportunity.

  27. Amber says:

    I think that no matter how many opportunities there are, having a history in public speaking engagement on a subject you excel at will always be a credibility builder. It’s basically telling people that someone thought so much of what you do that they wanted you to share it with others. Whoever requests your presence at a speaking engagement obviously thinks that what you have to share is important, no matter what “kind” of public speaker you are. Also, I think that you can be a successful public speaker without being an entertaining public speaker. Better that your audience leaves properly informed, than entertained without any knowledge.
    Thanks for the read,

  28. First question, on conference utility? It’s waning. In social media, cloud computing, or the next Hot Topic of the Year, there are so many conferences out there that getting a panel slot rarely is an impressive feat or credential.
    However: if you can eke out a top-1-percent performance, you could still WOW them, and hit a home run. So: can you?
    I LOVE your second question. Mulling it over. At first glance, I don’t think so. I think the nature of group communication is changing again — like it did from stories-by-the-fire to Gutenberg — so the norms, skills and methods are changing, and we’re in a period of disruption. During which it’s more difficult to measure “best” and “effective.” NBC thought it could trade up from Conan to Leno, and got exactly what they wanted .. but it turned out to be a lock on 70 year olds. Oops. Chris Brogan, Rob Scoble, Xeni Jardin & the Old Spice Guy do not talk like mid-20th century stump speakers. Do their presentation styles represent something significant & new? Evolved beings, or experiments, or tools? Fun to watch in any case — but it is just too early to tell.

  29. Mary Biever says:

    I’m glad someone asked this. As a public speaker of 25 years, with competitive speaking experience and time spent coaching/helping other competitive speakers, good public speaking skills are developed over time. The best speakers blend style and substance such that they teach and delight. Or sometimes piss off. But they make you think.

  30. Kathi Browne says:

    For me, it matters if I have an preformed expectation of the speaker. Those times I go to listen to a speaker with no expectation to learn, I need to be entertained or I just want to leave. However, if I go specifically go to gain knowledge, then I am quite excited when they manage to surprise me with a new application, approach, or tool.

  31. I think this has a little to do with the fact that so many people are now content creators. There are MANY poorly written blogs out there, but blog writting is still a way to be found on the web.

    We went from a time when few people were able to be published – to everyone can publish themselves. And we are learning that lots of people out there have great ideas to share within their industries. Public speaking, especially about social media topics, is an extension of this. You are asked to speak when you are connected and hopefully have good ideas. You are asked to speak often if your talks are well liked and valuble to participants.

    Every session need not be mind-blowing, but every session needs to be valuable. Conference attendees will tell you!

    As far as tthe art of public speaking goes….it is on the list of things most people don’t study or practice anymore.

  32. I believe good public speaking is like good writing–less is more. Anyone can ramble on for 45 minutes, but it takes skill and preparation to deliver great content in 15 minutes. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”

  33. Kellye Crane says:

    At the risk of being somewhat random in my comment, I wonder if there are gender differences in the preferred presentation styles? The razzle-dazzle style of presenting that you seem to enjoy, Arik, I find downright annoying. I often feel that those using that speaking approach are guilty of what Jay describes — they haven’t prepared in advance, and they’re using humor to distract from a presentation that’s lean on meaty content. Obviously gender isn’t the only factor determining what we like, but new research has confirmed that women and men listen differently, so it’s interesting to think about…

    Also to Jay’s point, when I see a speaker joking on Twitter that they’re prepping their slides the morning of a presentation, I find that offensive. I saw more than one “keynote” at Blogworld where several “speakers” sat around on stage joking and chewing the fat with nothing new to say. When I speak at events, foremost in my mind is the fact that the audience is giving me their valuable time, and I hope to provide value in return. That’s what I look for from others, too.

  34. Ryan Knapp says:

    To go one step further to your point Jay, speakers struggle to give the same presentation over and over now because thanks to recording all of these large events on video or even livestreaming, chances are I’ve seen the same talk before actually seeing you live in person. Thus, speakers have to keep changing content to suit the audience which is not only in front of them, but also global.

  35. jaybaer says:

    Really excellent point Ryan, and one that is particularly a problem in the social space, where audience members are more likely to have consumed online video, etc. I never thought of it that way. Thanks for bringing that up.