Signals to Recognise a Quality Speaker

Signals to Recognise a Quality Speaker

12th February 2013

Conferences tend to be full of speakers, yes really, they are everywhere. They however are not always full of quality speakers. Speakers who know how to take the audience with them on a verbal trip. There is a reason for that: being a quality speaker is hard. Very hard.

I have been speaking for several years now, on bigger and smaller events and have attended even more and I thought it would be a nice idea to share some of my experiences with you. But I figured it would even be a better idea if I would get both some industry experts and the readers of State of Search (yes, you) involved. So with the help of Will Critchlow, Bill Hunt, Eric Enge, Dom Hodgson and the State of Search Facebook Page I looked at what makes a great speaker. Later this week I will discuss (with the input of other experts) what you can do to become a better speaker yourself.

There is always room for improvement

I believe I am still not where I want to be as a speaker, even though I won some speaking awards. But posts like the one from Marcus Taylor about TEDx still can make me think about how to change my ‘performance’ in order to be even better. I’ve had these moments before, like when I met Jason Calacanis at a conference in Paris. Now I’m not going into his ideas here, that’s a different discussion, but one of the things we talked about was his preparation for a presentation. He explained how he would go over a presentation many, many times, up to the last moment before he got on stage. He wanted to constantly improve. His literal words were: “It needs to be 110% not 100%”.

To me personally that is the first necessity for a quality speaker: she or he should never be happy with the preparations or the talk itself, but should constantly improve. That is one of the reasons I always ask friends (and they can vouch for that) afterwards how I can improve, and I ask them to be honest.

Will Critchlow, a prominent speaker himself and an event organiser at Distilled says about this:

“Getting the details right; great deck (designed for watching, not reading), engaging speaking, clear, easy to follow and excited to be there is important.”


“Aiming high enough; at least for our conferences where we want to give value to experts, I coach our speakers to imagine they are “presenting” only to the other speakers at the dinner table.”


It might seem obvious but unfortunately there are too many speakers out there who still talk about things they themselves are not or only slightly interested in. They just want to be there ‘to speak’. Dom Hodgson, organiser of Thinkvisibility, explains this perfectly with this little anecdote:

“I have a negative view on ‘professional’ speakers and people who’ve been too trained to speak, this partly stems back to a conversation I had at an event which went something like this:


Person : Hi, you organise Think Visibility don’t you?
Me : Yes, have you been?
Person : No, but you should invite me to speak
Me : What would you speak on
Person : I can speak on anything you’d like, I’m a professional speaker
Me : What do you do, search wise?
Person : I don’t, I speak at conferences on a range of subjects, here’s my card.
Me : Okay?”

This off course is wrong, very wrong. The speakers ‘just’ want their visibility (and yes the name Thinkvisibility hints at that) promoted by being there. They don’t care about what they are talking about. But you can recognise a quality speaker from his passion, his enthusiasm and his knowledge of the topic.

And Dom Hodgson again:

“To be honest, I don’t really care if your pronunciation isn’t top notch or your slides are just two colour powerpoint with bullet points, I want someone who speaks about what they love, I want speakers with passion about what they do. When you apply to speak at thinkvis, usually we ignore the first thing you suggest to speak about, normally that’s something you ‘think you should talk about'”


A quality speaker knows his stuff

Closely related to the ‘passion’ is this one: a quality speaker knows his stuff. He or she definitely knows what he’s talking about and does not, like the example above, ‘just talks about anything’.

Bill Hunt, a very experienced speaker himself believes the quality of the speaker lies in what he knows and how he can get that across, with the before mentioned passion:

“To me a good speaker is anyone who gives me an “a ha moment.” – some gold nugget or a whole big idea that will really help me solve a problem or advance my business. These happen when the speaker takes time to understand their audience, the root causes of problems, and can clearly articulate, with examples, how to apply what they are talking about. A good speaker makes things actionable to the attendee and often challenges them to take that action. As a speaker, one of my greatest rewards is when someone tells me at a future event or via email that they tried what I suggested and it helped them or their business. A “great speaker” is one who can deliver that a-ha moment with passion about the topic and the sense that they really want to share their knowledge then closes by giving the audience something extra in a way that makes attendees want to get on their computer and take action that very moment.”

Dom Hodgson acknowledges the importance of knowledge:

“Again for me it’s less about speaking ability and more about knowledge, I don’t care if your the worlds most enjoyable speaker, if your wikipedia-ing microformats the night before the conference and then hand me a 500meg Prezi file, we aren’t going to get on.”

Will Critchlow says about this:

“A good speaker starts from a position of core competence; what do you really know about that others don’t have experience in or access to?”

A quality speaker understand the audience

It is rather easy to have a story ready and tell that story over and over to every different audience you see. It doesn’t mean however that if you do that a hundred times, you’re a quality speaker. A quality speaker understands that every audience is different. That you cannot tell the same story to a group of SEO’s and a group of CEO’s. And that even different nationalities makes a difference. A quality speaker beforehand ‘dives into his audience’. And I don’t mean stage diving, but diving into the demographics of the audience: what is the knowledge level, what is expected, what do they want.

Author and speaker Eric Enge says:

“Engage with your audience. Make eye contact with people in the audience, and do things to draw reactions. Perhaps you might ask a question, have a funny slide, or show your emotions while on stage. The reason this is important is that these shows make for long days. Panels blend together for audience members, and they really like it when you give them something to react to, not just more information. Doing this will help them retain more of what you have to say.”


“Strive to have something new to say to the audience. This starts with understanding the level of the audience. What is old hat to an expert could be new to a newbie. Along with this, make sure you are covering something different than your co-panelists! This will make for a better overall panel.”

Balanced story

Another important aspect of a quality speaker is that the speaker has a balanced story. It should have a beginning and an end off course, but the part in between is important as well. There should not be too much information about a speakers company and the different elements of the talk should be balanced out enough. Start with the ‘why’ as Marcus pointed out in his talk and make sure that people understand the right things before you go to the next part. At the end of the talk the audience should feel they listened to a perfect story.

Will Critchlow says:

“Great speakers are balancing the why with the how; cover big strategic trends and visions but also give immediately actionable advice that attendees can take away and use.”

Storytelling: give people something to think about

Most of the speakers who get labeled ‘quality speaker’ have the ability to tell a story, to give anecdotes and with that make people listen. They don’t focus on facts, facts, facts, but give people people something to think about. It were the top two elements you as readers pointed out for recognising a quality speaker: The speaker is a storyteller and can make the audience think about something in a different way.

Again Will Critchlow:

“Too many tips rehash things that audience would already know. Skip those things and share the stories that keep the rapt attention of that (tough) audience and you have my vote”

What else?

As you can see there are many signals to recognise a quality speaker. And these are just a few we wrote up. On our Facebook poll we also got some other signals. Like for example that a teacher can teach you something or gets the audience involved. Take a look at the top signals you mentioned:


Did we miss anything?

It’s Event Week on State of Search!

It’s event week on State of Search this week! We are looking at everything around events, looking forward to SES London and helping you make the best choices you can make when it comes to attending, speaking or choosing your events.
This week is sponsored by Marin Software


Written By
Bas van den Beld is an award winning Digital Marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the founder of State of Digital and helps companies develop solid marketing strategies.
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