by Steve Adubato, PhD

Consider the scene. It’s a high school awards ceremony where several hundred honor roll students are being recognized for their academic achievement. Most of them have either one or both parent attending. For whatever reason, the event sponsors decided to bring in a keynote speaker who was an expert in the field of travel & tourism. One wondered immediately what the connection was between travel and tourism and the honor roll students. Unfortunately, the connection was never made.

The first problem was that the master of ceremonies went on for about ten minutes introducing speaker. To make matters worse, the speaker decided to forego the microphone and move out into the audience, which created a variety of communication problems that were exacerbated by the clearing of dinner dishes. Then, the speaker started asking questions to the audience in an effort to encourage active participation. Nice idea, but absolutely the wrong setting. After about twenty minutes, the mumbling and grumbling in the large room was getting louder. What’s up here?

Q—Is it a good idea to bring in a keynote speaker at a student rewards dinner?

A—I don’t think so. Even if the speaker were dynamic and effective, it still isn’t necessary at an event that should really be about recognizing students. Often event organizers attempt to cram too many pieces into the equation. The travel and tourism angle made things more confusing. There was no direct connection between the students and the speaker, and she really didn’t try to make one. About midway through the presentation, the speaker asked; “If there were any place you could be in the world right now, where would that be?” At that point, one of the parents said under her breath, “…At home, so I wouldn’t have to listen to this.” It was embarrassing at best.

Q—Haven’t you said in this column that great communicators get their audience involved and sometimes that means asking questions?

A—Engaging your audience is the key to great communication, but with nearly 500 people in a room finishing dinner, with tables being cleared, and a speaker roaming the audience without a microphone, things tend not to go so well. First, it was almost impossible to hear her. Next, she was trying to move around the tables, which became distracting. After about ten minutes, the speaker moved back to the podium to get a hand-held microphone. But by that time, she had lost the crowd. Engaging an audience requires a speaker to truly understand their environment. With such a large crowd, a speaker is better off using rhetorical questions that don’t actually require a verbal response. At this event, when the speaker asked the question to no one in particular, it became an invitation for dozens of kids to blurt out a response, which in most cases, wasn’t intended to be serious.

Q—What’s wrong with a long introduction? Don’t people need to know a speaker’s credentials?

A—Credentials matter, but we don’t need to hear about every achievement, both big and small, of a speaker. Introductions should be two minutes max, and one minute is usually more than enough. A fuller introduction/biography can be shared in the event program. Our attention span is too short. Effective communicators know that and give you the “Reader’s Digest version.” The audience is not impressed by all those credentials. We are impressed by a speaker’s ability to connect, engage and inspire, which has nothing to do with a long introduction and everything to do with how they stand and deliver. In the case of this awards dinner, the keynote speaker simply missed the mark by a mile.