I had a long conversation with a meeting planner the other day about whether the audience prefers style or substance in a motivational speaker. The answer is “it depends”.
First of all, it depends on the speaker’s role. It seems backwards to me, but a breakout speaker who is there to give good, actionable content to an audience is actually paid much less than a keynote speaker. At most conferences, they aren’t paid at all.
If the speaker is a name celebrity, an entertainer, or is hired as simply a motivational speaker to pump up the crowd, they aren’t held to the same standards as far as bringing actionable content. The speaker’s role is different.
It also depends on the audience and what they expect to get out of it. I speak a lot to scientists and engineers, and they want actionable information that they can take back to the lab or office and put into action. I’ve actually seen them do it, which is exciting as a speaker to know your advice was taken.
I’ve also spoken to audiences that didn’t want any actionable information. They just wanted to hear inspirational stories, and could fill in the blanks themselves if they wanted to.
This is surprising to me, but then again, I’ve spent a big chunk of my life in Hollywood, where everything is style over substance. Value is in who you know, what kind of car you drive, or how rich or connected you are. What you know takes a backseat.
This is also how many people choose a political candidate. The average height of all American presidents since 1900 have all been close to 6 feet tall. Out of 43 presidents, only 5 have been below the average height. I know some very smart people who say they vote on a president based on their height and whether they look “presidential” or not.
Even in identical twins, the taller one tends to make money money (yes, even identical twins can be different heights based on environmental factors and growth restriction in the womb).
Studies show that university professors who are considered more attractive are rated as better teachers. And females who are considered more attractive by professors will tend to get better grades than females they consider unattractive.
Is any of this fair? Of course not! But as my speaking coach always tells me “The audience is never wrong”. So, how do you know if an audience member wants style or substance?
Well, you could ask the meeting planner. But sometimes they don’t even know themselves. You could even ask the audience, but I doubt you’d get a straight answer.
The best way to handle it is to strive to be the best speaker you can be, bringing actionable content for those who value it, and a little sizzle for those who don’t. In any audience, you’ll always have a mixture of both.
As someone who favors substance over style, I feel cheated by a speaker who is all style and no takeaway content. But not everyone thinks that way.
Speakers who sell the sizzle and not the steak may succeed in the short term, but it’s the speakers who have substance and bring value that will succeed in the long term.