The 3 Kinds of HR Conference Presentations: Are Any Worth $50K?

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I was traveling back from the HR Southwest conference this past week, and a conversation I had while there got me thinking of some of the better presentations I’ve seen at conferences over the past year.

The conversation wasn’t around “who was the best speaker?” It was around, “who was the most expensive speaker?”

For those who don’t know, 90 percent of the presentations you see at HR Conferences are done by HR Pros – like you and me – who aren’t being paid a dime, but if they are lucky someone will pay their travel expenses. The other 10 percent get speaking fees that range from $500 to $125,000 for 1 hour and 30 minutes of work.

Yes, you read that correctly – $125,000!

Money doesn’t guarantee a great speaker

Now, let’s be straight; you probably haven’t seen anyone speaking at an HR conference who made $125K,  but if you go to the largest HR conferences you saw someone who made $50K for the 90 minutes you saw them!

Here’s my question: If an HR Conference came out and told you how much the person was being paid, before they started their speech, would that change they way you thought of that speech? Oh boy, that changes everything doesn’t it!? Can you imagine –

“Please welcome to the stage, being paid $40K for the next 90 minutes, Mrs. X!”

If that were to happen, I wonder if there would be applause and a standing ovation that we see so often? I wonder if you would leave feeling like that was the most inspirational thing I’ve ever heard – certainly worth $40K. Interesting to think about, at the very least.

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The sad part is, the money has absolutely no correlation to quality and content. I’ve seen some of the best speakers this year – some of which didn’t get paid a dime, and some that got paid very small amounts. Sure, there are a handful who get very good money, that I’ve really enjoyed, but I didn’t enjoy them $10-20K more then the free guys and gals!

The 3 types of conference presentations

Here’s where I think the high price presenters separate themselves — they’ve found the magic “formula’ for conference speaking. It involves presenting one of three types presentations:

  1. Inspirational/Motivation – These are the presentations when someone comes to show you how hard they had it, way harder than you or I, and they came all the way back and now they are on the stage making you feel like a piece of crap because you were just complaining about how the lady at Starbucks didn’t make your non-fat soy latte the way you like it. Think Michael J. Fox at SHRM last June in Las Vegas. He was in a ton of 80?s comedy movies/TV shows, has a beautiful, successful wife, and boom, he gets Parkinson’s, but he keeps fighting on. And you sit there going, “nice, I bitch every morning about getting up and walking my two healthy legs downstairs to make my own coffee,” so $40K please, and thank you – I only have 25 more of these to do this year.
  2. The Silver Bullet – These presentations are the ones where the presenter actually tells you about, or shows you, something that will change your life and/or your organization or department, right away. Don’t confuse the Silver Bullet with the boring presentations that regurgitate stuff you already knew or could easily look up on your own but the presenter truly believes they are giving you something you are hearing for the very first time. No, the Silver Bullet gives you an epiphany – something concrete, tangible – that will transform how you do what you do. This is probably the toughest type of presentation to find, but these are the ones you remember from each conference. Unfortunately Silver Bullet presenters don’t make as much – in the $500-$5,000 range. State SHRM Conferences should really search these people out, but they don’t. They want a big name, who usually disappoints.
  3. Dancing Monkey – Don’t get confused by the name and think these aren’t good. They can be the best! The Dancing Monkey presentation is done by those presenters who flat out know how to entertain. They are polished – they can make you laugh and cry – all in 90 minutes. And they always deliver. They get on stage and do anything it takes to entertain the masses – including dancing like a monkey, if needed — and you’re happy! You forget about your crappy job and crappy co-workers for a little while, and you leave feeling good. These people usually are the middle level of cost – $2,500 to $25,000 – but you usually never feel taken.

What about all the conference speakers that don’t fit into these categories? They suck; they’re either boring or ill informed or just flat out missed the mark (think Richard Branson at SHRM Las Vegas, or a presentation on I-9 compliance).

Want to be a speaker at an HR conference? Figure out how to get your message into one of the three types above and become an excellent storyteller. Cat stories are optional.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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