The most important people at a conference are the speakers.

I am not saying that because I am a speaker. As a speaker, I think that the most important people are the audience.

It is the organisers of a conference who are saying it.


You do not believe me?

Then answer this question: Who do they put at the VIP table?

Answer: The speakers. And the CEO.


The speakers are at the Very Important Person Table because the CEO wants to get a chance to get some more information from the speakers. And because it is supposed to be a nice thing to do to put the guests at the VIP table.

But as a speaker, you should use the time at the table to get more information from the CEO and the other speakers.

At least, that is my approach to the Very Important Table.

Like today.

Singapore Institute of Directors had organised a great conference with an impressive line-up of speakers for the 850 or so in the audience.

Some of the speakers at my table were:

Mr S Iswaran, Minister, Prime Minister’s Office; Second Minister for Home Affairs & Second Minister for Trade and Industry of Singapore (who had just been re-elected days before),

Emeritus Professor Jean-Philippe Deschamps of business school International Institute for Management Development or IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland,


Mr Ray Hatoyama, (pictured) Global Managing Director of Sanrio Company Ltd., the company that owns the “Hello Kitty” brand.

We had an interesting discussion at our table around everything —  from collaboration between government and private sector to the motto that drives the Hello Kitty brand: “Small Gift. Big Smile.”

I tend to find the time spent at the VIP table to be the most valuable time when it comes to learning. And I am amazed at how many speakers use their time at the VIP table to talk about themselves instead of learning from other people who are there.

Do not make the same mistake.

Lesson: Sitting at the VIP table should not make you think you are a Very Important Person. It should make you focus on the fact that you are privileged to get to sit together with a bunch of Very Important People and you should grab that opportunity to learn as much as you can from them.


A man I had never seen before came up to me today and said, “Thanks for a very interesting conversation.”

How is that possible?

He had just heard me speak as one of 850+ (!) participants at the conference of Singapore Institute of Directors. He had seen me on stage, but I had not seen him.

As one of the hundreds of people in the conference room, he felt like we were having a private conversation — just me and him — instead of him listening to my speech like the rest of the audience.

Here is the funny thing, JUST before I went up on stage (literally two minutes before going up!), I took a notepad and wrote: Talk, do not ‘speak’. Have a happy conversation.

I guess it worked.

The more speeches I give, the more I am convinced that the key to a great speech is that the speaker “breaks” the “wall” that exists between the stage and the audience.


How To Break The Wall Between The Stage and The Audience

1. Ask Questions

2. Laugh with the Audience

3. Tell a story about a person in the room whom you talked to before the speech

But perhaps, the easiest and best way of doing it is to look at the whole delivery of your speech as if you are going to have a conversation with the audience.

Some people give the advice that you should pick a person in the audience and speak to him or her.

I think there is a risk of doing that, and the risk is that the audience can feel that you are talking to that person – and not to the rest.

Instead, practice the skill of having a conversation with the whole group.


How To Have a Conversation With a Whole Group

I actually feel that a group of people have a “personality” just like individuals do. When you “read” the group while speaking, you can get a sense of the group’s “personality” – or let’s call it “grouponality”.

What do they laugh at?
What mood are they in?
How interested are they in the subject?

and so on.

The more you “feel” them, the better you are able to deliver your speech at a frequency that they are willing to connect to.

And when you are able to connect to your audience, they will feel like you just had a one-on-one conversation with them – even if there are 850 people in the room.

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“How many speeches do you do in a year?”

I get that question a lot.

As if the number of speeches would somehow be a testament of the quality or success of a speaker.

It is NOT.

Bill Clinton has “only” done 93 speeches in the last 2 years.

But he charged between 150,000 USD to 700,000 USD (!) per speech, has had a revenue from speaking of over 13,000,000 USD per year (!) and he spoke at some of the biggest companies in the world. (With fees like that, you will speak at some cool conferences.)

Yet he “only” does less than 50 speeches per year.

On a different scale, let’s look at me.

There was a year when I did 199 speeches. This year, I will be happy if I pass 80. My wife is giving birth to our 3rd child in two weeks and I am on semi-paternity leave this year. Still, I would rank myself a better, more professional and more successful speaker this year than the year I did 199 speeches.

I have stopped focusing on counting the number of speeches I do.
I do make an effort to try to increase the number of speeches that I hear though.

Like what I did one Sunday.

One Sunday, I attended a one-day course on Autism by Gerd Winkler from the Autism Treatment Center of America.

I primarily did it to learn more about Autism, of course.

But as a bonus, I got to watch a speaker/teacher speak/teach for a day.

One of Gerd’s messages on how to deal with children with autism was also applicable on speaking.

He said something like:

“Wake up in the morning and ask yourself, ‘What is so fascinating with my child?’ If you ever get tired of seemingly endless hours of work with your autistic child that doesn’t seem to bare fruit, then try to come at it from the viewpoint of ‘Fascination.’.”

If you approach the child with fascination, it will be so much less stressful and so much more interesting.

This approach works great not only on autism, but also on speaking (and on everything else in the world, I guess).

It doesn’t matter if it is how you watch others speak. Just make sure you do.

Today, I watched the winning speech from the Toastmasters World Championship in speaking. (You can watch it HERE). It’s an 8 minute speech about the power of words. I learnt something about facial expressions and delivering jokes.

Lesson: It doesn’t matter if it is via video, audio or live. If it is a big or small group. If it is a speaker, a teacher, a priest, or a stand-up-comic. As long as you constantly ensure that you are being exposed to other people speaking and you learn from them in the process.

If you came to me for advice on speaking, I would be less concerned about the number of talks you give, and more focused on the number of talks you listen to.

And no, that does NOT mean that you become a great speaker just by listening to others, just like you do not become a great singer by just listening to others sing.

My message in this post is not to say that you do not have to speak!

You have to speak, speak, speak and speak.

What I mean is that you do not have to chase the speeches as if the number of speeches is the only thing that matters. 😉 It is more important that your FOCUS is on speaking.

Speak if you can. And if you can not, then watch a speech, evaluate a speech, get coaching from a speaker.

Be fascinated with the art of speaking. Not fascinated with the number of speeches that you do.

That is the cool thing with this job — that you can spend a Sunday learning about autism and at the same time, pick up a few things that make you better at your job.


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