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The tea is hotter than ever today and all thanks to the topic of controversial speakers! So, you already know that the Event Brew dares to tackle topics without a filter. And the conversations you hear on this podcast are as candid as they get within the events industry. This is why we decided to go ahead and touch upon the whole ordeal of controversial speakers at events. Who are they? And why are they labeled this way? What can they mean for your event?

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All of this and more is what you can expect of today’s episode of Event Brew. And it wouldn’t be the same without our lovely hosts! Will Curran, Nick Borelli, Dustin Westling, and Thuy Diep are ready to drink their brew and spill it. So, are you curious about what they have to say? And you simply can’t wait to know more about this topic? Well, then grab your favorite pipping hot drink and press play right now!

Click here for the full audio transcription.

controversial speakersStarting On Broad Terms

“Broadly speaking, once you crest over a certain scale of event, I don’t know if there really is anyone who isn’t controversial at all these days”, starts off Nick. “I think everyone is, every decision is a calculated risk. I remember in like 2016, 2017 asking people on my Facebook account, and I try to stay really politically neutral when I’m online. And then face to face I have no problem going completely telling you what I believe. Just because I just find that the internet is a poor place for that”.

“So you can’t say a word and not get an extreme response”, he continues. “I think that there’s a lot of different takes on what associating your event in any way with a cult of personality means. And I think that there’s just no real way for people in this busy world to not differentiate themselves by taking a stand on one side or the other of enough things. So I will first say I think all keynote decision making at a certain scale has some level of controversy. It could be minute, it could be huge. So I just think that’s where we’re at right now”.

You Can’t Please Everyone

Speaking on what makes controversial speakers, Will tells us “you’re always going to piss someone off. And they’re going to say they’re horrible, we’re horrible. When in reality, it’s like, okay, well you’re always going to kind of piss someone off, even if it’s not controversial. Sometimes there’s just always someone that’s going to have an opinion”.

Nick goes on to add that “people’s values are so tied into everything. And they can’t divorce themselves from any kind of association of one value with another person. So if one person believes one thing that isn’t even what we’re talking about, it’s like you have to boycott and ban it. And can’t be associated with it”.

“Even the idea of people’s favorite actors or musicians”, he continues.”There’s a lot of being able to divorce the artist from the art. And I think that people just can’t do that anymore. I think that they’re intrinsically tied. And because of that everything comes with a caveat. Everything must be weighed and there are no freebies. There’s no “let’s just not think about this” or dig in. And because of that, we’re in a situation where people bank one of the most recognizable aspects of attendance of events on their keynote speakers. And that’s a human being who can say anything at any given moment”.

Let’s Talk About “Manels”

During the discussion about controversial speakers, arises the topic of “manels”. But what are “manels”? “We’ve been talking about it for a couple of episodes now”, Thuy recalls. “It’s where there is a panel of men and there’s been a lot of issues in the past because it’s not going into diversity. There’s not that much representation of females up on stage, especially since a majority of this industry is made by females”.

Sparking A Conversation About Diversity

“Gender is one component of diversity”, says Nick. “Obviously there’s lots of other angles. In the tech world, the reason that gender specifically is a very important thing is that it is a challenge industry-wide at all levels. To have adoption of women into their workforce, which requires visible thought leaders for attraction and to be able to have female voices guiding ships in order to diversify their entire industry”.

“So it’s even more important that that specific line of diversity is met in that industry”, he continues.”Because they have huge failings historically. Even if you look at it fairly, on paper, progressive organizations such as Facebook or Google. They lag way behind in other industries when it comes to gender balance. Because they claim that the attraction to that, to the people who can code, has never really been historically there. So they have had to invest in education at the earliest levels in order to create an industry that is more diverse and sustainable at that point”.

Controversial Speakers: Outside Opinions

Will reaches a point in the controversial speakers discussion where he wonders something. “At what point should we be pushing for planners to bring in opinions outside of our own?”, he asks. “Because far too often it’s like a silo of associations bringing in people just talking about the things that they want to hear about”.

“My feedback on the whole hiring speakers, when I was director of education, that was my main goal”, Thuy explains. “To source and vet speakers. And I think a lot of times people in our industry forget that just because you’re good at something in your niche doesn’t mean that you’re a great speaker on stage. And so that’s something that’s really important. You could be great at security and safety. And you’re high up and you have that knowledge. But can you really captivate an audience and have those skillsets? I think our industry gets lost in just actually hiring speakers that are speakers, not someone that’s just great at their job”.

What’s Behind Controversial Decisions?

An article recently came out announcing that Ivanka Trump would be the keynote speaker at CES. Now, this ruffled a few feathers, not just for political reasons, but for skill and technical-related reasons too. Nick has some extra insight into why decisions like these are made when it comes to controversial speakers.

“I used to work for a company that worked with CES”, he explains. “So I worked for a company called Showstoppers. It was the day before the show and the only people who were allowed to come to our event the day before the big shows. And it was coordinated with, it wasn’t off the books, were journalists”.

“So all I did was vet journalists and help them create the stories they needed based on matchmaking them with the people at these shows”, he continues. “That was part of my job was the vetting as well as marketing. And I can tell you that all of them are looking just for an angle of why they were there. So to be able to use the only word that seems to get everyone to pay attention to the news these days, which is Trump. I think that maybe it was, how do we make a splash on Twitter? Which frankly is dominated by him. I think that it was a PR move and then everything leading up to it was the dog and then the tail was the presentation”.

“I think the show itself needs to do some big splashes too. And in a world right now where there are only a few things that really get the attention of people, I think that they can for good or for bad try to play. It’s sort of neutral. We didn’t say that we’re on board with them. But we just gave them an opportunity. I think that they get the attention that they were looking for. And that could be a reason why an organization would do that. You just have to really know your audience”, he concludes.

controversial speakersIs It An Intentional Thing?

When it comes to booking controversial speakers, Dustin asserts that “I don’t go out and find controversial people, I want it to be timely. I always think to myself, what can this person do that is going to immediately help improve somebody’s business or personal life? We often put so much stock on speakers and what it is that they’re going to accomplish. And I don’t look at it as you need to change somebody’s life. You need to give them all the secrets to success. I look for what are those little nuggets and how it is going to impact the audience”.

“And I do always like that balance of it doesn’t always have to be business. It doesn’t always have to be about the conference that you’re at and to be successful in this world. You need to balance both of those things and creating a space and an opportunity for a speaker to do that is the way I think about it”, he adds.

The Disruptors

“The other aspect of it is those people who are there to disrupt ways of thinking and to challenge”, says Nick. “Those, I think will come with a level of something and you may call it controversial. It just isn’t something that that person’s ready to hear at that time. Like the lines between those two things. I think it’s probably not actually controversial in that way. I think it’s probably just their message won’t resonate with people that aren’t ready”.

“And I’ve seen those people get sort of bad marks. And then I’ve seen people who are there specifically to rile people up in order to create an emotional response”, he adds. “Which, it depends on the curriculum, I could take or leave, probably not, I wouldn’t have it, the whole product. But I just think that like the way you define controversy could be different”.

The Controversial Speakers That Resonate

“Sometimes it takes taking that content and being open-minded and letting it resonate”, says Dustin. “And then when you take it out to the real world, you understand what he’s talking about. So when we’re talking about the rating the one and the five, and the way you feel the minute you walk out as opposed to how that message resonates once you’re back into your real world. I think those things are often different. And for that reason, I give everybody a fair shake and they go at it with an open mind. And you’ve got to trust that the people that are putting them on that stage or have done their job properly. So even when you disagree that’s a great thing, that creates an opportunity”.

When To Choose Controversial Speakers

“From a formatting perspective, I think that you would potentially have the opportunity to have a bunch of “controversial speakers” who maybe live a little bit on the edge. Or have a really defined piece”, says Nick. “As long as you let people kind of choose to go the way they are, as opposed looking for the desired result of having a vanilla speaker speak down in the middle. So it may be breaking some out of their echo chamber and allows them to choose their own adventure”.

“That’s what I was thinking. The big goal, ultimately, with these controversial speakers is just to break people out of echo chambers and get people a different viewpoint”, adds Will. “Also, make sure that to have someone who can speak to the topic and is not a non-authority. It would be like someone trying to hire me to go talk about biosciences and say we’re going to get someone controversial named Will. But he knows nothing about biosciences”.

Just Because They’re Controversial, It Doesn’t Make Them A Good Fit

“I just think it’s stunt casting”, Nick says. “I think that there are people that are maybe sometimes brought on things because they have large platforms. And they’ve gained their large platforms by being controversial. But all they really want is the large platform because they use them as a marketing piece and not as the actual content. And I know a number of shows where I’m looking at the keynote and I’m like, what is the show about? Why are they speaking there? And it’s because you know their name”.

“Sometimes controversial speakers, it’s a PR thing”, he adds. “Where they’re like, look they have an audience. Or people will talk about this. And to me, working in experience design, that’s not what I care about. I care about the impact on the attendee and if it’s a bait and switch then I feel bad about it. And the retention numbers probably will show that it’s not a strong strategy”.


And that’s a wrap on this week’s edition of Event Brew on controversial speakers! So, what are your thoughts on the matter? Are they exclusively goog, exclusively bad, or more nuanced than that? If you have any input you’d like to give us, make sure to leave a comment. And don’t forget to tune in next week for some extra brewing!

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Nick Borelli

Author Nick Borelli

With 20+ years in the industry, Nick Borelli is passionate about helping event brands communicate stories that result in achieving strategic goals.

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