Huge content lessons from my 3 worst ever speaking gigs

My 3 worst ever speaking performances revealed. With big lessons we can all learn – as public speakers, and for all other forms of content we create and share.

When content marketing goes pear shaped

Speaking is one powerful form of content but what does it take for a talk to be truly valuable?

Since writing and publishing our first book in 2013 I have done over 60 talks and workshops. I’ve shared Valuable Content’s ideas about brand, marketing and business development with audiences from Lanzarote to the Lion (that’s our local pub in Bristol), and from Cheltenham to Chicago (I know right – I actually got invited to speak in America – incredible). Sharon and I even ran a workshop for Google!

Sounds amazing right?

Yes. But. Like any other form of content, public speaking is hard to get right. Some talks have gone down a storm, others…. er….not so much!

Success is all good isn’t it, but in business and in life I’ve learned most from my epic flops. On that note I thought I’d reveal my 3 very worst ever speaking performances, unpick what went so badly and dig out a few of the big lessons we can all learn – as speakers, and for all other forms of content we create: for the blog articles we write, the books we publish, the content we valiantly share.

I tussled with the wisdom of revealing my speaking cock ups, but then I thought – if there was ever a year to be honest, 2018 surely is it! Hidden in these 3 gargantuan speaking flops is a powerful force for good – real insight into the things that fail to move an audience. Oh boy have these painful experiences taught me a lot.

So, if you are up for some glorious (and painful) professional speaking honesty, here goes.

Gig 1 – Stiff competition at the British Library 2012

British Library

The backstory:

This was our first ever ever big public talk. The details of many other talks have faded and blurred but the first one is etched deep on my memory. Sharon and I were writing the first edition of our book at the time and our publishers were helping to promote it. We were talking ‘Marketing Trends’ at the British Library – boom, straight in at the deep end! And we were to share the stage with our publishers’ feted marketing authors. We hadn’t even published our first book yet and some of them had written three! A couple of our best clients and friends were in the crowd. What could possibly go wrong?

What happened:

Preparation started days before, with advice from many quarters. We rehearsed a lot – in my kitchen, practising saying the words out loud while clenching our buttocks (as that, apparently, was the key to a wobble free voice). On the day itself we travelled up to London, getting quieter and quieter. We ate in a packed Carluccio’s at St Pancras station beforehand. Sharon ordered the seafood linguine if I remember; and it was crispy calamari for me. Delicious. Except we couldn’t eat a thing. And we were so terrified we could not say a word to each other. A very bad attack of the NERVES had descended.

I’d like to tell you that it evaporated as soon as we got into the room, and that we were able to enjoy delivering our well rehearsed material, but the nerves did not go, and it wasn’t great fun. We were so worried about not being as experienced as our peers, these proper authors, that we forgot about our audience. It’s not that we didn’t look at them (although Sharon did spend a lot of time pointing out things on the slides with her back to the audience) but we hadn’t designed the talk around what the people in the room wanted to hear. We were trying to big up our book in the face of some seriously impressive peers, and that meant telling them a lot of things we knew. And telling people a lot of things you know, is not the same as delivering a good talk.

We didn’t frame the information in a way that made it relevant to our audience. We didn’t focus on what our audience could learn from our perspective on marketing trends. The talk was too self-centred. Too me me me. (Because a valuable talk is not about you…it’s about your audience).

>> The lesson: Focus on those you want to help, not on the ‘competition’

Put the audience needs first – wear blinkers if you need to. It’s not about you, it’s about them and what they can learn.

Stressing about the competition instead of focusing on the audience is a common worry when people are starting to blog too. The feeling of being judged can stop you wanting to put your ideas out there, or encourage you to focus on writing to impress your peers.

Instead, laser in on helping your ideal customers, and ignore the rest. Don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t get phased by the sea of faces. Write your talk (blog article/newsletter/guide) for an audience of one (Caroline, this post is for you!). Deliver it like that too. What can they learn?

Gig 2 – The Great Boat Show Disaster of 2013

Boat Show

The backstory:

I was very excited about this talk. I come from a family of sailors and we’d be talking to marine leisure businesses about how to make their websites more valuable to their customers. Sharon and I checked out a few sailing holiday businesses we knew as research. And even created a little animated video to illustrate how many of their websites get it wrong, and how they could put that right.

What happened?

The talk started off well. We knew the audience, we knew what they wanted to learn from us. We’d put a lot of thought into material that would break the mould of death by PowerPoint. Everything was going swimmingly. Full steam ahead.

Then we showed our little film about a generic, fictitious sailing holiday firm ‘Sailing’ and how frustrating it was for a customer visiting a typical flotilla holiday website:

The atmosphere in the room changed. The temperature dropped by 10 degrees. Why? What had gone wrong?

It wasn’t the slightly dodgy production quality. The problem was more serious than that…

The CEO of Sailing was sitting in the front row and steam was coming out of his ears! And the rest of the audience looked aghast!

On the up side, his daughter was sitting next to him, laughing so hard she nearly fell off her chair. She’d been trying to get him to invest in the website and change their approach but he wasn’t listening. He was now!

>> The lesson: Do your research!

We had been unintentionally disrespectful. Humour is a great way to get an audience on your side, so you can be funny, but never unkind. We’d humiliated the CEO of that company, and the rest of the audience felt awkward on his behalf. We lost their goodwill, and we couldn’t get away fast enough after the talk. The lesson from this is do your research thoroughly. A little bit more digging would have got us to call our fictitious sailing holiday company something different, and the video would have made its point well.

It was a silly mistake that made a big impact. (We’ve made it, so you don’t have to! Ouch!).

Gig 3 – Snoring Lawyers 2015

snoring lawyers

The backstory:

A talk at a professional services network speaking to 200 international lawyers and 50 accountants. It was a much needed paid gig, at a very bad time – my son was having difficulties, and the business wasn’t in the best place. I was a last minute replacement when the original speaker had to pull out, and I was to be speaking in the dreaded after lunch slot. The theme of the whole event was ‘composition’. I proposed ‘How to craft original content to stand out and be heard,’ which was accepted. I pulled together a version of a talk I’d delivered many times before and headed off to London.

What happened?

The string quartet played as row upon row of grey suits sat facing the stage. I began talking. Within minutes two guys in the front row fell asleep. And they didn’t fall asleep quietly. They snored at an increasing crescendo as I battled my way through the material. I had to raise my voice, louder and louder, to be heard above the noise.

When I finally got to the end there was a ripple of very weak applause, so weak that it failed to wake the snorers. What did wake them, finally, was the eruption of grumbling and arguing in the room as the rest of the audience took opposition to what I’d said. That brought the snorers round, blinking and spluttering. The majority of the audience had taken exception to my talk. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I didn’t understand them.

They were right (on the second part, not the first!). My talk, was based on the Valuable Content approach: be helpful, don’t sell too hard, share what you know, be generous with your expertise and the right clients will find you. It went down like a lead balloon in a room full of international lawyers and accountants, with sleek corporate websites, used to charging by the minute for their time. What I was proposing was too far removed from their usual way of operating to resonate. The examples I’d shared of businesses using content to win more business were too small, and not ‘professional’ enough for them to see themselves reflected there. What I had to say felt irrelevant to them. So they either switched off entirely (and snored) or felt disgruntled that I was wasting their time.

>> The lesson: Create content with love and respect

So what could I have done differently? Well, I could have turned down the gig. I could have said ‘no.’ Or if I wanted to take it on, I should have cared more about the audience. I should have worked harder to understand their perspective, their world.

Empathy is everything if you want any form of content to connect. Empathy trumps expertise every time (being smart is overrated!) As the saying goes: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” How true that is.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Some more research into how they currently market themselves, what the challenges are, what they wanted to know from me could have turned my talk around. A couple of phone calls before I wrote the talk would have made a big difference. If I’d known what the specific challenges and attitudes were I could have framed what I said to build a bridge to them. Thrown in some examples that would have felt like I was speaking to them. I do believe that international lawyers and accountants could benefit from the approach we advocate, but I didn’t help them to see how it was relevant for them. My words didn’t show them that I cared and understood, so they didn’t care or understand in return.

Finally, a talk that went well – a real, gritty story in Chicago

The Bean Chicago HOW Interactive

If I compare these three experiences to one of the talks I enjoyed most then these big lessons become clearer still.

The backstory:

The talk I felt went down best was in Chicago for the HOW Interactive Design Conference a couple of years ago (did I mention, I was asked to do a talk in America!) It was a fully paid up speaking gig, my first ever trip to the US, and one of the best run conferences I’ve seen.

Every speaker was asked to ditch the slick presentation and focus on real messy stories the audience could learn from – raw case studies in their most honest sense – what went well, what went badly, what we’d learned. My job was to present a case study of recent project, with lessons to learn. I told a true story about what it takes to create a working content strategy and implement a marketing approach based on giving away valuable content.

The messy reality of content strategy

The messy reality of content strategy

What happened:

My talk seemed to go down a storm.

>> The lesson: Talk because you care, let your excitement shine through

Why did this talk work so well compared to the three miserable experiences I’ve outlined above?

Here’s what I reckon:

  • This time I had done my research, and knew who I was talking to, what they struggled with and what they wanted to learn.
  • I knew and cared deeply about the audience of designers – I really wanted to help. This talk was for them.
  • I was excited. I’m fascinated by the power of great content to transform businesses and I was motivated to do my best work. I have a feeling my excitement shone through. If you’re fired up by it, chances are your audience will be too.
  • I told a real and very honest story, warts and all – and true gritty stories are always easiest to tell, and more compelling to receive.

So what can you take from my 3 embarrassing speaking bloopers?

None of the three talks were my finest hour. But as speakers, as content creators there’s a lot to take from those 3 painful experiences.

All the Valuable Content principles certainly ring true. Talk or write to help your niche audience. Be generous with your ideas. Know exactly who you’re talking to. Talk because you’re passionate about your subject, you genuinely want to help, you really CARE about what you’re doing…and who you’re creating the content for. Let your excitement shine through. Don’t ever just do it for the money. Talk about stuff you love, to people you care about.

Valuable content manifesto

If you want to connect in the sea of noise you have to really push it on the value front these days. Whether it’s a talk or a blog post, create and share stuff that is “inherently valuable, surprisingly human or unexpectedly useful.” That was Joe Chernov’s advice in a recent interview and I think he’s so right.

“Create and share stuff that’s “inherently valuable, surprisingly human or unexpectedly useful.”

THAT is what it takes for a talk or other content to be valuable. And for me it’s the biggest lesson of all.

Fail your way to content success

“Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles”. Jawaharlal Nehru.

Whether you are hesitating to start writing blogs, a newsletter, a book even, but especially if you’re scared of putting yourself forward for your first speaking gig I encourage you to feel the fear and do it anyway!

If I can do it, believe me, anyone can.

“Dare to fail, because you just might fail your way to amazing things.” Ekaterina Walter

How about you? If you want to unburden yourself of any public speaking horror shows, I’d love to hear about them and what you’ve learned.

[P.S. This blog is adapted from a talk Sharon wrote for me to deliver at the Professional Speaker’s Association SW last year. Big thanks to Sharon, and to Sue and Bryony for hosting the event. It was a really fun one to deliver.]

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  1. Christopher Butler


    Wow, what great stories. And I applaud you for bearing all in this way.

    I think too many people assume that there are those for whom public speaking comes naturally — people who nail it the first time and were always going to nail it, no matter what — and everyone else, who can basically just hope to not embarrass themselves. But the truth is, everyone works for it. I’ve given many talks and organized many events, and while some people phone it in, they are remembered for that. And that is not good.

    I’m so pleased that the HOW event in Chicago continues to stand out for you as a good experience. When I began putting that event together, I was so tired of hearing the same kinds of talks over and over again — the sort that present an ideal situation, an overly simplified victory, a 45-minute platitude. That kind of talk has this remarkable ability to stir up the hearts of an audience and then evaporate as soon as the lights come up and the real world comes back into view. I wanted two days of reality so that re-entry from the conference world to the real one wouldn’t be so jarring for our audience. I remember putting together my speaker wishlist and you were right at the top.

    Speaking events are important to marketing — and, let’s be honest, important to the careers of those who need to build credibility as “experts” — but they’re worthless if they don’t have a greater impact on those listening than on those speaking. As much as the ambitious covet the stage, we have no business being there if we don’t covet someone else’s success more than our own. Without exceptions.

    Thanks for being such a reliably humble and generous voice. You’ll probably never know the impact you’ve had on many people.

    – CB

    • VC

      Chris – I’m so delighted you enjoyed the post. Sharon and I tussled with the wisdom of sharing all this, and then thought, sod it – it’s true, and it’ll help some of the brilliant people we work with now who are starting out on the speaking path themselves.

      It’s been a real learning curve but you just have to dive in, do your best and learn from the reactions of the audience. Hopefully some of these lessons I’ve shared here will stop people making the massive bloopers we have over the years!

      I wish more events and conferences were like HOW Chris. It was such a joy to be a part of. The speakers and the audience all seemed to love it. To have such a mix of organisations – from small ones like mine to NPR, Facebook, and the US government – all sharing honest, warts and all stories was incredibly refreshing and a far better learning experience than the usual sage on a stage type experience. Life isn’t perfect. Business is far from perfect. We’re all on a messy journey to try and improve things and get stuff done. I’m so glad the events you put on embrace this!

      Thank you so much for your comment – eloquent as ever (I love the way you write). It means a lot. Best wishes, and say hi to the Newfangled team too.


  2. Geoff Mason

    It’s brave of you to share “failures” in this way Sonja. I suspect many readers (such as myself) will initially chuckle a little, but will then realise that we’ve all been there. The important thing is to learn by your mistakes and turn the learning into something constructive, which you and Sharon have done superbly well.

    Of course, you were never arrested by the police in the middle of a presentation. There’s no lessons to be learnt on preparation, knowing your audience or not embarrassing CEOs, just avoiding driving a similar car to a notorious ram-raider!

    • VC

      Oh my goodness Geoff! That’s a story! Thank you very much for the encouraging comment, and for making me laugh. Sonja

  3. Sue Richardson

    I love this Sonja. Bang on as ever! This is a truly brilliant piece of writing. By being brave, ‘fessing up and telling the ‘warts and all’ story you have given us so much to think about and learn – not only about speaking but also about how we can deliver the very best content by starting with our audience’s needs.

    It was fabulous as a talk when you delivered it for us at the Professional Speaking Association South West in Bristol last year and we hope very much to have you join us one day again soon.

    Thank you so much for creating this blog post so we can return to it often for a great reminder to focus on being generous with our ‘stuff’, talking only about what we care deeply about and to people we know we really really want to serve.

    • VC

      Thank you so much Sue! Lovely comment.

      It was a really fun talk to do for the PSA. Thank you for inviting me to talk to your group – isn’t it easier and more satisfying to tell real human stories? Would love to join you again some time.

      I love the way speaking and writing are so intrinsically linked. I learn from both but nothing delivers feedback faster than an audience’s reaction when you’re giving a talk! Glad it went down well with yours.

      Best wishes, and thanks again.



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