Let this post work as a guide for meeting planners. You don’t have to hire me as your innovation speaker, but if you hire one, you’ll be well served if you pay attention to these four criteria and my comments in bold. Innovation is a complex, wonky topic and it has some special requirements that go beyond the classic things meeting planners look for in a speaker.
Let’s keep this simple and as neutral as possible — my shameless personal plug is at the very bottom. I’m even going to suggest my competition here. So here goes, in my view an Innovation Speaker should:
1. Have a background as a successful entrepreneur and/or real world innovator. Innovation happens in the marketplace. If the speaker bio has inventions, patents, companies started-up, products introduced, brands created, processes improved, then you have a real world innovator. Social innovator’s aren’t about profit, but they also should be real world creators. You have to know, and have done, innovation personally to have a valid perspective — this is fundamental. Richard Branson is the ultimate entrepreneur/innovator speaker in my view.
2. Be a theorist, because approaches to innovation are many, varied, and one size does not fit all. This usually means the speaker has written articles and/or books on the topic. That’s your proof. Read an article or two, you’ll hear their voice and get a sense of expertise. Theory matters because people interested in innovation are either seeking a theory, or, have one they know already to compare with the speakers. However, theory must be balanced. I wouldn’t hire an innovation professor unless they have significant experience beyond the classroom. Professors meet the theory requirement, but to me, are not credible unless they have actually created something using the theory. Apologies in advance to those academics who not only know, but practice well, the art and science of innovation. And, I hate to say this, but many of the scholarly types are too used to students who Must listen to them. Their orientation as public speakers often leaves out the entertainment and engagement factor — see #4. The best theorist in innovation I know who is also a great speaker is Clayton Christensen. David Burkus on the more creativity oriented side isn’t bad either.
3. Be a working practitioner, who is currently inventing or managing/consulting on a real innovation process. The world of innovation changes constantly. This is similar to #1 — but the wrinkle is “doing something now, and doing something new.” Does this speaker continue to innovate in some fashion? What’s the new thing the speaker is doing now that will capture the attention of those who’ve already read the books and heard a half-dozen innovation speakers? Dean Kamen is a model for a great “currently working” inventor/innovation speaker.
4. Be a well trained, experienced, professional speaker. Being a content expert is not near enough. Speaking skill is not a given no matter how great the level of expertise. A few years ago I heard a talk by one of the greatest living content experts in the field of creativity and innovation, a big name, and somebody I had (and still have beyond speaking) great respect for. What a let down — frankly the talk was worse than bad. It was a rambling, mono-tonish, scatter-brained talk with no central point, poor visuals, no stories, and no specific take-home tools. I had to pinch myself to stay awake, it was nearly worthless. Speaking skill matters, make sure the innovation expert is a communicator. Look at their video, talk to those who’ve heard him or her speak. This is true of any keynoter but perhaps doubly so in innovation, a very “wonky” topic. Get a Wonk who can engage and entertain (Sir Ken Robinson is the model here, profound AND funny). At the end of the day any keynoter has to be a good storyteller.
I’d also be careful about getting the entrepreneur of the month. Yes, they’ve done it, so they’ve met the first requirement, but they often don’t meet #2, theory, or #4, speaking training. While I often enjoy entrepreneur talks, I typically walk away thinking “how could I replicate that?” Many entrepreneurs are not thoughtful about how they do what they do, and, sometimes they only know one way to innovate. They’re rightly focused on Doing It and that makes them great entrepreneur’s — but incomplete speakers. Hearing the story of a successful entrepreneur can be inspirational, but a day after the talk, do you have something you can use? There are a number of entrepreneurs who fit all four criteria here, just make sure you have one! An innovation keynote should have use-back-at-the-office advice.
Generally, the challenge of an Innovation Speaker is to say something insightful, useful, and new in the 50 minutes typically given — and be entertaining and inspirational at the same time. Let’s face it, if a keynote doesn’t have a few laughs, and at least one deep reflective moment, people won’t listen anyway. Most professional keynotes focus on a central point and have supporting stories. But the thing is, there is not One Thing with regard to innovation. It’s everything, and, it’s complicated. Simplifying it is convenient for a speaker, but not helpful for those trying to do it unless…the innovation speaker helps audiences sort out the complexity. This means providing concrete ideas on actions they can take in their enterprises — and this should go beyond “hire me and I’ll tell you.”
Okay, the above was neutral, the following is not: I, Gregg Fraley, am an innovation speaker. Here’s how I match the Four Criteria: I’ve created companies and new products for myself and for others. I say something new because I continue to invent new tools and techniques that are proving to be highly useful in the process of innovating (as part of KILN ). These tools and techniques can be used “back home” by those listening to my talks (without my help). I am a theorist — I wrote a book on structured creative problem solving called Jack’s Notebook, which is used by many prestigious business schools, and I’ve written provocative articles about many aspects of innovation. AND, I have a current practice, working with a wide range of companies from start-ups to multi-nationals. I’m a well trained and experienced speaker with a keen sense of humor (my Elvis impersonation is famous, and much better than Sir Ken Robinson’s). I’m a closet graphic artist, so, my visuals are full of meaning and color. My audiences and those who hire me consistently give me great marks.
So, if you are looking for an innovation speaker, please consider me, I’m a high value alternative to those mavens — with huge price tags — I mention above.