When to say no to a speaking opportunity

Do you have a speaking opportunity sitting in your inbox?

Are you wondering whether to accept (or decline) the invitation?

Get clarity – and get off the fence – with this advice.


The keynote speaker concluded, and the virtual event was over.

Despite the incredible speaking opportunity given to this highly anticipated speaker and leader, she’d somehow managed to say a whole lot about absolutely nothing for the last 20 minutes.

As I exited the meeting, I couldn’t help but think about “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

You remember this children’s fairy tale – the one by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen from 1837?

It’s a delightful literary folktale about the emperor who gets duped into believing that only people who are stupid or incompetent are unable to see the magnificent, meticulously designed garments that two weavers – swindlers, in reality – have designed for the emperor to wear in a procession through town.

The emperor gives the supposed weavers only the very best silks and threads, which the swindlers surreptitiously take for themselves while pretending to weave night and day on empty looms.

Soon, two of the emperor’s ministers visit the weavers to check on their progress – and see nothing.

They are aghast!

But they know if they admit to seeing nothing, they will be judged as either stupid or incompetent.

So they praise the weavers overwhelmingly for their mastery and artistry.

When it’s time for the emperor himself to visit the weavers and try on his new clothes – he too sees nothing.

Like his ministers, the emperor is afraid that he will be judged as either stupid or incompetent for the garments he does not see.

So the emperor proclaims that his newly fashioned costume is absolutely exquisite – truly marvelous and well-fitting! – before he undresses, allows himself to be clothed in the imaginary finery and enters the procession.

The emperor walks proudly through the town!

But the emperor, indeed, has no clothes.

Incredibly, no one in town dares to say what they actually see, which is nothing.

Instead, the officials and townspeople chatter nonstop about the emperor’s new clothes.

Finally, a child speaks the truth:

“But he hasn’t got anything on!”

That was my general reckoning as well after the keynote speaker I told you about smiled her last, eagerly awaiting her chance to exit the virtual platform once her speaking opportunity was over.

“But she hasn’t said anything at all!” I wanted to exclaim to my colleagues, many of whom politely nodded their heads in virtual appreciation after it was over, thanking the keynoter profusely for her time and good thoughts.

From the audience, there were no questions.

The keynote was just – over.


So what was the problem with this speaking opportunity?

Why did this happen?

And how can we – as speakers or leaders who coach speakers – learn from this?


The backstory

Since I knew a few of the people working behind the scenes of this conference, I was able to get a bit of an inside track.

Here’s what I learned (and what I discerned) about this speaking opportunity:

  1. The conference organizers did not take the time to share their goals, intent and expectations with the keynote speaker – months in advance – after they invited her to speak. As a result, they lost control of the keynote.
  2. Based on her role as a servant leader to people attending the conference, the speaker likely felt obligated to say yes to this speaking opportunity – without clearly thinking through how she could bring real value to this audience and to her own organization.
  3. Since the conference did not seem to be a high strategic priority for the speaker, she did not take the time to prepare remarks with a clear message. Instead, she appeared to regurgitate background information about conference attendees shared by the conference organizers themselves.
  4. The speaker (most likely her communications staffers) threw together her remarks in a couple of days (and it showed). This happened only after a last-minute frenzied phone call with the conference organizers (who asked for a quick check-in with the speaker about the theme of her keynote less than a week before the event).
  5. As a result, because the speaker did not prioritize this speaking opportunity, she failed on stage. Her muddled performance damaged her reputation – hyped up for months by conference organizers – which may not be reparable in the hearts and minds of attendees.


The takeaways from this experience are clear

Here’s some advice to remember:

  1. You do not have to say yes to every speaking opportunity that comes your way – no matter how flattered you are by the invitation.
  2. If you do not have something to say that will benefit the audience – and provide a strategic benefit to you and your organization – decline the invitation.
  3. If you do not have the time, energy and willingness to craft a set of remarks – well ahead of the event – say no to the speaking opportunity (or risk damaging your good reputation).


Do you need to ensure that your next keynote speech hits the mark? 
Work with Teresa Zumwald, an award-winning speechwriter and speech coach.
Contact us today!