We need some better speakers on the London speaker circuit: When anyone can be an “authority”, any fraud can get an audience

Elena Shalneva
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Not everyone in a crowd will have something worth saying (Source: Getty)

I used to be in awe of people who were recognised as an “authority” on something or other. Those who spoke at conferences. Or frequented panel discussions. Or gave prolific press commentary. Or – the pinnacle of any career – appeared on TV. If a CV saying “X regularly speaks at high-profile industry events” landed on my desk, I felt both admiration and crippling inferiority. What a vast body of knowledge this person must possess. What clarity of thought and lucidity of expression. As well as, most probably, charm, wit and a sense of dramatic timing.

Then I started going to various speaker events in London, and quickly realised that being an “authority” was not that difficult and almost anyone could do it. In fact, almost anyone did. Because for every time that Mark Carney discussed the economy (at the FT 125 Forum) or António Horta Osório shared his ideas about the future of banks (at the Insead Alumnae Club), there were dozens of times that I listened to a mid-level manager speak about a dire subject with no knowledge or authority, and with all the charisma of a man desperate to finish a slide without running out of breath. With time, these events merged into a grey, mediocre blur.

A few years ago, I saw a full-feature article in a respected Sunday business supplement about a budding entrepreneur who started some sort of a themed café in East London. This woman was described as a former City “high-flyer” who gave up her roaring career to follow her passion for food. In fact, it was my former secretary and, as far as I knew, she gave up very little indeed as she had been fired. I called the business editor, a friend. “Do you realise this woman is a fraud?” “Sorry,” was the answer. “There are so many of them coming through, it’s hard to tell.”

That’s the problem: there are so many of them – speakers, experts, interviewees, “authorities” of some sort or another – and editors are so overworked, and conference organisers are so busy, and often their options are limited, and their preferred speakers drop out at the last minute. And so despite claiming to provide distinguished speakers, in reality they provide those speakers that they can get. So someone billed as a “leading thinker on business innovation” would turn out to be a corporate strategy VP, who would be too junior and terrified to step away from a rigid brief, and whose case would collapse at the first challenging question.

Despite long thinking that the goal was unattainable, I now also proudly add that “I was interviewed by leading media” on my CV. Several years ago, I appeared on the BBC Six O’Clock News to defend a money transfer company against fraud allegations. I was briefed to say that the company’s employees did not commit the fraud, and there was full legal proof of that. This message was rock-solid, I could not possibly go wrong. “Can you guarantee that your employees never commit fraud?” was the first question. “Of course I cannot guarantee that,” I answered. Sure enough, that was the bit that was aired and I looked very stupid indeed. But I still became a member of the elite “expert” club, even though I am endlessly relieved that the BBC eventually removed my clip from its website.

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