When a major meetings industry event gave a platform to an acclaimed author who subsequently resigned for falsifying quotes, it raised questions for every meeting planner—this could have happened at any conference.
Jonah Lehrer, the opening keynote speaker at MPI’s 2012 World Education Congress, came with great credentials. He’d majored in neuroscience, written three books, contributed to Wired magazine and National Public Radio’s Radiolab, and—until the evening following his WEC appearance—was a staff writer at The New Yorker. Then, it all unraveled, with the revelation that Lehrer fabricated quotes he’d attributed to Bob Dylan in his latest book.
Lehrer lost his job, his publisher recalled the book, and, according to WEC participant Jon Trask, the MPI bookstore offered refunds on site. A New York Times blog identified “a lucrative lecture circuit that rewards snappy, semi-scientific pronouncements, smoothly delivered to a corporate audience,” as one of the temptations that drove him to cheat.
“Conjure me up a guy who talks science winningly, who shows you that everything is transparent, and does it in a self-help-y spirit,” Columbia journalism professor and social history icon Todd Gitlin told The Times. “In our age, a guy who looks cute and wonky is better positioned to get away with this than others.”
So what’s a meeting planner to do? Your conference theme is set, your deadlines are unforgiving, and the speakerbureau has given you a short list of possible keynotespeakers. How far do you dig into a speaker’s credentials, and what else can you do to protect your program?
With hindsight, it looks as if it wouldn't have been difficult to spot problems with Lehrer’s credibility. A Google search turned up blogger Seth Mnookin’s allegation that he “became overwhelmed and started to cut corners” after an earlier book hit the bestseller list, fabricating a quote for a 2010 Wired post and, a bit bizarrely, earning accusations of “self-plagiarism” for repurposing large chunks of his own earlier material without acknowledgement.
One hundred percent of the responsibility for those lapses rests with the author. But if the conference or the bureau had picked up the mutterings, they could have made an informed decision before committing
The deeper issue is conferences’ near-unanimous dependence on hiring“cute and wonky” speakers, as Gitlin puts it, to fly in for a keynote address, pull in the crowds, deliver a barnburner that may even include some original material, and go home. The rise of crowdsourcing tells us there often may be more wisdom in the crowd than on the podium, and there are great techniques for building a program on that wider base of knowledge and experience.
All of which adds up to one more very important detail for planners to worry about. Are you certain the keynote speaker for your next event will do you proud? And before you even go down that road, are your participants well served by a conference model that puts so much stock inhigh-profile keynotes?
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blogand tweets as @mitchellbeer.