Easy for You to Say: Conference Ho or Public Speaker No-Go

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld



Mark Suster wrote about entrepreneurs he calls “conference ho’s.” (Yes, he means whores.) These junket-junkies spend too much time jet setting here and there to see and be seen; or more specifically, to speak and be spoken to from behind a podium. Suster questions whether all this public exposure is of value to the entrepreneur’s company, or just to their ego. A good question. A better one might be where Suster found these verbose, spotlight-seeking entrepreneur CEOs.

Tongue Tied
I have worked for not one, not two, not three (see where I’m going?) but four accomplished, successful, not to mention normally arrogant, self-aggrandizing, over-confident entrepreneurs who couldn’t string a sentence together while standing in front of a microphone.

One such entrepreneur boss completed a high profile keynote address, scheduled to run for over an hour, in under twenty minutes. Oops. Another–who had launched multiple companies, taken half a dozen public, and preformed in the past as a successful musician–practically had to be medicated before speaking in front of a group of party-goers at a launch function. And this was a crowd who had been drinking for hours. For free! Talk about an easy audience.

In my experience, the bolder and brasher the entrepreneur is behind the walls of his fiefdom, the bigger the phobia of public speaking. Psychotherapist Diane Hailparn explains that there are certain traits that make entrepreneurs high risk for phobias; mainly being creative and imaginative. The entrepreneur’s overactive creative minds can careen down the “what if” path to negative outcomes faster than other people. And once the negative spin cycle has started, it can be hard to stop. It turns out that the same characteristics that help entrepreneurs succeed in business may cause them to fail on stage.

Type Cast
According to Dr. Paul L. Witt, assistant professor of communication studies at Texas Christian University, the way this phobia will manifest itself on stage depends on whether the entrepreneur falls into the category of Habituater or Sensitizer. More simply put, whether they have high or low-trait anxiety.


Sensitizers, who have high-trait anxiety, are more tightly wound in general. On stage, their internal dialogue will focus on what’s going wrong instead of what they are saying. They’ll focus on their quivering voice, or shaking hands, or a person they see who doesn’t appear interested.

Say What?
Sensitizers may be so distracted by these factors that they’ll unknowingly race through their speech, like with my first entrepreneur example, or they’ll leave out large chunks of information. Worse, the speaker can become so distracted that they stop making sense.

A perfect (non-entrepreneurial) example of this is the now famous, incomprehensible speech given by Miss South Carolina.


Even if she isn’t the most brilliant gem in the tiara, it would be hard to believe that under other circumstances she couldn’t have done better. Her mind is simply too distracted, maybe by the knowledge that she is failing, to focus on what she’s saying.

Love, Hate
Habituaters, who have low-trait anxiety, will begin to relax once on stage. Once they are past the initial fear of stepping on the stage, they enjoy their time in the spotlight. My second entrepreneur example, who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the stage, had to be dragged off in the same fashion. Habituaters will feel relief and even pride after completing their speech. But will still feel the same dread and anxiety before the next one.

Suster ends his article by speculating that some of today’s biggest, most successful companies got that way in part because their entrepreneur CEO’s are too smart to be lured into the speaking spotlight. He suggests that Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Pincus, for example, realize they need to be focused on leading the troops, not standing in front of a microphone.

I wonder if these creative, imaginative visionaries aren’t missing from the speaking circuit because they are more phobic than focused.

[Photo Credits: microphone – Brendan Biele via Flickr, face – purplemattfish via Flickr]


Kathy Ver Eecke made a career out of helping entrepreneurs launch companies and brands. She’s acted as the right-hand (wo)man to entrepreneurs in three countries and multiple industries. After two decades of working for entrepreneurs, she realized that although the names, places and brands had changed, the unconventional behavior, temperaments and management styles of each new entrepreneur boss was eerily familiar. So now she writes about it. Letting others know what to expect from the seemingly unique yet utterly predictable entrepreneur boss. You can find her at Working for Wonka: Surviving the Entrepreneur Boss or follow her on twitter @workingforwonka.

About the author

I am an entrepreneurial survivor. No, I'm not an entrepreneur