I once worked for the late Gen. Norman H. Schwarzkopf and had the opportunity to attend one of his speeches delivered to thousands of people for a motivational symposium that featured eight speakers designed to incentivize sales professionals. It also included former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, who had the misfortune of following his dynamic wife, Barbara, who unbeknownst to him had grabbed some of their funniest personal anecdotes for her speech—basically duplicating her husband’s talk. The lesson learned: Make sure the meeting planner reviews all the speaker’s material up front. The only thing more unfortunate than embarrassing a former president is embarrassing his wife.
Sandro Forte is a founder member of the Professional Speakers Association and is a sought-after speaker as well as a strategic and personal development coach. He has served as the Million Dollar Round Table program chair, to design the motivational program for more than 10,000 top sales professionals who attend their annual conference. We sat down with Forte to get his advice on sleuthing the right speaker.
What are the most important recommendations you can make for selecting a speaker?
Think of the dynamics of your program as a whole show, especially if it’s a two or three-day conference. You may have a couple of good speakers but you have to think about how they fit together. The speakers I love to work with are the ones that are willing to work closely with me and other speakers to make the program an experience. And they understand that they are just one small component of what you are trying to create.
How do you sleuth the perfect speaker?
The perfect speaker, if there is such a thing, is someone who is relevant, easy to work with, respectful, timely and flexible. So if you are putting on an event, and you have 20 speakers in three days and you’ve got two or three prima donnas and a couple of big egos that don’t show up on time, then your world as a meeting planner is a nightmare. You need to have a line-up of speakers that work like a team, speak as a team—there is something that translates to the audience when this happens that kind of says, “This is a great place to be.”
When do you choose entertainment versus the message?
Most of the time you want to mix it up. If you have someone that is speaking very passionately and causes the audience to become very emotional, you need to mix it up and tell everyone, “OK, now we’re going to take a break and you get to enjoy something for just 10 minutes as entertainment.” We’ve always used speakers to set the mood.
What’s your opinion on using traditional ways to find speakers?
I know loads of great speakers that have appalling websites and poor marketing materials. And then there are terrible speakers who have interesting materials and great websites. I’m generalizing here, but if someone has a sparkling good, amazing website then they’ve got too much time at home to be playing with the website making sure they have all the things they need.
I also lean away from people who promote themselves heavily. You cannot rely on videotaped testimonials. Because what most speakers do when they finish their presentation is they run out to the audience when everyone is feeling very euphoric and they ask them to be on their video and then prompt them to say everything was great. It’s not very objective.
The best subjective way to get information is when someone you respect tells you the speaker is really good.
I am a member of the National Speaker’s Association and attend their annual meeting to meet speakers and watch them perform. There’s nothing quite as good as getting to see them speak and also getting to see what kind of person they are as well. You want to see if they are the type of person that will go well beyond what is expected and pull out the stops, and to see what they are like to work with.
How are speaker fees determined?
Usually you pay a flat fee set with the speaker. If you are working with a speakers bureau, their fee is between the speaker and the bureau but the speakers bureau will add anywhere from 15 to 25 percent to the speaker’s fee. We’ve always tried to work directly with the speaker. You want to work with someone that will attend conference calls and participate in the planning.
What about pro bono speakers?
Do so at your own risk. The problem is you are asking someone to do it for free and even with the best intentions if they say yes and something comes up at the last hour then suddenly it doesn’t make sense for them to keep their engagement and you have no recourse. Make sure you have a replacement locked up.
Any tips on how you use speakers to strengthen your message?
We learned from TED Talks that if a speaker is really good, they can convey the message in 15 minutes. What I have found is that most speakers are not better in one hour than they are in 20 minutes. So you don’t always have to give someone an hour time slot because what he or she is going to do is spend 15 to 20 minutes giving you really good stuff and the rest is padding. If you have three good speakers over an hour giving you really good, high-level stuff for 20 or 30 minutes each, it’s better than having one speaker who comes up with 20 minutes of content and 40 minutes of wasting everyone’s time.