A meeting’s speaker can be credited with putting bodies in seats, energizing attendees and increasing sales. But if the speaker doesn’t quite do that, whose fault is it? More often than not, it’s the planner who hired them.
Or, at least that is where the blame may fall. While it might be acknowledged that the speaker failed to live up to expectations, it will definitely be pointed out that the person in charge of hiring the speaker should have done a better job. Period.
“A person who books speakers for meetings is inundated with calls, e-mails and pitches trying to get you to hire them or the speaker they represent,” says Mary Lynne McInnish, who procures speakers for the Atlanta Bar Association. “The vetting becomes very important because you can have dozens or hundreds of people who can all speak on the same topic.”
So what’s a meeting planner to do?
Lori Gordon, president and founder of Ideal Meetings and Events, in South Bend, Ind., says start with what is expected of the speaker.
“It’s important to truly understand the program and the meeting’s objective,” she says. “What does your client – and by client I mean the people in charge of the meeting – want? Do they want a motivational speaker or someone who can talk with insight about what’s going on in that specific industry? Do they want a teacher who will explain the new products? Or do they want a sports figure or celebrity who will just deliver that ‘wow’ factor? Once you understand that – and only then – can you even start to look for speakers.”
Budget, of course, comes next. Many companies or associations prefer to know the entire cost upfront so there’s no possibility of a cost overrun. For instance, a flat rate of $7,500 including expenses rather than a $7,000 speaker’s fee, plus expenses.
Planners also recommend asking the speaker for more services instead of trying to wrangle a lower fee.
“There’s a lot of room to negotiate,” admits Dallas-based Zan Jones, who books and markets speakers. “Ask for more. Ask if he or she will come in the day before the speech and have cocktails and dinner with the group, or stay after the speech and participate in a breakout session. Most speakers don’t have any problem with that unless it’s a travel issue.”
It’s also worth asking for a discount on the speaker’s book or video, or seeing if the speaker will play a round of golf with selected attendees. Shawn Ellis, president of Nashville-based The Speakers Group, is a fan of having the speaker conduct online, webinars or Skype follow-up sessions months after the actual event. “That way the attendees can get follow-up advice on what they are doing right or wrong. It also helps the speaker know what points in the speech hit home or may need some work.” Pre-show blog posts and “tweets” are other ways speakers can help planners engage the audience.
Jane Atkinson, author of “The Wealthy Speaker,” agrees there’s more negotiating now, but cautions not to “beat up speakers too much. They must feel valued and appreciated. If they allow you to cut their fee in half, what does that say about them and what you’re getting?”
Many meeting planners use a speakers bureau to help identify and book speakers while others do it themselves. Either way, the same questions must be asked and answered fully.
Most importantly, can the speaker talk about the topic? Does the expertise come from an academic or research perspective – such as a consultant or an industry observer – or from personal knowledge and experience? “Ask specifically what can they offer your attendees,” says Atkinson. “If their answer is unfocused and unclear, then that is the kind of speech you’ll get. Really drill them down.”
Michael J. Lyons, DMCP, and executive vice president of AMR Meetings & Incentives outside of Philadelphia, agrees. “There are hundreds of consultants, authors, professors, businesspeople, celebrities and sports stars who talk on leadership. Make sure it matches up well for your group [so] you get the value you need.”
Steve Markman, president of Boston-based Markman Speakers Management, adds, “No matter what the topic or meeting, you have to get a speaker who can hold an audience while delivering substantive content.”
One way to do this is to find out what attendees from previous meetings liked and didn’t like about the speakers, says Meaghan Edelstein, a conference producer for Global Strategic Management Institute, an international conference and training company. “Re-read the evaluations and build your speakers around the comments.”
Research and network. Find out who spoke at other conventions on your subject and read blogs, Twitter accounts or follow-up comments about those sessions. Read relevant trade journals and general media to see who is being quoted and making news. Who is involved in issues that your people are excited about? Ask friends or co-workers for any good speakers they may have heard.
Visit the website. Check out the video. If it doesn’t engage you, then it won’t do much for your attendees either. Most speakers’ websites have quotes from clients. Call them for references.
If possible, go see the speaker in action. It may cost a little money, but it’s better than wasting more on a bad speaker with a great video. “You don’t want a speaker who spends the first 15 minutes talking about his or her credentials. [They’ll] lose my audience,” says Gordon. “You don’t want a speaker who spends the last 15 minutes pitching his book. [They’ll] drain the energy and my people will leave bored and detached. And, you certainly don’t want a speaker who has 10 steps to branding and only talks about three. (If you want four through 10, buy the book.) What you want is someone who will spend the entire 60 minutes telling me specifically how I can help my company. That’s it.”
In the age of self-publishing, just about anyone can – and often does – has a book. Even so, it does add credibility. Get the book and read it. Is it on topic for you?
Remember, people do like a bit of celebrity. “You can have a Ph.D. speaking about splitting an atom, but if he’s appeared in People, people are much more interested,” says Jones.
Now that the search is narrowed, how do you choose?
See who will customize their speech specifically for your audience. Some will, others simply have a canned speech. “I don’t dictate what the presenter will talk about,” says Edelstein. “But I want to make sure the parameters are not off-mark and that it’s what we want to build our conference around.”
The speaker should be familiar with the group, its website, issues of relevance to them and incorporate those items and industry lingo into their speech. “For instance, if you’re a credit union, then your speaker should know that you call your customers “members,” said Jones. “That’s the creditability and relationship that you’re looking for.”
Today’s speakers use a variety of tools to enhance the talk and keep the audience – particularly the younger ones – engaged and entertained. Speakers not only use the ever-popular PowerPoint but also may use videos or other multi-media tricks. It does help to keep the energy up. Check out what your potential speakers use.
Still stuck? Then look at demographics. “Putting together speakers for a meeting is like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Edelstein. “You have to make sure you have a wide range of demographics – not just a bunch of white men.” And, that includes generational diversity. Look for some twenty-somethings as well.
If you’ve done all of your research and your chosen speaker did a smashing performance, then as a meeting planner you have done a superb job. But honestly, you probably won’t get the credit.