If content is now king at association meetings, then by definition the selection of speakers is a critical factor in the success of any gathering, large or small.
Over the last few years, however, the consideration of what defines a successful presentation has changed and evolved. At the same time, budget pressures have changed the cost-benefit equation.
But the good news is that after a marked downturn during the long and lingering recession, the market is healthy and dynamic again.
“The best thing about the speaker market today is that association meetings are on the rise again,” says Stacy Tetschner, CAE, FASAE, the CEO of the Tempe, Arizona-based National Speakers Association. “Things are getting back to normal in terms of demand for speakers after the recession and the years afterward. And that is especially true in the association market, because associations rely so much on the use of speakers.”
“The other trend I see now is that there is more demand for speakers of all levels of experience and expertise, because more and more associations are looking for a unique perspective that is a perfect fit for their market.”
— Stacy Tetschner, CAE, FASAE
Tetschner notes that associations depend on outside speakers considerably more so than the corporate meeting market does because in one way or another, an association’s basic business is ongoing education of its members. “So that fact alone creates a lot of opportunity for many different kinds of speakers,” Tetschner says.
The primary factor driving the market now, he says, is “Who’s new? Who’s different? Who’s best?” In other words, he says, the bar is being raised. “And one thing we’re seeing now is that associations sometimes choose to bring in someone who is an industry expert, even if they’re not professional speakers,” he says. “The other trend I see now is that there is more demand for speakers of all levels of experience and expertise, because more and more associations are looking for a unique perspective that is a perfect fit for their market. So those two factors are tending to broaden the speaker market, which is good for associations and also good for speakers.”
In fact, he says, the growing demand for a truly unique and compelling perspective is the single most important factor in the success of a speaker today.
The other major issue that is impacting the association market, just as it is in the corporate market, is the ever-increasing role of the audience in the development and planning of meetings. “Today, it’s the audience that drives the content for the meeting and the types of speakers they want to hear, Tetschner says. That has led to an increasingly important best practice, which is in-depth pre-meeting collaboration between meeting planners and speakers to craft a presentation or speech that is tailor-made for the group. Largely gone are the days of a standard canned speech that is delivered generically to audience after audience, week after week.
Another key factor that is transforming meetings is shorter, more focused presentations that follow the well-established and enormously influential TED model. Because of TED’s success, the old notion of the one-hour keynote is on the endangered species list.
“TED has had the single biggest impact on the length and style of presentations,” Tetschner says. “TED has been able to show everyone in the industry how a speaker can — in 18 minutes or less — make a really good talk that will change an audience’s thinking, change the way they see something, change the way they act. It has been a real revolution.”
And its impact will only continue to grow in the meeting industry, he says.
“The other factor, based on what I said earlier,” he says, “is that more and more meeting planners are now asking themselves, ‘What does the audience want?’ For the longest time, most planners just said, ‘Hey, here’s what you get — the standard one hour or 45-minute keynote speech or whatever. But in the last few years, more and more planners have come to realize that a shorter, more specific presentation delivers better results and that attendees like it better. So because of things like the feedback planners get from social media, like a Twitter feed at the meeting, they realize that often they are getting killed by the same old 45-minute speech. And that’s why more and more, they’re looking for something new and different. Something unique that will resonate with their audience.”
The result has been genuine innovation.
“First, we saw shorter TED-style presentations that were limited to 20 minutes or so. But more recently, we’ve seen situations where creative new ideas are coming into play in ways that enhance engagement and communication. For example, at a recent meeting of ours, we did an event we called ‘Fast Five,’ which included five speakers for five minutes each. And it was very effective, especially because it was done in front of an audience of speakers. It showed you can take an entirely different approach and get results,” says Tetschner.
Barrett Cordero, president of Santa Barbara, California-based speakers bureau BigSpeak Inc., agrees that transformational change has come to the association meeting market over the last few years when it comes to the use of speakers.
“As a planner, you have to pay attention to the trends,” he says. “And I agree that one of the major changes has been shorter or more abbreviated keynotes and other talks. The other thing is that presentations have to be very relevant to the association’s industry. They also now tend to be more narrow in scope — very focused. They have to serve a clear purpose. They have to be interactive.”
And most of all, he says, they have to be memorable and impactful.
A related factor — and a major challenge for planners — is the generation gap that now looms over many meetings.
“That is a factor that now affects every aspect of a meeting, including the speakers,” Tetschner says. “In the typical audience today, you have representatives of five different generations sitting there. That means their individual experiences and expectations are essentially very different from one another. And that means that when a speaker makes an analogy or cites an example, those things have to communicate across those generational lines. And that is very hard to do. It’s not easy to bring the entire audience along with you anymore since your audience is so diverse in terms of perception and tastes. If you’re not careful, you can be perceived as irrelevant to large sectors of your audience very quickly.”
The generational issue is now so critical that the National Speakers Association has addressed it in breakout sessions at several of its major meetings, including an annual conference.
The solution the organization preaches: Find commonality, Tetschner says, by doing in-depth attendee research before the meeting to find the common threads of interest across generations.
Another rather obvious factor is post-recession budgets, which remain tight for many associations. And one way budgets can be reduced is by hiring less expensive speakers than the long-popular, best-selling author, celebrity or sports hero.
David Poulos, chief consultant at Sparks, Maryland-based meeting planning and consulting firm Granite Partners, has a somewhat unique perspective on the issue because he also is a speaker.
“In general, since the recession, association budgets for speakers have shrunk slightly,” Poulos says. “And at the same time, speaker fees have risen. If you want a marquee speaker today, he or she is going to cost you at least $20,000. You can get an ‘almost marquee’ guy for $5,000. So the reason why now you see fewer associations hiring marquee speakers is obvious. But the problem with that calculus is that the marquee speaker is going to bring you more attendees based on his or her reputation, visibility and notoriety. So in general, you can save money on the speaker that costs you a quarter as much. But you’re not going to get the same draw or the same value.”
Unfortunately, since the recession, too many meeting planners fail to accurately quantify the value of a speaker and how that factors into the bottom-line success of the meeting.
As the head of a highly successful speakers bureau, Cordero disputes Poulos’ assessment. Speaker fees are back to normal, he says. Budgets are healthy again. Tangible value — the perceived drawing power of a particular speaker for a particular meeting — is more important than ever.
But, he adds, there also is more diversity in terms of what is available at what price point.
“But at the same time, in my experience,” he says, “the typical association has the budget available to support our recommendation in terms of what will work best for them.”
Aside from budgets themselves is the now more widely debated issue of the underlying purpose of a presentation. In other words, planners are weighing the value of a “big name” speaker versus a lesser known one whose talk might deliver much more practical benefit.
A current trend Poulos sees is that what he calls “nuts and bolts” speakers are transplanting celebrities and experts — and not just because they are considerably less expensive. “With the nuts and bolts speakers, the value is obvious,” he says. “They can say to the planner, ‘When I’m done, your attendees will be able to do X, Y and Z.’ It’s a practical consideration. With the more well-known and glitzy speaker, you’re going to get celebrity and a draw. But you’re not going to get the same amount of takeaway knowledge that the nuts and bolts guy will give you.”
He adds that for attendees and the companies that pay their meeting registration fees and travel costs, the nuts and bolts speaker also has more appeal. “That’s because more and more,” Poulos says, “companies are asking, before they decide to send people to the meeting, ‘What’s the takeaway? What value will I get out of sending people to the meeting?’ And those kinds of questions are more important than ever to most companies.
“What you hear these days is that when a CFO is told X dollars are being spent to send people to a meeting, his first question is, ‘What are we going to get for that money?’ And you need to have a good answer to that. So that drives the trend toward more practical speakers that can satisfy that requirement. But they’re not going to deliver any excitement. And they’re not going to increase attendance. So the decision as to what kind of speaker you hire, at what cost, has to be made based on what you want. And you have to be very clear about what you want and why. That said, there will always be a market for Katie Couric or anyone else of that stature. But you have to know exactly why you want Katie Couric.”
While Cordero does not challenge Poulos’ assertion about the growing appeal of more practical, less well-known speakers, he says without hesitation that demand for well-known, recognizable speakers is robust and will always be robust for obvious reasons — star appeal and drawing power.
“One of the most obvious trends I see right now is that many associations are looking for celebrity speakers or at least someone who is widely recognized,” he says. “That’s because they want to draw attention to who will be speaking at the meeting as a way of generating interest and attendance. They want the draw that only a well-known speaker can generate.”
There has been one significant change in the market, Cordero says. “Best-selling authors carry less weight now than ever before, because there are just so many best-selling authors out there in the age of self-publishing that their value has diminished,” he says. “If someone is truly a major author who wrote a book a lot of people know about, then that can be a draw. But in general, I’d say authors are less popular than ever before.”
By comparison, he says, celebrities are more popular than ever. “And part of that is because of the way they can promote and merchandise themselves via social media. And the notion of who is a celebrity today doesn’t just include people who are in the movies or TV or in sports. There are ‘business celebrities’ today and they are very popular now with association meeting groups, because their business expertise and celebrity makes them very relevant to the audience.”
For example, Cordero says, among the most in-demand business speakers for the last year or so have been people like Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary of the “Shark Tank” TV show, as well as their two less well-known colleagues. “They are popular because they are well-known business people who have big brand presences,” Cordero says. “And even more important, they have proven business acumen, so what they have to say is more relevant to personal development and individual performance.”
Other much-in-demand speakers, according to Cordero, include high achievers such as astronauts and Olympic gold medalists. “They will always be in demand, for obvious reasons,” he says.
Of course, many of the factors that go into the selection of a speaker are subjective. And what works well for one association meeting might be a flop at another.
Therefore, Poulos says, planners should adhere to a simple principle.
“In today’s world, planners need to be creative,” he says. “They need to be innovative. Anybody can spend money. Today, it’s more about identifying and chasing down speakers that can do a great job for you at a good price. And that often means going outside the speaker bureaus and finding more creative ways to communicate with a speaker. For example, find someone who knows someone who knows them. Or use your social media networks. If you know a reasonable number of people, you can find someone who can put you in touch. If you can establish direct communication, you’ll often be able to negotiate a better price. It’s about how you approach people and how you deal with them. If you come at it from a different angle, you can get a good deal for yourself and also do something that appeals to the speaker.”
Tetschner offers another piece of well-informed counsel.
“Be relevant,” he says.”Major industries are changing so fast now, thanks to things like technology or global markets, that associations need to pay more attention to what the needs of their attendees are. And the same principle applies to speakers at meetings. Today, a meeting planner has to ask himself or herself when they’re planning a meeting, ‘Where is the pain our members are feeling? And how can we help alleviate that pain?’ Until you know and understand that, you can’t design the right content and hire the right speakers. Alleviating the pain your members are feeling as their industry changes is the most important factor in why someone is going to come to your meeting — and why they’ll want to sit and hear what your speakers have to say.” AC&F