Whether a meeting planner is looking to motivate employees, inspire an audience or educate C-level executives on the latest marketing strategies, hiring a professional speaker is often easier said than done. Mismatched styles, wrong messaging or unprofessional delivery can easily result in a speaking event that doesn’t encourage or engage attendees. Therefore, it’s vital that meeting planners do their homework to find a speaker that keeps attendees wanting more.
When Lynne Wellish, CMP, CHSE, CHO, of Phoenix, Arizona, first began in the meeting and events industry, she only focused her efforts on speaker procurement by looking at the budget and potential speaker rather than what that speaker brought to the proverbial table. Now Wellish recognizes that while those two pieces are important, the focus needs to be on how attendees experience and interact with the content of the event. When selecting speakers for events these days, Wellish asks additional questions: “What is the profile of your attendee? What is the message you want your participants to walk away with? How will that benefit your organization?”
“Speakers need to fit into the very fabric of the event, and they can help make this happen if they are included earlier in the planning process,” Wellish says. “This is because their business is being subject matter experts that can use a wide variety of content delivery formats.”
To select the right speaker, match the speaker to the content and objectives. Look for subject matter experts for content delivery. Is the speaker’s topic suitable for your audience profile?
“The way a speaker shows up as a conversation on a call mirrors how they show up in a room no matter what the size of the audience.”
— Holly Dowling
“Start with goals and objectives of the educational program, then seek to find the subject matter expert that fits the topic,” Wellish says. For example, at a national sales meeting, Wellish and her client were very confident about the keynote speaker that they had selected.
“The CEO had heard the speaker, and he was stellar. Except he was not — or not for our audience. It was a big lesson learned,” Wellish says. “Now I know to ask the right questions with a velvet tongue. Speakers are subject matter experts. A celebrity who wrote a book is on a promotions circuit and may or may not be an appropriate polished speaker.”
Sherry A. Marts, Ph.D., president and CEO at S*Marts Consulting in Washington, D.C., is a frequent speaker and has a clear understanding of how to make the speaker-planner relationship a smooth one. Her advice for meeting planners hiring speakers? “Get very, very clear about what you want and what your priorities are,” Marts says.
Do you want the speaker to:
“It’s only the rare speaker who can do all of this,” Marts says. “So decide what is most important and emphasize that when you talk to prospects or to folks giving you referrals.”
There are numerous key strategies to follow when selecting someone to speak at a meeting. Nicole Chattin, CMP, senior program manager at Brightspot Incentives & Events in Irving, Texas, explains that it is important to keep the meeting goals and objectives in mind when selecting a speaker for an event.
“If the meeting is a sales kickoff, a motivational speaker would be beneficial, but for something like a human resources conference, an ethics speaker may be more appropriate,” Chattin says. “Think about the audience, why they are attending the event and what they want to achieve with this speaker.”
Demographics of the audience are also a crucial piece in determining the best presenters. Gender, age range and industry (to name a few) contribute to the demographics of your attendees that you want to consider before selecting speakers.
“If there is a mostly female nurse convention, one may not want to choose a sports-related male speaker,” Chattin says. Again, keep in mind who the audience is, their expectation for the event and what will best benefit them.
When selecting a speaker, the first thing meeting and event planners should do is set up an appointment to talk before signing a contract and to review expectations prior to event.
And be sure your major meeting stakeholder fully supports and embraces the speaker’s message. If this doesn’t happen, the experience, information shared and expense will bring little return, if any.
Former event planner and now a professional speaker, Cara Silletto, president at Crescendo Strategies, says the best speakers have a combination of powerful content and dynamic delivery, so it is critical to see current videos of the potential speakers from a live (not staged) event. “Any speaker can make a nearly perfect three-minute promo video showing only their funniest jokes and best material, but watching an uncut five to 10 minutes gives planners a more realistic sample of the speaker’s style and value,” Silletto says.
“From a speaker’s perspective, I look to make sure the organizers are clear on what they want. If they aren’t, I have no way to know if this is a good fit for me,” Marts says. “How sure are they that I’m the right fit? Sometimes it’s as simple as: Have they even looked at my website? Essentially, they are going to hire me (on a temporary basis), so we both have to decide if the job is a good fit for my skills, knowledge and abilities.”
Marts decides whether this is an organization whose mission and values align with hers. She also evaluates who and how big is the audience? What are the expected audience demographics? “The last thing I want is to be speaking about a topic to an audience who could school me on that topic,” Marts says. “I also ask if they are willing to pay me, and how much? At the very least, will my expenses and registration be covered? I get lots of requests from folks who think I’m still willing to work for the ‘exposure’ to ‘potential clients.’ I can count on zero fingers the number of clients I got as the direct result of an invited speech or participation in a panel. I will consider speaking for free or for a reduced rate for organizations with small budgets whose work I want to support, but it has to mean little or no out-of-pocket costs for me.”
Silletto recommends asking the potential speaker who their best or ideal audience is. Are they a better fit for a primarily female or male audience, or does that matter to them? Is their material better suited for mid-level managers or C-suite executives? Do they get better reactions and engagement from older or younger audiences?
“If they say their keynote is perfect for everyone, they haven’t embraced their target market,” Silletto says. “And finally, has the speaker worked successfully with other organizations in your industry or ones similar to your group?”
Once you have secured the speaker, a contract needs to be created. As Chattin explains, the contract should outline the event date, location, time, speaker’s fees, travel arrangements (hotel, flight, transfer), payment terms, inclusions and exclusions. It is important to set up pre-event calls or meetings with the speaker to review the meeting objectives, content and audience, so they are prepared with material that will correlate with the theme.
Wellish also advises that before signing the contract, figure out expenses in total and read the contract in its entirety. Does it say first-class travel or companion to accompany? Ask for references and check on them.
“Speaker agreements should include everything you expect of the speaker. This includes dates, times, additional events participation, due dates, travel, expense reimbursement, etc.,” Wellish says. “It seems so simple, but if you don’t have it in the contract, it could cause miscommunications and worst case, legal issues. The contract needs to be very specific regarding expectation — expenses covered, arrival and rehearsal time, meet and greet times and numbers, as well as any ‘handlers’ and their expenses.”
Check with the speaker on their set-up needs and schedule rehearsal time. Do they like a podium? Do they wear a lavalier microphone or use a handheld? Set up a speaker ready room with refreshments, if necessary.
“Another important part of the planning process is the speaker’s presentation and ensuring it is in the correct format for the screens,” Chattin says. “Will they also be providing handouts for the guests? Check if the speaker is available to attend the reception or lunch after the presentation to mix and mingle with the attendees or if they need to fly out after they are done.”
While contracts are vital, so are the protocols that come when hiring a speaker. To streamline this process, assign someone to act as a “speaker ambassador.” This person should meet and greet the speaker on the day of the event, assist him or her with AV, presentation requirements, last-minute requests, etc.
“Also, will you allow the speaker to sell books and products? Will it be from a table in the back of the room or from the stage?” Wellish says. “Clarify in advance — will the books be autographed? Will the speaker eat before the presentation or after? Will someone keep a meal hot for them?”
Make sure you are communicating clearly with the speaker, and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself several times in telling them exactly what they need to do.
“We’ve all sat through those panel discussions where ‘each panelist will speak for five minutes, and then we will have Q&A,’ which turns into ‘each panelist droned on for 20 minutes, and we had five minutes for Q&A,’” Marts says. “I once sat through a speech that was billed as ‘cyber security in the hospitality industry’ by a speaker with a pages-long resume of jobs with the FBI, NSA and private security firms, and it turned out to be ‘how to keep yourself safe while sleeping in a hotel room’ — this, to a room full of meeting planners. You can’t control what someone does once they have the microphone, but communicating early and often does reduce the chances of that kind of disaster.”
And remember, great speakers don’t just fill time slots. Their messages solve problems the audience members are currently facing.
“So planners need to be sure the speaker understands what keeps their audience members up at night — even if it’s not what the speaker will be addressing,” Silletto says. “Understanding the full picture of attendees’ realities means the speaker will earn credibility on the platform more quickly and can speak to real situations and needs during their program.”
On occasion, planners forget to consider diversity in their speaker lineup, and they print the brochure with headshots only to realize they’ve selected all white male speakers. As Silletto explains, there is a plethora of strong female and minority speakers to choose from, but it often takes intentional, proactive efforts to find and hire a diverse group of speakers.
“For some time slots, event planners also may care more about the celebrity factor than the valuable content delivered on the platform,” Silletto says. “As a content-rich speaker who has spoken before or after several big-name speakers, I encourage planners to check in with other clients who used those celebrity speakers before booking them because some are amazing, but several planners I know have been disappointed with the lack of value in their content or the frozen, podium-based delivery.”
Holly Dowling, global keynote speaker, inspirational thought leader and creator of the podcast “40 Absolutes for Every Meeting Planner,” says one big mistake meeting planners make is putting too much dependence on speaker bureaus and agents.
“Meeting planners need to get on the phone with the speaker — do not base a decision on a bio, reel or resume,” Dowling says. “Get on a call and ask the right questions. The way a speaker shows up as a conversation on a call mirrors how they show up in a room no matter what the size of the audience. Are they going to bring their authentic self like they were on the phone? Always reach out to the speaker themselves.” C&IT