Attractive destination? Check.
Great venues, a solid lineup of sponsors? Check, and check.
Pulling a successful conference together should be as easy as ticking off a checklist. But as almost any meeting planner knows, the boxes rarely get checked off in a neat order. And one of the bigger tasks that can easily get shunted to the side during the months of planning is speakers.
It shouldn’t be, because a solid keynote speaker can set the tone for an entire conference — for good or ill.
“A great speaker can set the stage as far as theme is concerned,” says Richard Schelp, president of the International Association of Speakers Bureaus (IASB) and CEO and owner of the Executive Speakers Bureau. “They also help establish the level of energy the event is going to have and maybe the direction it’s going to take on the front end. A conference might be blasé without having that speaker involved or maybe there’s a level of excitement because that speaker is so outstanding.”
“When a meeting planner is looking for a speaker and doesn’t know who they really want, it’s very important to start with a large list.” Richard Schelp
Sheldon Senek, president of the New Jersey-based Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau, concurs.
“A great speaker brings credibility to a conference and they can elevate the meeting,” Senek says. “At the heart of it, attendees have to be able to walk away with value and that comes in different ways. It can be actual education, it can be inspiration or entertainment. When they’re in the midst of an all-day workshop, sometimes they just need a keynote who can lighten things up.”
The most important quality of a great speaker is that he or she is a great storyteller, says Don Epstein, founder and CEO of GTN, a United Talent Agency company.
“If speakers can convey their point of view, which is from the heart, and has tangible takeaways for the audience, they will form a connection with the people sitting in front of them,” Epstein says.
A speaker should also be a professional communicator, says Mary Lue Peck, CEO of the National Speakers Association (NSA). They will bring prepared, customized content relevant to the audience and communicated in a way that resonates.
She continues: “Professional speaking is more complex than simply giving a PowerPoint presentation or delivering a canned speech. The biggest benefit of hiring a professional is that they can communicate the subject matter in a way that engages the audience and helps them really hear and understand the message and also leaves them inspired to take action when they get back to their office or after the meeting.”
Plus, find the right speaker and you’ll not only ensure buzz that inherently stokes interest in subsequent conferences, but you’ll also alleviate some of the burden born by aspects of your event that may be beyond your control, such as technical challenges or catering problems.
The search for speakers should begin with identifying the meeting’s themes. Understand the primary goals of your overall conference — is it motivational, educational, sales-focused or celebratory? Ideally, this process starts more than a year ahead of the conference — some top speakers can be booked up to a year in advance — but it should at least get underway before conference announcements begin.
Then, identify whether speakers are expected to perform the heavy lifting — for instance, to get a message over the finish line — or if speakers are there to provide inspiration, color or pure entertainment. Don’t overlook internal resources. Pinpoint any stars at the company who might serve as a speaker or at least as a moderator for a panel or a Q&A session.
Or maybe you are aiming for a “name” who will help drive event registration and add a bit of dazzle, perhaps sparking social media hits that help build your brand? A celebrity speaker will cost more than typical motivational speakers — generally well into five or even six figures — but if they successfully engage with the audience they can launch a conversation that gets future attendees to pencil in the date for your next conference.
“When a meeting planner is looking for a speaker and doesn’t know who they really want, it’s very important to start with a large list,” Schelp says. “I’m not talking about 75 names, but about 10 or 12. The biggest challenge most meeting planners face is narrowing the list.”
Evaluate how that speaker performs. If you can’t find your way to an event to see the speaker in action, watch videos of them live on stage. Many speakers can be found on YouTube, while speakers bureaus will have a larger supply of videos for the talent they represent. Many speakers often have a professional reel.
As you watch your prospects, consider carefully how well they will communicate with your audience. This is particularly important if you are tapping a speaker for expertise that may not be directly tied to your industry.
“Ensure that the speaker has content that is relevant to your audience,” Peck advises. “Most professional speakers have videos, blogs, podcasts or books that meeting organizers can review. A true professional speaker will also want to speak with the meeting organizer to again understand their goals and get a feel for what they’re looking for.”
She continues: “Educating and inspiring others is the very definition of professional speaking, and true professional speakers are excited for opportunities to speak with the meeting organizers — they want to delve deep; they want to make the organization and the person who hired them look good.”
In addition to doing your research, Peck suggests asking for references.
Schelp recommends at least one major call between the speaker and the important players with the company. “And then there needs to be some follow-up calls where the speaker speaks with executives and they can help set the stage for him,” Schelp adds. “At the beginning, they need to understand where his experience lies. There are speakers who are clearly energetic and others are more content focused.”
While most professional speakers are represented by an agent or speakers bureau, some are not. It doesn’t hurt to reach out to speakers independently — especially if there are synergies that work to the benefit of both the conference and speaker. Yours might be an audience to which they particularly want to speak or they might have a connection to the event location. Perhaps they have a book or project to promote. If they are represented, the negotiations will still involve the agent or speakers bureau, but you may be able to establish a relationship up front that will work to your benefit.
Peck recommends reaching out to speakers directly.
“Ask what their standard rates are,” she says. “Professional speakers who are not represented by a bureau will work with you directly or they have staff members who can work with you. If their standard fee is outside of your budget, talk with them about your budget and your goals. They may be able to work with you, offer alternative ideas, or they may know someone in your price range. It’s a tight-knit community and a speaker’s No. 1 goal is to help the organization.”
Senek adds, “If there’s not a budget for a big name, find the commonalities. Find speakers who align with your message and see what might be incentives. The more transparent and collaborative you and the speaker can be, the quicker you can get to an answer. Even if you get a no, it allows you to move on.”
If your budget is limited, Senek also suggests diving into the searchable Ted Talks database, where hundreds of speakers are available for inspiration. “There are really interesting people there. They might not be the right fit for a lot of corporate groups, but they might work for your niche industry. Budget or no budget, just make sure the process and the expectations are really clear on both sides,” Senek adds. “Don’t over-promise something that can’t be done. A speaker should always be easy to deal with. If they’re not, that should send up a flag for you.”
Ultimately, working directly with a speakers bureau from the start may be the best path for many conference organizers. A speakers bureau does not charge a fee for their services, but they receive a commission from speakers and they provide additional benefits, even when they don’t personally represent the speaker with whom you are contracting. A well-established bureau will be on top of the diverse landscape of options available, regularly reviewing speaker videos and tracking conference feedback.
“A bureau should not only be thinking about the meeting for this year,” Senek explains. “The more we work with you the bigger the picture gets. We’ll know what happened last year, what’s changing in your industry and we can start to think long-term. The majority of our clients are interested in following a trajectory.”
He adds: “It’s also knowing who hits it out of the park. Finding great speakers is easy in the higher budget range, throwing out names everyone is familiar with. But sometimes you need to find that needle in a haystack.”
And in the event things really go south, your speakers bureau should be more than a shoulder to cry on. If a speaker becomes sick or if major flight delays prevent one from arriving as scheduled, you’ll need a fallback position.
“It’s very rare, but these things happen,” Senek says. “That’s where our team goes to work and finds out who is comparable that can step in and knock it out the park.”
The budget can also present challenges, Schelp cautions.
“It can get really hairy. And unless the amount of money you spend adds up to the value of what you think you’re getting, you’re going to be disappointed. I get nervous when meeting planners make a huge jump in spending. Instead, rather than shooting for people who are above your budget, get creative and find that value-added guy who is content-focused or the analytical guy or someone who’s going to get up there and tell great stories.”
The setting of a conference can also be a factor. While some locations may be a drawback for the speaker you have your heart set on, Senek gave an example of one Chicago-based speaker who normally charges a speaking fee of $50,000 for his services, but for an event in Chicago, he’ll discount the fee by as much as $10,000.
In other instances, the setting may provide inspiration for a speaker. Some CVBs have stepped up to help identify and recruit local talent.
“Nowadays, the services offered by a CVB are much more than just assistance with room blocks,” suggests Rory Archibald, business development manager – associations and sectors for VisitScotland Business Events. “We have utilized many Scotland-based innovators to speak at our national ambassador network events.”
He continues: “CVBs have well-developed ambassador programs with local experts in various key sectors. These local experts have an established relationship with the CVB and are willing to work with conference organizers to host programs in their cities. They are passionate at what they do and are eager to tell people about their work, their institutions, and their industries.”
Experts on renewable energy, precision medicine, equality, fintech and marine science are just a few of the sectors Archibald identifies that VisitScotland Business Events can provide.
New Orleans & Company is another CVB that assists planners with local speakers.
“If it fits into their programming and education goals, we often work with GNO Inc., our local economic development organization,” says Tara Letort, CMP, senior director of Group Public Relations for New Orleans & Company. “We sometimes help match subject-matter experts with incoming conventions based on need. Sometimes, it’s motivational speakers that they’d like to find in the destination, so there are no travel costs involved.”
Examples of New Orleans-based motivational speakers include Robert Fogarty (Dear World) and Candy Chang (Before I Die), while political commentators James Carville and Mary Matalin are the locally-based husband-and-wife team who usually find themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum. They can be hilarious together.
Still, a quality speakers bureau can be an excellent resource, especially guiding planners whose day-to-day responsibilities go well beyond identifying a keynote speaker for the annual conference. When you find a speakers bureau you like, the longer you work with them the more they’ll get a feel for your audience and their likes and dislikes, refining your program and building on past successes.
Meanwhile, Epstein suggests the path is not dissimilar to the other aspects of building a successful conference.
“Make sure you have the money in your budget which you’re offering,” he explains. “Make sure your venue is secured. Make sure you have the authority to move forward with that speaker internally. Once you’ve ensured all of these elements, you’re ready to begin partnership with a speaker and be on the path to a great event.” C&IT