Among the many elements that must come together for a successful meeting, the right speakers or entertainers can provide a lasting takeaway for attendees.
“Engaging the right speakers or entertainers is critical,” says Adam Sloyer, CEO of Sequence, a New York events agency. “Speakers almost always tie back to content, and content is one of the key factors driving your meeting’s success.” He adds that meeting planners may have a bit more leeway with entertainers, but they should also bring positive results. “In both cases you are likely spending good money bringing in outside talent, and so it’s in your best interest to make sure the fit is right.”
As senior director at Octagon Speakers in the Washington, DC, area, Scott Horner manages a team that represents celebrity speakers from the sports and entertainment industries. He, too, emphasizes the value of finding the right speakers or entertainers.
“Speakers almost always tie back to content, and content is one of the key factors driving your meeting’s success.”
— Adam Sloyer
“This is a critical part of the meeting planning process, as an excellent keynote address or standout guest presenter can set the tone for the entire meeting,” Horner says. “A positive, upbeat message or captivating story-telling session can leave the audience with a memorable experience and key life lessons that are transferable to any business or organization.”
Says Mitch Williams, a Canton, Illinois, magician and speaker, “If the speaker or entertainer hits a home run, this will be the main impression that many of your attendees leave with,” he says. “You can have a lot of other factors go wrong somehow, and if the entertainer or speaker leaves a lasting, positive impression, those shortfalls will be largely forgotten.”
“People will remember the speakers more than anything else,” says Shaun Eli Breidbart, a comedian and executive director of the Ivy League of Comedy in Scarsdale, New York. “Planners put a lot of time choosing a menu for food, but nobody’s going to remember the food unless they get food poisoning.”
Williams adds that if on the other hand the speaker doesn’t deliver, it’s remembered as just one more element that wasn’t up to par and will tend to reinforce other negative opinions.
Not only are professional speakers and emcees vital for corporate meetings to have the best possible outcome, sometimes they are the key to overcoming problems, says David Ahearn, co-founder of the Fort Worth-based live comedy show Four Day Weekend.
“We always say that when it comes to speakers, especially the emcees and hosts of events, we are paid for being prepared if things start to break down during a show to get things back on track,” he says. “It doesn’t happen every show, but often something unexpected will crop up, and it will take a trained host to step in and remedy the situation.” He adds that a great host also keeps the program engaging and fun.
“We also often say we are the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down,” he says. “After countless hours of PowerPoint speeches, having an entertaining host or speaker can make an otherwise boring meeting become something that attendees can take back to the office to reinvigorate their team. “
Given the potential impact, how can planners make certain that the investments made in this area pay off? Horner says a key is checking out speakers or entertainers thoroughly before committing to them.
“It’s vital to see video of a possible presenter to understand their personality and how they deliver their message,” he says. He adds that social media is another great tool to research a speaker’s brand or see what other current projects or opportunities that person is working on.
“It’s also important for a meeting planner to understand what a speaker or celebrity talent will and wouldn’t do that could possibly enhance your event,” Horner says. Are they open to pre-event calls? Will they do meet-and-greets with your sponsor or VIPs, or sign autographs or books onsite? Will they do a social media post from your event? “These are all questions you should have a good understanding of when making your final decision on a talent.”
Gaining a firsthand impression may be the best move of all, according to Ahearn.
“If possible, go see the speaker present at a live event so that you can get a feel for what they would bring to your event,” he says. He notes that watching videos of a presenter has certain value, but often the video does not accurately reflect how a speaker is received.
“There is no substitute for seeing them live,” he says. “If it’s not possible to see them live, find a reliable recommendation from someone to see how the presenter did at another event. Fellow planners are usually very honest about what their experience was with a speaker.”
He adds that just because someone charges a lot of money doesn’t necessarily make them the best fit for your conference or event.
“Find speakers who are easy to work with and whose primary goal is to make your event the very best it can be,” Ahearn says. “You can tell the speakers that are there to make your event successful, and you can often see the ones that are there simply for a paycheck.”
At the same time, cheaper isn’t always better. You may spend less money but ultimately if your event fails then no one wins, Ahearn notes. He also points out that just because someone is famous that doesn’t necessarily make that person the right fit for your event.
“I’ve seen plenty of well-known people fail to engage the audience they were presenting to,” he says. “Don’t be so impressed with someone’s credits that you fail to see how they perform the speeches live.” A great actor, for instance, may not be a great speaker. In fact, Ahearn says that he has seen quite a few very well-known speakers who added little to no value to an event.
Conversely, just because a speaker many not be a household name, that doesn’t take away from the value of what a good speaker may bring to a meeting.
“Some of the best speakers I’ve ever seen most people have never heard of,” Ahearn says.
Sydney Wolf, event sales manager at metroConnections in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, says that key considerations when picking a speaker or entertainer also include the demographic of the group, meeting theme or targeted messaging, as well as location of the meeting. In booking a musician, it’s important know the demographic of the group to help determine what genre and age of a performer to select. That would mean, say, avoiding a current top-40 musician for a group of mostly 50- 70-year-old attendees. On the other hand, such a choice might be a good fit for a group of mostly 20- 30-year-old millennials.
“If the demographic is all across the board and very mixed, then you need to find someone that can please a large audience and has widespread appeal,” Wolf says. That applies especially with speakers.
“Considering a meeting theme is really important with a keynote speaker,” she says. “You want to find someone that elevates the conference messaging and works to drive it home.”
She adds that, in fact, messaging can be critical, with the ideal speaker being someone who matches the tone and theme of the meeting. At the same time, industry relevance is important.
“For the insurance or finance industry, it’s crucial to understand the background and history of the speaker,” Wolf says. “Does that speaker align with the company’s business? Does the speaker’s narrative speak of your company in a positive way or does the story clash with your line of business?”
Wolf says a key is finding entertainment or speakers who are flexible. Most attractive are those who can tweak their message, or take the time to get on the phone with clients prior to a presentation to get to know the company and target their message based on insights they have gained about the company.
“Too many times I have seen this step missed,” Wolf says. “As a meeting planner, not only are you setting the speaker or entertainer up for failure, but you are setting yourself up for that as well. If they don’t offer a meeting beforehand, push for it, and include it in your contracts.”
Wayne Hoffman, founder of Hoffman Entertainment in Reading, Pennsylvania, advises against simply sticking with the tried-and-true.
“It’s very easy for an event planner to get lost in other details and simply use a go-to act that has been used for years,” he says. “However, I think it’s important to really discover new and exciting things that will engage people. Many people use the same old band or DJ and forget about other options like a mentalist, illusionist or other unique act.”
Hoffman adds that it’s best when speakers or entertainers hit all the bullet points and feed into the concept for the program. With corporate events, he often customizes his act to reinforce corporate objectives. For one, he used a company’s newest product in his finale. For another, he “magically” produced the prizes for the top salespeople.
“Both of these events were a huge success,” he says. “There’s nothing like a custom-tailored show for an event.”
Sloyer says the trickiest type of entertainer to secure may be comedians.
“No matter how funny you might think an act is, your event attendees might not be laughing or worse, they might be insulted,” he says. “So we always advise our clients to go a different, safer, route.” He recalls working with one hedge fund client who was hosting an anniversary event for their employees d guests, and planners were intent on bringing in a specific comedian.
“We worked very closely with the client and agent to make sure the act was completely scripted and bits were known in advance, to ensure there was nothing that would rub anyone the wrong way,” Sloyer says.
In an age where audiences are as likely to be looking down at their cellphones as focusing on stage in front of them, maintaining a high-energy level can be another key.
“You don’t want to lose the attention of your audience, nor do you want to cause a corporate meeting to lose its energy,” says David Mitroff, Ph.D., founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Piedmont Avenue Consulting and a frequent speaker at corporate events. “For example, having a strong speaker at the end of the corporate meeting can leave a strong impression for the event as a whole.”
Mitroff relates his experience while presenting to an audience that was clearly bored and unfocused from the previous activities on the agenda.
“I observed the low-energy level and intuitively diverted my presentation to make a bold joke, which caused the audience to laugh and break the stiff ambience,” he says. “After I did that, the audience listened and actually responded to my presentation. This successful engaging of the audience required me to quickly accommodate to their energy before proceeding with my presentation.”
In lining up entertainers or speakers and prepping them for an event, be sure to avoid assumptions that may be off-base.
“Don’t assume they are experts,” Mitroff advises. “Each corporate meeting and event is different, so make sure the speaker or entertainer is prepared and informed.”
Another mistake is making assumptions about what services will be provided.
“Do not assume all the extras such as pre-event calls, meet-and-greet and autographs are included in a speaker’s quote,” Horner says. “Each speaker is different with what they like to do when onsite, so the more research you do and set expectations in advance, the more comfortable your speaker will be.”
Hoffman emphasizes the importance of identifying the right agency or contact to help find presenters, even if this takes some time.
“Don’t rush things,” he says. “There are tens of thousands of great acts, but only a few that will really fit perfectly.” Once potential acts are identified, it pays to watch as much of their video content as possible to give you a better sense of what you’ll be getting.
If researching potential speakers or entertainers on the internet, it’s best to avoid mass “quoting” websites, Williams cautions, as they tend toward bidding wars that top-flight presenters may avoid. Instead, he says, go directly to the websites of the entertainer or speakers you are curious about. Locate or request information such as past experience and credits, testimonials from previous clients, and basic price ranges from each presenter that seem to be appropriate.
“Don’t be afraid to take the extra time to have an actual conversation by phone with your top prospects,” Williams says. He notes that while it may be tempting to do everything through email, it’s more productive to have a short conversation to communicate your needs and determine whether a given individual or group is likely to meet your needs.
However it’s done, advance research is a must.
“Do your research and make sure your speaker understands your audience,” Mitroff says. “This will ensure that they don’t bring up specific topics that might cause trouble or disagreements.” He also says that when putting together a meeting or event agenda, care should be taken in deciding the best time to have a speaker present.
“Having a presenter present right after a high-energy activity can overwhelm the audience,” he says. “And having a speaker after lunch will be difficult to capture their attention.”
The same approach applies to the agreements made with entertainers, speakers or those who represent them.
“For entertainers, make sure you ask about a rider, and that those specs are factored into the budget as well,” Sloyer says. For an event his firm produced a few months ago, the organization was able to secure an A-list performer pro bono through a personal connection. However, the performer’s rider still needed to be adhered to, and it turned out to be massive. At the end of the day what the client thought would be a no-cost item ended up costing them over $100,000.
Of course such instances are relatively rare, and there are many intangibles when it comes to the end results of the entertainment side of any meeting. But any extra efforts are likely to pay off.
“Think about what people will talk about after the event,” Hoffman says. “It won’t be the napkins or the floating candles on the table — it will be the entertainment or speaker.” I&FMM