Spoken Word: Avoid the Pitfalls That Come With Selecting the Wrong SpeakerMay 18, 2020

May 18, 2020

Spoken Word: Avoid the Pitfalls That Come With Selecting the Wrong Speaker

Former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team player Abby Wambach speaks at Cvent CONNECT 2019. The event had several well-known speakers entertain attendees. Photo Courtesy Cvent

Former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team player Abby Wambach speaks at Cvent CONNECT 2019. The event had several well-known speakers entertain attendees. Photo Courtesy Cvent

One of the marks of a great conference, meeting or event is how memorable the speakers are.

A great speaker is there for the audience and creates content that is fun, valuable and will be remembered. A bad speaker is one that thinks it’s all about him or her, or delivers something boring or not of interest to attendees.

Factors that are considered when booking a speaker vary based on the organization and their event goals. Sometimes, it’s the draw of a celebrity, while other times content is king.

Steve Markman, founder and president of Markman Speaker Management, LLC, a multi-service speaker agency based in Needham, Massachusetts, says today’s speaker marketplace has literally thousands of speakers who are potentially available as a keynote or featured speaker for an organization’s events. “At the end of the day, your primary objective should be to hire memorable keynote speakers that will give you a good return on your investment,” he says. “You want your attendees to walk away from a keynote presentation saying,‘That was great,’ and to remember your event many months later, even remembering the names of the keynote speakers. Then, you will know you made the right choices.”

Kris Young, vice president of Heroic Productions in Bloomington, Minnesota, says, when selecting a speaker, it’s best to start with the end in mind, asking the question: What would success look like? “For instance, in order to get a solid answer, you’ll need to talk to someone who knows and understands the purpose for the event — why they are spending money bringing their people together,” she asks. “If this is the company you work for, the person who owns the event will be able to give you a run-down of the overall agenda, tell you who else will be speaking, explain key messaging, audience size, demographics and venue — including how the room will be set, theater seating, at rounds, etc., as well as information about the stage size.”

However, if this is a new client, Young notes you should make sure you know something of the company culture and whether they like interactive presentations or prefer a more formal approach. “You will also want to know which day the outside speaker is needed and where on the agenda his/her presentation will fall,” Young says. “Make sure you have an understanding of what comes before the speaker and if the speaker’s presentation is expected to support key messaging from the executives.”

If so, the selected speaker will need to spend time on the phone with the executive or executives and will likely want to come in early to be sure to hear those presentations before delivering his or her own presentation.

Doug Binder, senior creative director of InVision, recently worked with two different companies on events with very similar audiences. One filled the agenda with movie and sports stars. The other went with below-the-radar, mid-level practitioners. “More than anything, the selections defined the culture of the event and the vision of the company,” he says. “In that way, both were successful.”

Look to the past

Amberlee Huggins, president and chief marketing officer of CSI DMC, suggests looking at similar conferences from the past to see what sort of speakers were successful. “Have speakers typically been a well-received part of the format? Do you have surveys handy from years prior that you can reference?” she asks. “Considering your audience demographic and their interests is key.”

This means checking in with leadership and other stakeholders (e.g. sponsors) for their feedback on previous years too, as there can be wide variances in experiences and takeaways. “Be open to potential speakers recommended by leadership and sponsors, but have a clear understanding of their goals,” Huggins says. “Leadership may have specific messaging they want delivered throughout the event, and this can impact your decision on speakers. Speakers suggested by sponsors may carry external messaging or appear as a pitch in presentation, so be clear about your purpose in your recommendation search.”

From here, build an outline of what you are looking for. This is what you will send to speakers bureaus along with basic information, such as the date, budget and location. Include both the content and preferred presentation type, and don’t forget to ask for video clips. “When you narrow the options down to your favorites, create an opportunity to connect directly with the speaker,” Huggins says. “You may start with a bureau or their agent; however, it is important you connect with the person who will be addressing your audience. They are essentially ‘applying’ for the role and it’s important to get to know them before signing.”

This is when you can ask them questions about their flexibility — are they prepared to be on a panel or conduct a workshop, or only keynote? — and talk through the delivered materials. “One tip I love is to ask the speaker to submit a one-minute video of themselves talking and answering some questions,” Huggins says. “This allows you to see more of their personality, active listening ability and willingness to respond to your requests. It also lets you see them now, in the present day, instead of just footage from a few years ago.”

Rachel Andrews, director of meetings and events for Cvent, says the job of finding the speaker for a smaller internal meeting will be completely different than what goes into finding a big-name keynote for a multiday conference, but the level of importance really is the same. “A keynote speaker can make or break your event, so it’s imperative that planners give themselves enough time and resources to find the right speaker — one that fits their overall event theme, budget and satisfies attendee expectations,” she says,

For keynotes at large conferences, Andrews often starts the brainstorming process a year out from the event. “To kick start the process, we leverage data from post-event surveys and even social media responses to previous keynote speakers,” she says. “Once we have a solid grasp on past event data and attendee feedback, we often crowdsource initial ideas from within our team and look for inspiration from other recent trade shows, conferences and events. At this stage in the process, no idea is too crazy.”

Then, armed with the event data and initial speaker suggestions, she and her team go through multiple rounds of executive-level brainstorming to ensure that proposed speakers align with the conference’s goal/theme and with the overall corporate brand mission. “We’ll also work hand-in-hand with a speaker agency to help identify speakers that align with our unique event needs and parameters. Then, we get the list down to a top 10-15 — and the debate begins,” Andrews says. “To help us decide, we often group our speakers based on topic, theme or agenda diversity. We put together focus groups that include people from within our organization and even previous attendees. It’s imperative that we get a well-rounded perspective.”

Melissa Park, a New York-based event producer, says a planner should always meet with a client to understand their event goals, vision and any sort of speakers they may already have in mind. “Investigate all of the speakers suggested by the client and reach out to any who accept direct inquiries to gauge their availability, interest and fee,” she says. “I always request an in-person meeting or conference call to present my findings, rather than just sending them a deck, as I like to gauge the feeling in the room and watch reactions as each potential speaker is introduced. It also gives me a chance to address any concerns or questions in real time.”

Ruth Zukerman, co-founder of indoor cycling businesses SoulCycle and Flywheel Sports, shares her story at Cvent CONNECT 2019. Photo Courtesy Cvent

Ruth Zukerman, co-founder of indoor cycling businesses SoulCycle and Flywheel Sports, shares her story at Cvent CONNECT 2019. Photo Courtesy Cvent

The Perfect Formula

Jennifer Nelson, director of business development and global event services for American Express Global Business Travel — Meetings & Events, says sometimes it’s easy for planners to get wrapped up in the “what” of the event, such as planning the perfect evening function, selecting just the right menu or creating high-energy networking opportunities.

“While this part of the planning is essential, it is also important to take a step back from the details to first understand the ‘why’ that will guide all the meeting design decisions, including speaker selection,” she says. “The first step for any conference should be establishing the desired outcomes for the organization as well as for the participants.”

Once you understand the why and how you want your event attendees to feel, you’ll then have a solid idea of what you want a speaker to cover. For example, do you want someone who can speak on leadership or do you want a comedy-focused speaker who can entertain your attendees with company-appropriate content?

“Typically, you will have two or three solid options,” Young says. “At this point, it’s a good idea to have individual calls with each of your finalists and your decision makers. This way, the speaker can talk about why they are a good fit and answer questions directly. It’s often on these calls that decisions are made. On a call, it is easier to get a sense of the speaker’s style, what differentiates them and how they will deliver that outcome you are seeking.”

According to Markman, while it often works well to have a speaker with your required experience, the primary goal should be for the presenter to have content that is applicable to your audience, even without prior experience with your audience profile. “That could mean content that cuts across all industries and job functions,” Markman says. “Conversely, it’s often good to get a perspective from someone in a different industry to allow for thinking out of the box.”

For Huggins, the ideal formula involves a speaker with a captivating presence, relevant information and the ability to truly connect with attendees. “A speaker might have a great ‘go-to’ pitch, which can be a distraction when searching for the perfect fit. Their relatability needs to go deeper than the way they carry themselves and their delivery needs to complement the content,” she says. “There are endless options for charismatic, compelling speakers out there who will be perfectly entertaining and interesting but may not connect with attendees or teach them anything they will remember a week or even a day later.”

The right speaker will understand and relate to attendees through shared passion or life experience. Attendees need to be able to see themselves in the speaker and vice versa.

Amaia Stecker, managing partner with Pilar & Co., is encouraged by increasing trends toward diverse speakers but strongly recommends avoiding diversity for diversity’s sake. “The speaker should be able to relate to themes of relevance to your organizational mission and goals, and help the attendee understand and relate to them,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Look to folks who can accurately help your audience connect to the story at hand as part of the bigger theme for the organization.”

Economic Concerns

Like any other hired service, the fee absolutely plays a role in choosing speakers. This is especially true for speakers with name recognition or who must travel, as their fees have reason to be higher. “If budget is a concern, be upfront about it, and be prepared with non-monetary offerings that may be appealing to the speaker,” Huggins says. “There are many ways for a speaking opportunity to be mutually beneficial. If you have a few room nights within your hotel block that would otherwise go unused, offer them an extra night or two as a vacation. If your program includes a great catered networking opportunity, extend them an invitation.”

If there’s an opportunity for the speaker to participate in community engagement or a giveback, that may have some appeal as well. Get creative. If budget is a concern, ask questions about what could be of interest to them. “We all want Oprah or Sir Richard Branson, or Ellen DeGeneres, to speak at our events, but they aren’t within most dream meeting budgets,” Andrews says. “But, while budget and fee are top concerns, they shouldn’t be the first concerns. Your attendee demographics and interests, your event theme, goal and objectives, your brand — all these things should be considered first when selecting a speaker.”

Then, once you come up with your initial speaker wish list, after considering these factors first, you’ll be able to narrow down your options by bringing budget and fee into the equation. There are plenty of incredible thought leaders who have great content for every budget.

Consider a classic, rather than the flavor of the day. Big names from five years ago can still be topical and often have better name recognition than their newer-to-the-circuit peers. Plus, their fees should be more reasonable.

Binder says don’t be afraid to make an offer to these big-time names, as most agents won’t approach their clients without a specific offer in-hand. Furthermore, they might take a reduced fee because of availability, travel convenience or just because they like you or your company. “Some big-name speakers will take a more reasonable fee if it goes to their charity — especially if their cause aligns with your company’s CSR program,” he says. “Also, check the CEO’s social media. They often contain surprising names that might be amenable to a personal invitation and a reduced fee.”

Nelson recommends reaching out to national or local speaker’s bureaus or TED organizations. “You can share the general topic you need a speaker for and work with these resources to help build a list of potential speakers,” she says. “Once you have a shortlist, you can review their online highlight reels, videos from previous engagements, and check for their availably and cost. The client is the final decision maker. Of course, they trust our recommendations and experience with speakers, but they will have final approval of who takes the stage to address their attendees.”

Young says to stay away from choosing based strictly on internet searches, as this can be both time consuming and risky — unless you have seen the speaker present live and know their content well and/or have multiple referrals.

Speaker’s bureaus are a popular go-to. They often have a broad reach, massive speaker portfolios, and deep expertise in matching the right speaker with the right event. Bureaus can be a great help to source speakers that align with your conference objectives and brand promise without a ton of legwork.

“A speaker’s bureau is a good choice if you have a good relationship with an experienced bureau agent,” Young says. “Keep in mind that most bureaus have exclusive speakers. This means they have a vested interest in getting those speakers booked. This is not to say they would suggest someone who wouldn’t be a good fit, it is just something to be aware of.”

Speaker consultants and speaker management companies are also good avenues to explore. “Check speakers’ social media outlets and hunt for more ‘raw’ footage,” Huggins says. “Reviewing their content from multiple angles, especially less curated content, will protect you from hiring a speaker that falls short of expectations.”

Park notes to pay attention to social media, as well. “In this digital world, LinkedIn and other social media platforms literally bring announcements and highlight videos right to your fingertips,” she says. “I can almost guarantee that if any of your connections attend a conference, whether it be in-house or external, and one of its speakers is amazing, you’re going to see it in your feed. If you like what you see, it’s easy to jump on over to the events social pages or follow the hashtag to watch how much engagement the particular speaker inspired.”

Common Mistakes

One of the top mistakes Andrews has seen at large events is leading with “a name” vs. a quality speaker who can connect to attendees on a deeper level. “While celebrity keynotes can drive event interest and get you some attention on social media, if they can’t relate to your target audience, they probably won’t help you drive registrations — or at least not the registrations you’re looking for,” Park adds. “Also, looking at each speaker individually, but not how they’ll fit into the other speakers at your event, can be a potential downfall. You might find 20 great speakers for 20 different sessions but realize when it’s too late that they’re 80% male and all from the same industry. Attendees are looking for diversity.”

Even after thoroughly vetting and selecting a speaker, Nelson says it would be a mistake to not conduct planning meetings.

“These touch bases will help you work with the speaker to tailor their address to your audience and ensure that logistics are nailed down,” she says. “Onsite, you should plan time for the speaker to rehearse so that they feel as comfortable as possible when it’s time for them to perform.”

When choosing someone, Huggins says to be authentic and share expectations with the speaker.

“They should be fully briefed on the audience demographic, any areas to focus on or avoid, what has worked well in the past and what has not,” she says. “Listen to what they ask you. A signature attribute of a good speaker is that they have a toolbox of questions to ask, which helps craft the message to fit the needs of the audience beyond the needs of ego.”

And if it doesn’t feel right, move on. Forcing a connection with a speaker who just does not fit the group may come back to haunt you.

“A bad speaker can’t see themselves from the audience’s point of view. Being a speaker, a trusted resource on a matter, is a privilege,” Huggins says. “A bad speaker does not ‘temperature check’ a room. They may use the stage as a platform to talk about their own agenda, versus recalibrating their approach to ensure the greatest outcome for the audience.”

A great example of this is the speaker who talks through the Q&A time because their planned session went over. They forget that they are providing a service. They are there for the attendees, not the other way around.

Remember, even if a speaker is well-rehearsed and engaging, content is king. If the speaker delivers content that does not align with your attendees or your business, their address will fall flat and fail to connect. C&IT


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