Speaking of Success: Choosing Your Meeting’s Speaker is Key

March 22, 2012

By Jillian Richardson and Michael Humphrey

So many elements add up to make a meeting or event successful. The best meeting planners understand that the details matter, that someone notices everything and any one thing could affect the overall perception.

But the best planners also know there are some “stars” of the show – location, agenda, food and the all-important speaker. You could have most of it right, but if that speaker isn’t working out, who knows if the attendees remember what went well? And we’re not just talking about disasters.

“It’s hard to find a universal speaker,” says Brian Powers of Powers Entertainment. “Someone can be outstanding in one situation and mediocre in others. An effective speaker is someone who mirrors the intent of the organization or group. You can tell when the audience is really getting something out of it.”

For such a critical part of the meeting, gambling on the pick seems unwise. But the idea of paying big bucks for a speaker can also scare off a planner’s clients. However, generally you get what you pay for in life, and that’s the case with speakers, too.

“Not budgeting for the speaker to match the quality of the rest of the event is a mistake I’ve seen,” says Lisa Laird, booking agent at Talent- Plus Inc., a full service talent and entertainment agency for over 30 years based in St. Louis. “It can be hard for planners to convince their client that budgeting for top-notch talent is important, until they see how that talent improves the event.”

It’s a matter of scale, says Mark Steiner, owner of Springfield, Mo.-based Steiner Talent and co-founder of Gigsalad.com. If you are hosting a meeting in a local restaurant’s private dining room, the point is food and networking, and you want to add a speaker who speaks about an industry knowledgeably, then the DIY approach is feasible. Gigsalad.com is the country’  largest talent database for doing just that, with a little guidance.

But once you have entered the realm of pulling off a showstopper – conventions, annual meetings and banquets, training, reward dinners, etc. – then browsing the Web for good speakers is little like shopping for houses without a real estate agent.

It’s fine to go shopping for a vacation spot, and its minimal risks, on your own.  But once you’re headed to big-ticket needs, don’t assume you can do it yourself.

Just like in real estate, the buyer does not pay for the agent’s service. Generally in the speaking circuit, the speaker pays a 20 percent commission to his representative for each speaking engagement booked. If a buyer’s agent helped make the connection, each agent generally takes 10 percent. There’s no savings in going directly to the agent or, for that matter, the speaker. And if a buyer’s agent tries to charge you, look elsewhere.

“With legitimate companies, there’s no cost-savings, really, by doing it yourself,” Steiner says. “I think that’s the misunderstanding most prevalent among people seeking talent. Sometimes it’s really researching and looking for a higher level of experience to find what’s best for you and what you can afford.”

For small talks that come with small honoraria, chances are you are going to be on your own, or perhaps headed to Gig Salad.

“If you have $2,500 or more,” says Laird, “then an agency can help you find someone who is very good. Of course, you can Google and find somebody on the Internet. Everybody knows how to do that. The difference is we have already screened the talent. We’ve booked them, we know what to expect, what they’re capable of. We’ve put them through the mill.”

It’s an important mill, because there’s serious dough involved when the big names come out. Well-established speakers begin at $7,500 and the biggest names in the world will grab for six figures – not to mention the security details and travel arrangements.

The three experts are loath to mention it, but even using an agency does not guarantee success. Whether you have a $500 fee to pay or you’re ready to shoot for the stars, the experts offered three do’s, three don’ts and three questions to guide your way.

(Jillian Richardson is a Contributing Editor from St. Louis, Mo. Michael Humphrey is the Contributing Editor from Fort Collims Co.) MM&E

3 Do’s

1) Do budget according to your needs.
“Sometimes planners or clients assume they can get somebody for little to nothing,” Steiner says. “But the question is whether you want to send the group away feeling like their time was well spent. Or if you need to attract people to your event, the speaker is a key way to do that. And yes, you can negotiate, but there’s a reasonable limit. Try to make a wish list of attributes that you want. Agencies can find other suitable choices that can give the same effect, within your budget restraint.”
2) Do match your meeting’s needs with the speaker’s talents.
“I try to listen to as much information as possible. I’m especially interested in the client’s needs for an outcome,” Laird says.
“If people need to leave motivated, then you look for speakers who are able to do that. If they want to be entertained, then I would follow that direction.”
3) Do your research.
“You shouldn’t book someone based on one or two resources. Getting a personal recommendation, researching yourself, hiring an agency; all of those things can help you narrow down options and really get what you need,” Powers explains.

3 Don’ts

1) Don’t trust the speaker’s video alone.
“I can watch someone’s video and believe that they would be great for an event but phenomenal ‘moments’ are not the same as a phenomenal ‘experience’,” Powers says. Short clips on websites only show pieces of their abilities and should not be the only basis for choosing your speaker.
2) Don’t assume anything about the speaker’s duties at your event.
“Most bureaus need to know everything up front, in terms of the expectation planners have for the speakers’ appearance,” Laird says. “Usually speakers are very flexible and good about doing extra appearances, but we need to know that up front.”
3) Don’t assume the big name is always the best speaker.
“If you want to wow people with being in the presence of a famous person,” Steiner says, “or if you need to attract big numbers, then a big-name speaker might be worth the price. But there are many speakers who are not household names, who are going to send the group out buzzing about the speech.”

3 Questions to Ask

1) What can speaker do best?
Steiner: “Some can do training, some are great at Q&A, some are really good in mixers, but don’t assume they are all good at everything.”
2) Who will handle the travel and hotel arrangements?
Laird: “Some speakers have a set travel fee, some have their agencies handle arrangements and some want the planner to handle the details. It just depends.”
3) How flexible is the speaker?
Powers: “You don’t want a prima donna. How willing are they to cooperate with what they can do and what your needs are? Surprise situations can arise and it’s important to know how flexible they are to work with you.”

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