Choosing the Right Speaker

Speakers can add immeasurably to a meeting by motivating, entertaining, enlightening or teaching a skill. An inappropriate speaker, on the other hand, can lead to disastrous results. Here's a look at how to find the right speaker for your event and how to work with speakers to make sure their presentation - and your event - are a success.

The key question is: How does an organization choose? How can you be sure that you'll get a speaker who is right for your organization? Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Why is this meeting being held?
  • What do we want the attendees to know, think, or feel after this meeting?
  • What issues or challenges are the attendees facing right now?
Your answers should help you narrow your search. And remember, much is at stake. A speaker can, and often will, set the tone for your meeting. Select poorly, and there's a strong chance your meeting will suffer. Attendees will long recall a speaker who bombed. There's a lot financially at stake, too; speakers do not come cheap, typically charging thousands of dollars for their services. Once again, the key is to know your organization, know your circumstances, and know your audience.

USING A SPEAKERS BUREAU

A speakers bureau can help you narrow your search down to that one speaker who is perfect for your organization. Here's how:

Knowing who's hot. A speakers bureau is on the phone with meeting planners all day long, reviewing speakers, hearing from planners about what speakers they've used, who was good, who wasn't. Bureaus know the speaker's capabilities.

Wider Access. Speakers bureaus have access to thousands of professional speakers, industry experts, and celebrities. Occasionally, a big-name celebrity will have exclusive management with a particular bureau, but that does not mean other bureaus aren't able to book that celebrity. In such cases, the celebrity's bureau and the bureau representing the meeting planner "co-broker" the deal.

Negotiating Fees. In addition to selecting appropriate speaker within a group's budget, the speakers bureau will negotiate the speaker's fee on behalf of the client - that is, if the fee is open to negotiation. The meeting planner's organization does not pay extra for the services of a speakers bureau; the bureau receives a percentage of the speaker's fee, much as a travel agent is compensated for selling airline tickets.

Finding Replacements. One big advantage of using a speakers bureau is that if a speaker cancels, even at the last minute, the bureau will line up a replacement that meets the client's needs.

SIZING UP POTENTIAL SPEAKERS

The best way to assure that you're a quality speaker is to see the speaker in action - or at least the speaker's demo video and question meeting planners who have used the speaker. Do not rely solely on the demo video, since a five-minute snippet is not necessarily an indication of how well a speaker will perform. Another approach is to call at least three meeting executives familiar with the prospective speaker's work, and ask:

  • Did the speaker skillfully customize the presentation?
  • Did the speaker have a good presentation technique, i.e., use anecdotes, examples, humor?
  • Was the speaker easy to work with, or did he/she make unreasonable requests?
  • How did attendees rate the speaker?
  • Would you use the speaker again?
Find out if the speaker holds the speaking industry's major designations: CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) or the CPAE (Council of Peers Award for Excellence). The National Speakers Association confers both. The CSP signifies achievement through a proven record of speaking experience; the recipients have made a minimum number of paid presentations and earned a minimum number of continuing education credits. The CPAE is awarded to up to five NSA members annually for demonstrated platform experience and professionalism.

FEES AND EXPENSES

Basic Fees. Fees vary widely, ranging from $1,000 to $50,000 or more. Luminaries such as management guru Michael Porter, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson and former president Bill Clinton are on the high end. Speakers are paid in a variety of ways but generally require a deposit - 50 percent is typical - at the time of booking, with the balance due shortly before the engagement or on site.

Variations in the basic fee. Keep in mind that professional speakers - those who do this for a living - are likely to set their fees according to how long they'll be at your event. For instance, the speaker might have a keynote fee that covers a single keynote address of up to 90 minutes. If the speaker plans to do the keynote address, speak at a break-out session, and perhaps stay for the luncheon, he might charge a higher fee. Many professional speakers have half-day and full-day rates in addition to keynote fees.

Travel and other costs. For the privilege of having the speaker address your group, you pay the speaker's fee plus travel and accommodation costs (hotel and meals). A speaker's expenses typically start at $1,000 - or more if he or she is flying first-class.

Negotiating fees. Are speakers fees carved in stone? No, fees are often negotiable, even those of some of the top tier speakers. In fact, you shouldn't be too quick to accept the first price you're quoted. Don't be shy about negotiating.

KEEPING COSTS DOWN

Here are some ways to keep a lid on the cost of hiring speakers:

Who's local? Look for speakers who are based in the city where you'll be holding your event. Some speakers spend their entire lives on the road, and may welcome a gig close to home. A Boston-based speaker may be amenable to offering a deal on his rate in order to address your meeting in Boston. And, of course, you'll avoid travel and accommodation expenses.

Does he have something to sell? A speaker with a book or a video to sell may be willing to accept a lower fee if allowed to peddle their wares at your event.

Can you share costs with another group? Check with the hotel or local convention and visitors bureau about other events scheduled the same day. You could "share" the services of the speaker - and thus share the cost.

What else can a speaker do? Try to get more bang for your buck by having the speaker agree, lets say, to attend a break-out session in addition to giving a major talk. The speaker could be willing to do the break-out at little to know additional cost.

Offer video. If you plan to record the speaker's presentation, offer to produce extra copies of the video for the speaker's use. The speaker may be willing to cut you a deal on the fee.

Call your Congressman. Approach speakers who do not accept fees - current officeholders, for instance. If you'll be meeting, say, in and around Washington, D.C., a member of congress could speak on a legislative topic of interest to your group.

THE SPEAKER'S CONTRACT

Primarily, the contract should clearly lay out your expectations and the speaker's. It should cover the following:

  • Travel and local transportation arrangements.
  • Accommodations and meals.
  • Fees and payment terms.
  • Customization of remarks.
  • Additional duties expected of the speaker, such as mingling with attendees or signing autographs.
  • Whether and how the speaker will sell products such and books and DVDs.
  • Agreements to record the speaker's presentation (in most cases, you'll need permission to record).
  • Audiovisual and technical requirements.
  • Cancellation policies.

PREPPING YOUR SPEAKER

You should thoroughly brief the speaker about your organization (i.e. goals, accomplishments, challenges), your organization's industry, and the size and demographics of the audience. This is particularly important if you are expecting the speaker to customize the presentation. Many celebrity speakers are not amenable to customizing their remarks, but it is almost a given among most professional speakers. At the very least, furnish the speaker with the most recent annual report, a published history of your organization, any pertinent news clippings, and the names of key people and specific industry buzzwords that you'll want the speaker to incorporate.

You may also want to have the speaker interview key members of your organization in the weeks before the event. But don't assume the speaker will do extensive preparation work for nothing. Sometimes, speakers will charge extra for customizing because of the research they have to do.

by Michelle Lemmons

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