The modern art of hiring a speaker

By Bob Parker

The human element of meetings has not changed since early homo sapiens first mind-mapped his ideas on cave walls for the lack of a flip chart or Powerpoint: to connect people and share ideas.

That first ever talk on the cave-circuit was likely titled: Hunt This – The Key to Effective Survival. The cave meeting planner ensured that the lighting and venue were adequate to communicate the message. For all we know, fire was invented by a meeting professional to stage an event more effectively. They would call the cave bureau to find out who were the more popular cave speakers, and ideas would flow. These were good times for the meeting and events industry.
The modern art of hiring a speaker
Since those early days, technology has not only changed the delivery of meetings, but also in how speakers are found and hired. Audience demands are now guiding that change like never before as the information age moves us into a modern era of connections and idea sharing. In spite of this, the factors that have not, or will not change, are the human elements of meetings and the need to share new ideas. The delivery methods are shifting once again in this modern era, and meeting planners need to start looking at things differently.

Are you working backwards?

There was a time when venue was the first element to secure for a meeting. You can’t have a meeting without a place to hold it – agreed.  In the modern era, however, you need to know more about the event before you can even begin location selection, and that includes the speakers and content – which, sadly, can be the last to be secured.

The first question of course is: “Why are we having this event?” or for that matter, “What do we want people to think, be, or do differently?” The focus is outcomes first. Before you can have informed conversations with your speakers, you need to make some decisions about deliverables. This makes narrowing down your speaker selection much easier. Once you have an idea who your speakers might be, and their ideal requirements for the delivery, then is a good time to look at a venue.

There are also many questions to be answered in the early planning stages: Will this be a hybrid event or include other elements? What technology is dependent on the outcomes? Is the space conducive to the delivery method? A site visit should include the needs of your speakers as well as participants. Will the venue allow you to deliver the content that is critical to the success of the event?

Start with outcomes

Are you searching by topic, or outcome?

Topics can be quite general and speakers can sometimes have a hard time fitting their outcomes into a generic topic area. “Search for outcomes,” says Jane Atkinson, author of The Wealthy Speaker 2.0, who coaches speakers on positioning their expertise. “Meeting planners should focus on the change they want to see in the audience. Searching by topic may require a leap to make sure you have the right one for the outcomes that are desired.” Atkinson suggests this tip for meeting planners: “Ask a speaker directly about the outcomes they provide to the audience. Avoid the jack-of-all-trades who speaks on a host of topics.”

Don’t hire a “speaker”

Instead, hire an expert who can speak. Your audience wants someone who can help them make connections to key concepts and issues that help them solve their problems. What you really want is a critical thinker who is skilled at helping make those connections. Don’t forget that everyone is an expert in their own experience, and this just might be what you want. Remember that speaking is only a delivery method. Done well, however, the message and expertise can resonate, motivate, and move an audience to take action.

When looking at promotional videos, do you look at style, content, or both? Know your audience and whether they will respond to the style and content. It is not about whether you like the speaker, instead, it is whether you think the audience will like the speaker. If you are not sure, get some potential audience members to give feedback. There is technology that can help when more than one person needs to decide.

Web-based speaker marketplaces can help

There are a number of websites that help anyone find a speaker. Look for a robust site with key features that aide in the sourcing process. Speaker shopping carts can help you narrow your web search. This feature can then be shared with a selection committee, select audience members, and even the client where they can individually rank each speaker in the cart to help make an informed decision. The website’s background engine works to calculate the rankings and compile comments.

Joe Heaps of eSpeakers, an online platform of speaker profiles, says technology can help meeting and event planners save time and effort when searching for a speaker.

“The ability for a planner to see an online calendar can be of great benefit right at the start. Time is wasted waiting for speakers to return a call, or discuss outcomes, all to find that they are unavailable for the requested date.” The global market has also changed, not only how, but when, meeting planners search for speakers. Heaps says: “More and more, this is being done after hours, when there is no one to answer the phone.” The right speaker marketplace helps meeting and event planners work when they have the time to work. Contracting and payment can even happen through the same website.

When using these sites, a good tip is to consider using the ‘keywords’ search box. In this area, type words that match outcomes instead of using the topic search. If your speaker is focused on delivering outcomes, these will be listed on their profiles and you just saved yourself hours of planning and search time.

Meetings are changing

Today, open spaces, experiential programs, edutainment, live streaming, hybrid events and a whole host of delivery methods each require that venues not only have the facilities and infrastructure, but also proximity to potential learning environments. These methods of delivery may require very specific space requirements or logistics. Even the loading and unloading of equipment can be a challenge for some venues. Avoid the disappointment than can occur after finding the perfect speaker, only to find out that the venue cannot accommodate easily.

Insider secret: What can you negotiate with a speaker?

Offering the prospect of future business is not going to win you points when it comes to negotiating with an experienced speaker. Promising what you can deliver is far better.

If the quoted fee stretches your budget, clients may have different budget lines for other areas such as take-a-ways. Can the client pre-purchase books, DVDs, coaching programs, or online learning packages, or even allow the speaker to set up a table for back-of-room sales or book signing? If you do allow for back-of-room sales, ensure you communicate with your speaker any policies relating to this practice, like selling from the stage, etc.

Some speakers offer FIT (Fee Includes Travel), which can help you manage unexpected expenses. Travel budgets are another line item you can play with. Joe Heaps suggests: “The right speaker site can also tell you when a speaker will be in your area.” This can be a good negotiating tool.

Just as the demands of audiences and clients are changing, so too is the modern practice of finding and hiring the expert for your event. Some tools are new, but a good testimonial from a trusted source is a human element that will never change when it comes to hiring your next speaker.

About the author

Bob Parker, CSP, is National President of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers and the Past Chairperson of BEICC. You can contact him at [email protected].

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