Choosing the Best Speaker

Best Speaker
Hiring speakers is tricky business. Will they engage audience members or have them struggling to keep their eyes open? Will they embarrass you by making an offensive joke on stage? Will they wreck your budget by demanding more money for things you thought were standard in their fees? Lots of little factors stand in the way of the perfect presentation, but you can anticipate and prepare for most of these bumps and roadblocks. Start with a number in mind. "I'll contact a few of my favorite speakers bureaus and tell them what I'm looking for, the topic and my price range," says Becky Burgess, CMP, CMM, senior director of meetings for the National Association of Electrical Distributors, who's hired thousands of speakers in her more than 30-year career. "I'll also reach out to other associations and consultants I've used in the past for recommendations." Burgess sets Google Alerts for terms like "American heroes" when searching for inspirational speakers. Know your budget and speaker-fee price range—$5,000 to $10,000, $10,000 to $20,000, or $25,000 and higher—advises Jeff Hurt, director of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, the firm that produces the annual Speaker Report. (Hurt has hired thousands of speakers throughout his career, at one point securing 1,300 industry speakers a year.) Consider celebrities, then consider alternatives. Big names bring buzz, not necessarily crowds. "Just because someone is an actor or author doesn’t mean that they're a good presenter," says Hurt. Research conducted by Velvet Chainsaw Consulting last fall provided surprising results on the topic: "A keynote who is a household name—an actor, a musician, politician, or an athlete—has no effect on increasing registration," reveals Hurt. "That being said, on-site at your conference, a famous person will cause people to show up for that session." There are benefits of hiring a celebrity, of course. "It gives you some PR, some hype and something to market," Hurt says. "Conference attendees who go to see a household name are much more forgiving. A famous person can be an average speaker and the audience will love it." Book famous speakers early at a fraction of the cost. Once upon a time, practically no one had heard of Frank Abagnale, the forgery expert whose life inspired the film “Catch Me if You Can.” Today he's a highly sought-after speaker who books gigs at tens of thousands of dollars a pop. "Work with a bureau in looking at what movies or books will be released right before your conference starts," says Hurt. "If the movie is [a biopic] about an unknown person, that's the perfect time to hire said unknown person. Secure them a year out to speak at your conference in a general session." Burgess booked Chris Gardner, author of “The Pursuit of Happyness,” just before the movie of the same name was released. "He was around $17,000 when we hired him. After the movie came out his fee jumped to around $79,000." Research, check references, interview, then hire. A bad speaker can reflect poorly on the person who hired them. "I've had speakers who cursed on stage or told inappropriate jokes," says Hurt. "The number one question to ask a reference is, 'Would you hire them again?' If the answer is 'no,' move on. If the reference hem-haws around and won't give a direct answer, the answer is 'no.' If they answer 'yes,' do a little more research." Look for delivery style, content and visuals. "You can have great delivery on stage and poor content, and the audience will love you," he says. "You can have poor delivery, great content and the audience will hate you. See a video clip of that speaker in action. Watch shots of the audience responding. If there's no audience footage, can you hear them laughing with the speaker or clapping?" Hurt advocates taking a chance on rookie speakers, too. "I may place them in breakouts at first, but I'm always about new partnerships. Many times, speakers who you take a chance on, if they become successful later, will do favors for you because you gave them their start." Burgess takes agency recommendations, reviews videos and does phone interviews. "If a speaker's willing to talk to me beforehand, that shows they’re willing to go the extra mile to learn about us and meet our needs." Burgess also includes crucial speaker guidelines in contracts. "They have to read, sign and send it back. It basically says things like, 'Don't use company names as negative examples in your stories if members of that company may be in the audience.' It's common sense but people still make these mistakes sometimes." Set your speaker up for success. Give speakers every possible advantage. "I've had a speaker embarrass me to death before, getting up on stage and calling us the ‘electronics’ association," says Burgess. "After that, I started asking speakers if they would go to a local distributorship where a member can walk them through the facility and tell them about who they're going to be speaking with." Define success. "Give them your audience demographics," says Hurt. "I would [tell speakers], 'I'll consider you successful if you reach an 80 to 90 percent favorable rating with our attendees. If they walk out of the room talking about you, they want to stand in line and buy your book, if they're enthralled with what you say and they say that it's relevant—you're successful.'”