The right speaker can spark impacts that go beyond the stage
All planners share a fantasy. We schedule speakers in hopes of a magic moment when a packed house, rapt with awe, experiences a moment that changes everything.
After a standing ovation that goes on longer than the demand for an encore at a Bruce Springsteen concert, attendees walk out, arm-in-arm, tweeting about how eager they are to put the ideas they heard from the stage to work right away. A chorus of “this group always puts on the best events” can be heard echoing in the halls. Best yet, the line to sign up for next year’s event is longer than the line for the ladies’ room.
What is the secret to this meeting nirvana? Smart Meetings editors asked readers to share their tips for finding, presenting and promoting the best speakers. And you responded with wisdom learned from years on both sides of the podium. The final PowerPoint slide from all that knowledge boiled down to the following three keys to booking blockbuster speakers for your next event.
1. Consider the Fit
Ann-Michele Ewert will never forget the time her group featured author Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, at an annual convention. She paired it with a keynote address at the Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg and it resonated deeply with attendees from the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) in Greater Vancouver, Canada.
“To see Ziauddin walk through the museum and find his daughter featured was profound,” she says. “It was the perfect speaker in the most symbolic of venues.”
This synergy was the result of acting on a relationship within the team. MEDA had a different talk planned, but the organization’s president made this connection, so her group made last-minute changes to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Be flexible and open to things that you never dreamed were possible,” she advises. The choice did not come without challenges. Because of security threats, the group had to wait until the last minute to inform the press.
Many planners had very specific things they were looking for in a keynote speaker candidate.
Planner Sarita Ramgulam, a meeting and event planner for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said effective speakers connect on many levels with the audience. Most important is that they make the audience feel as if they can “accomplish it all.” She looks for a person who can interact from the stage.
“Audience participation is very important and always a must at my meetings,” Ramgulam says. “Probing the audience throughout the presentation and grabbing their attention before you walk on the stage makes for a dynamic program.”
Listen to your audience, she says. “Planning is organized chaos, but always have fun,” she adds.
Annesa Lacey, a B2B digital publishing consultant at @.I.interpretations in Chicago, has a formula for a good speaker. She looks for human-ness, which she defines as relatability, storytelling ability and connections.
Gene Hammett, host of Leaders in the Trenches podcast, stresses the importance of considering gender and racial diversity so people can see themselves on stage. “Speakers need to represent the makeup of the audience,” he says.
2. Ask the Experts
Event planners are not completely on their own when it comes to finding a voice that will get people fired up. Speaker bureaus of all sizes specialize in finding and scheduling experts on every topic imaginable.
Katie Riggs, vice president of client and conference services at Raybourn Group International in Indianapolis, finds speaker bureaus to be an indispensable ally. “They are great when you have a budget, know the message you want to share and know your audience demographics,” she says. “It really streamlines the process for the planner.”
She had author Alex Sheen talk for 45 minutes about giving back and then held a meet-and-greet with photo opportunities and merchandise sales. “People were lined up around the hall,” she says.
Tracy Fuller, president of Innovative Events in Des Moines, Iowa, suggests thinking of the relationship with the speaking agency as a partnership. “Building the relationship with a great group of providers and vendors has been my saving grace,” she admits.
When you find a speaking agency that works, stick with it. Vanessa Kane, manager of meetings and events for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Missouri, says when she has had a good experience with a speaker, she hits rinse and repeat to continually deliver the value that her audience expects. For new speakers, she relies on agencies to give her a realistic picture of what to expect.
Sometimes the best ideas are in your own organization. Kathy Johnson, owner of Katherine Johnson Events, which puts on conferences for HMS healthcare company, says that the course directors know the best-suited speakers. And once you find the right one, her suggestion is to not take any offer at face value. “Everything is negotiable,” she says.
Fiona Knight, a blogger and special events specialist in Canada, advises cruising the TED circuit for compelling voices. Once you have the right name lined up, she suggests orchestrating a social networking hybrid event to promote it.
Betty Ice, vice president of marketing and communications at Health Dimensions Group in Minneapolis, stresses that planners need to do their homework. “Ask others who have booked the speaker,” she says. “Follow them on social media to see how they interact. Have conversations with them before you book.”
3. Leverage the Time on Stage
Sometimes, success is as much about the thought that went into planning, packaging, presenting and promoting the event behind the scenes as it is about what happens on stage. Book signings, and VIP and media opportunities can extend the value of the contract for the organization and the speaker.
Maida Kelly, director of marketing operations at Optum in Boston, says she asks speakers to participate in a private breakfast or lunch with eight to 10 key clients along with a meet-and-greet and photo opportunity for about 40 attendees. This can increase the impact and make those in attendance feel special.
Heather Sampson, CEO of Aspire Meetings & Events in the Greater Boston area, discovered that if she schedules keynotes to precede the opening of the exhibit hall, along with a meet-and-greet/book signing there immediately following the presentation, it helps generate traffic to the exhibit hall. “Attendees always enjoy meeting them, sharing their own personal stories with them, and getting a quick photo,” Sampson says.
Kimberly Wright, CEO of JonAshton PR in Atlanta, adds that the right speaker can inspire the event planner to take the whole meeting up a notch. “They bring a synergy to the stage that makes you want to produce a production of class rather than an event-to-get-it-done,” she says.