Bottom Line: Develop a Speaker Game-Plan

Bottom Line Good Speaker Tips

When Annette Hicks, director of meetings and expositions for the Texas Food & Fuel Association (TFFA), attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives last year, she was on a mission. Yes, she wanted education. Yes, she wanted networking. But she also wanted to find dynamic and memorable speakers for her own meetings.

Hicks did not come away disappointed. “I read the entire conference program to get a feel for every speaker at the show—their background and the topics they cover,” she recalls. “There was a photographer from National Geographic who conducted a breakout session for 150 people. His style and perspective really fit my own audience, and he was inspirational in a unique way. He wowed everyone in the room.” She booked him as the keynote speaker for TFFA’s May 2015 convention.

The Search

For TFFA meetings, Hicks needs a variety of presenters: some to provide motivation and a broader perspective, others to explore the particular issues affecting members’ business. She scours YouTube and other websites, picks the brains of her board members and other meeting planners, and enlists several speakers’ bureaus, all to keep her pipeline full.

“Developing a relationship with two or three bureaus will help a planner so much,” says Lilly Walters, a former speakers bureau owner and now booking agent for motivational speaker Jim Abbott. “Bureaus not only connect you to the specific types of speakers you’re looking for, but they also know which ones are more amenable to negotiating on price and terms of performance.” What’s more, bureaus should not charge a planner anything above a speaker’s fee for their services.

Hicks also checks convention calendars of TFFA destinations to find other meetings taking place the same time as hers, and then peruses those events’ websites for speaker lineups. She recently “piggybacked” on a large association meeting taking place in Dallas while her group met in Fort Worth. “We scheduled some of their presenters to do our educational sessions, too,” she says, which meant their travel expenses were for town cars rather than flights. 

Walters and Hicks stress that the one thing planners must do before booking any presenter is to call the references provided. “Speaker have egos, and they will usually list the biggest groups they’ve worked for,” Walters says. But rather than being a rubber stamp for the speaker, “those contacts will almost always be very honest, giving you the good and the bad,” she says. 

The Terms

When planners use celebrity speakers who deliver their personal stories as part of a motivational message, the content is almost never customized to the group. To maximize the impact such a speaker can have on attendees, Hicks suggests negotiating for more interactive time. “This can be anything from staying in the room afterward to shake hands and take photos, to walking the show floor right after the presentation to maintain the buzz,” she says. “We’ll videotape a brief interview as they do this, asking what they think about our industry and our show.” Walters notes that a speaker could be more amenable to doing this—and to agree to a slightly lower speaking fee—if his or her book or educational materials are purchased and used as attendee gifts.

With speakers who are experts in specific business topics, planners have a better chance of getting a more customized presentation. Hicks provides her speakers with a detailed profile of the group: job descriptions; gender and age breakdown; and recent pressing topics in the industry. She also lists other speakers the group has used in the past, as well as subjects that should not be discussed in their upcoming presentation.

The Fine Print

Of course, the most precarious part of hiring professional speakers is the possibility of a no-show. Planners must address such a situation in the contract, and enlist resources that can put a backup plan into motion.

Some speakers’ bureaus will deliver a substitute. “If a speaker cancels for whatever reason, eSpeakers will help find the best speaker to fill in for the event. It’s our no-risk, booking guarantee,” says Joe Heaps, eSpeakers’ vice president of sales and marketing.

But planners should make sure they’re covered. “The most important contract clause addresses cancellation,” Walters says. “If the speaker gets pneumonia three days out, what will you do?” 

Contingency plans should be in the contract, as should the stipulation that the original speaker’s deposit be returned to the group. Planners should “really think through their needs so that they know exactly what they are buying, and so there can be no misunderstandings,” Walters says.

Book a Speaker


Tips to Find a Good Speaker

  • Mine other conferences’ speakers, use a speakers’ bureau, ask trusted sources.
  • Save money by using a speaker from another event happening around the same time or near your event.
  • Check references: Was the speaker inspiring? Did he/she cover what was asked? Was he/she easy to work with?
  • Negotiate for additional face-time.
  • Protect against no-shows with a contract cancellation clause.
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