Managers of professional keynoters offer tips on working with clients

A few recent trends are converging in a way that’s making it tougher to find, book and prepare keynote and general-session speakers for an effective performance at a meeting.

According to Amy Crocker, a partner at speaker-management firm Standard Ovation in Overland Park, Kansas, many planners are contacting her just four to six weeks ahead of a meeting to secure a presenter who will have a featured slot in the program.

Yvon Douran, owner of Keynote Resource in Santa Barbara, California, finds that many planners are using YouTube as a primary tool for vetting potential speakers for their events, but glossing over other relevant factors such as the speaker’s specific business background.

Then there is the rising demand for shorter speeches with more audience interaction built in at the end of the presentation—or even in the middle of it, which is tough for many professional keynoters who have a tight, well-honed presentation.

“The TED Talks that we all see online are driving preferences,” Crocker says. “In the past few years I’ve seen requests go from 60 to 90 minutes down to just 30 to 45 minutes. Smart speakers realize they have to adapt somewhat, but a lot of them have developed a brand through their content and style and don’t want to come off of that too much.”

Condensing the Message

Douran says many speakers simply can’t get their full message across in less than 45 minutes because they have so much expertise in their topic.

“An inspirational speaker could probably come down from 60 to 45 minutes, especially if they have a PowerPoint or video package they could trim,” she says.

A business-focused speaker who customizes parts of the speech for a particular audience could focus on just the three or four most important points that come from the preprogram questionnaire Douran sends to the planner.

For speakers who customize, though, that questionnaire should not be the only education they receive about the group. A phone call with the planner and key meeting stakeholders is of significant benefit as well—but with lead times being so short for many meetings, the planner must be proactive in making that happen.

“The speaker wants to hear who the audience is in terms of demographic and job function, the goals and objectives of the entire meeting, and the specific challenges and pain points that should be addressed,” Crocker says. “We also want to know the topics or even the phrases that should not come up in the presentation.”

On the other hand, Douran finds that planners who come to her with flexibility in their preferences can get the type of content they want even with short lead times.

“Every group wants to feel like the speaker knows their specific business, but planners often come to us asking for one type of speaker and then go for someone else we suggest, based on other events our speaker did that had similar objectives,” she says.

In a common scenario, groups that say they want a pure business speaker end up booking a more entertaining personality with a message that’s relevant to some aspect of the group’s business.

“A lot of speakers are not customizing their content much, but many times they don’t have to in order to hit the mark for the client,” Douran adds.

But to make this work, planners must understand the full business background of the speaker.

“Because of the way speakers can promote themselves on the internet, I’d take a closer look at the profile—if they use a lot of buzzwords but don’t talk much about specific business concepts or processes, I’d be wary about using them for something other than a motivational objective,” Douran says.

Logistical Considerations

To work around many planners’ shorter lead times, Crocker often asks for a flat fee for her speakers’ travel expenses and makes the travel plans herself.

“Our speakers aren’t booking their flights the same week they sign the contract to do an event,” she notes. “Speakers usually can’t lock into flights six weeks out because they don’t know which city they will be coming from. So we offer cost certainty to the client through a flat fee (usually about $1,500), and if we have to book flights one week out, then that higher cost is on the speaker.”

As for coordination with audiovisual technicians, Douran sends each speaker’s technical-requirement sheet to the client right after signing the contract. Sometimes, though, a speaker wants to be directly in touch with the audiovisual person who is working the session to make sure certain technical things will be taken care of, she says.

Most planners want the speaker’s presentation slides and other materials in their possession at least a week ahead of the event, but this is more difficult for speakers who customize their presentation significantly.

“Some of our people actually get onsite the day before to speak to a few attendees and add things to their presentation—not big changes but adding some relevant specifics,” Crocker says. “When an audience sees that the speaker made that kind of effort, they perk up and are more inclined to really listen.”

In such cases, an almost-final version can be sent to the planner a week out, and be used as a backup onsite in case the speaker’s latest version does not work properly in presession testing.

“Both parties should get everything out in the open as far out as possible,” Crocker says. “The speaker will be flexible to a point, but they have spent time building their brand and expertise, so you can’t expect too much change from what you have seen them do for other groups. Tell us what you need from the session, but then let the speaker take that information and do what they do best.”