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Getting the Most from Speakers at Your Events
Five ways to manage speakers from sign-up to sign-off
by John Hiatt, Editor of Event Organizer's eJournal
Let's take a brief quiz. Pick the speaker gaffe likely to turn off the most
Reading a deadpan PowerPoint presentation direct from
Arriving late and forgetting the handouts
Delivering a keynote speech that could work just as
well at a Kiwanis luncheon
Pitching his company's financial planning services
If you chose No. 4, you're in the majority. All these missteps will get low
marks from attendees, but there's no greater turnoff than a speaker who uses the
opportunity to "thump his chest," says meeting and event consultant Dave Lutz,
Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. He should know. Lutz has spent 20-plus years
helping associations and other event sponsors improve results.
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Raise the bar on education
"These days, with tighter travel budgets, a quality education experience is a
significant driver for attendance," Lutz says. "Event sponsors are pulling out
all the stops and doing everything they can to raise the bar on the education
An emerging best practice at many organizations is teaming an industry
consultant with a client from the membership to present a case study. The team
approach avoids the "talking head" problem and delivers high takeaway value.
Attendees get a real-world look at how one of their peers solved a common
problem. The learning improves when there's ample time for questions, and
speakers can explore other ways the problem might have been solved.
"Interactive sessions almost always score higher with the audience," Lutz
says. A good approach is to find ways to engage the audience in each presentation
on your agenda. "Apply adult learning techniques," he says, "like audience
participation, table exercises or a brainstorming session. These will increase
positive audience response."
Coach speakers in advance
Arranging conference calls with speakers in advance is another best practice.
You can work with them on session content, remind them of your "do's and
don'ts," explain what your audience is expecting and pass along other tips. Just
one example: Keep slides simple, with no more than six lines and six words per
line. "You want to make sure they're easy to read from the back of the room,"
"Coaching is particularly valuable for speakers who know the subject matter
well but are not experienced presenters," Lutz says. "You can do a lot to help
them improve their performance. It could be something simple, like recommending
they add visuals instead of sticking to a dull, bulleted list."
Advance contact gives you the chance to collaborate with speakers on session
descriptions so their sessions attract more attendees. "A good session
description, like any advertising copy, should be benefit-oriented and show
prospective attendees what they can expect as major takeaways," Lutz says. Word
to the wise: Make sure the actual session delivers on promises made in the
promotional materials. That's another good reason to collaborate with your
Lutz tells of one client that put together a Webinar for speakers and made it
available through its Web site. The Webinar covered a lot of the do's and
don'ts, outlined the organizations expectations and profiled audience members.
That made it easier for speakers to tailor remarks to relevant issues. The Web
site included a link to a listing of prior speaker and topic evaluations. That
way, speakers knew in advance what scored well with attendees -- and what
Track speaker performance
That leads us to the next best practice in speaker management: Build a
historical database. Speaker evaluation forms may be ubiquitous these days, but
leading organizations are using them in new ways.
"Consider building a database of surveys on content and speakers, so you can
maintain a history of topics and speakers who have performed well and are worth
inviting back," Lutz says. "If you are awash in paper survey forms, you are
probably not using them the way you could be."
Some event sponsors go further to rank speakers in quartiles based on
attendee evaluations. As you might expect, Quartile 1 speakers get invited back,
while those who scored in Quartile 4 do not. "In Quartile 4, you'll find those
speakers who were dry as toast at the podium or who used the opportunity to
deliver a sales pitch," says Lutz.
Get it in writing
One key to getting what you expect from a speaker is to spell out what you
want in a written agreement. Lutz advises keeping the agreement basic, so that
everyone doesn't "lawyer up," and to make sure you get a signed agreement that:
- Confirms subject matter, dates, times, compensation and expense
- Covers ancillaries such as free registration, complimentary booth space
(if any), program advertising or other add-ons
- Sets forth the deadlines involved for document delivery, session
descriptions, handout materials, bio and photographs, etc.
- Outlines what you cover in terms of audio-visual requirements
- Describes what happens if the speaker cancels or fails to perform (For
example, will the speaker supply a backup speaker from his/her organization
in the event of illness?)
"It's very important to get permission from speakers to audio- or videotape
their sessions, especially if you plan to repurpose the content in some other
way," Lutz cautions. "Failure to do so can cause real problems down the road, if
they decide to enforce a copyright or think they deserve a piece of the
For handouts or materials they must provide, you can write deadline
compliance into the contract, perhaps reducing their honorarium or speaker fee
if they do not provide the materials on time. However, since speakers often
volunteer their time, you may only be able to "ping" those who fall behind and
gently remind them of their obligation. Lutz recommends building a two-week
cushion into your deadline schedule so that you have some breathing room. "You
have to accept that some speakers will drag their feet."
Note: Big-name speakers will likely have their own agreements or contracts.
They rarely provide handouts the way concurrent session leaders do, so the big
issue with them is different. You need to make sure their talk is relevant to
the audience and deals with issues attendees face day to day. "Arrange for a
conference call four to six weeks ahead of time, to put your keynoter in touch
with executives or board members who can help them ‘connect' with your
audience," Lutz suggests.
Use speaker automation tools
Many event sponsors already use online, Web-based software applications to
automate registration. However, when it comes to managing speakers, they still
juggle Excel spreadsheets, track paper correspondence or e-mails and cope with
An automated online speaker management system streamlines this part of the
process and lets you push a lot of work out to the speakers themselves. Using a
portal, speakers can go to your site to sign contracts, upload their handouts,
update session descriptions, nail down audio-visual needs and the like. If a
speaker gets a new photo, it can be up on the Web within a few minutes.
Database technologies also expedite scheduling sessions into the proper time
slot, education track and meeting room -- doing away with the traditional
corkboard-and-recipe-card approach. All your paper-based forms, consents and
communication can be online -- and available 24/7 for access from home, at the
airport or in that lonely hotel room in Amarillo.
Some organizations have developed "homegrown"
solutions to realize these benefits. Others have implemented turnkey speaker
management technology software. Some are outsourcing the technology altogether.
Two Web sites that can help you explore available options are
http://www.meetingtechonline.com. The latter includes a
detailed article listing speaker management software.
Is automation right for your organization? Lutz feels that you need about 50
speakers at an event to make a high-end online solution pay off. "Automating
speaker management online with fewer than 50 speakers may not deliver the
benefits you need to justify the expense," he says. "The cost for a Web-based
approach typically runs $5,000 or more per event."
Pricing varies dramatically, however, and is generally falling, as more
software offerings become available. Your best bet is to look carefully at the
costs compared to the benefits. As Lutz puts it, "Organizations that can
streamline speaker management give themselves more time to focus on delivering a
quality educational experience for attendees -- and that's what builds
attendance these days."
John Hiatt, editor of Event Organizer's eJournal, writes about
business-to-business subjects ranging from marketing and sales to technology
solutions. He is best known as founding editor of Entrepreneur magazine
and managing editor of Financial News Network.