January 2008  Issue 4.1

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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 attendees:

  1. Reading a deadpan PowerPoint presentation direct from the slides
  2. Arriving late and forgetting the handouts
  3. Delivering a keynote speech that could work just as well at a Kiwanis luncheon
  4. 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, CMP, of 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 side."

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," Lutz says.

"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 speakers.

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 didn't.

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 reimbursement
  • 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 revenue."

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 cut-and-paste methods.

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.corbinball.com and 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.


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