Finding the Perfect Speaker Demystified

Recent important article from: Events Solutions National Magazine

Do you agree that everyone loves to hear a terrific speaker? A great speaker can make or break events and meetings. I know. I've worked in the industry for 26 years, and I am a professional speaker, myself. It's not uncommon for me to hear people say things like what Nicola Jones, business manager for the Ohio Petroleum Retailers Association, said when her original speaker cancelled at the last minute, and I found her a replacement, "Thom you saved my job."
Saved her job. Well, if having the perfect speaker has the power to save jobs, or in the very least, keep your clients' or colleagues' interest rapt, then I'd like to share with you some insider information on find­ing the perfect speaker. It is not, as they say, "rocket science;" however, admittedly it can be a complicated or time-consuming process due to some non-negotiable perimeters of the modern workplace. But, don't let budget cuts, downsizing or the natural stress of event and meeting plan­ning prevent you from finding the perfect speaker. Read on to help you demystify the process of finding your next speaker.

1. Start ahead of time, says Anita Perez Ferguson, political activist and speaker, Santa Barbara, Calif., "Keep an active file of suggested speakers (and web sites) even when you are not looking for one and be prepared ahead of time!"

2. If you haven't been keeping a wish list, you may have to start from scratch. No problem. Determine what kind of speaker you want, as well as what you need them to do and present, before you begin.
There are so many messages you may want your group to hear. Ask the right questions of the right people. Too often several committee members search simultaneously for the "perfect speaker" wasting lots of time and resources. The committee and future event would be better served if you identified your criteria first. You can ask the top leaders of the event (or ask those who will be attending) the right who, what, where, how, when, and why type questions.
Sample questions include: Who will be attending the meeting? What do you want to see happen due to the speakers' message? Where will we position the expert speaker? Do we want an educational or informational speaker expert, an entertaining speaker, a humorist, or a topic expert (and what topic)? How much time do we have before mak­ing the final selection? Who will actually make the decision for the per­fect speaker? How much can we afford to invest for the perfect speaker?
How about a celebrity or sports speaker? How long will the speaker speak? Why have a speak­er in the first place? How do we determine the perfect speaker for our event?
This list of questions is flexible and could be much longer. There are a multitude of fabu­lous speakers out there, so first concentrate on narrowing down your needs. Suzie Wilson, AICI, Houston, shares, "Finding the perfect speaker is like finding the perfect 'mate.' You have to know what you want first."

3. Once you've decided what you want, you then need to decide how you want to "literally" go about acquiring that perfect speaker. Believe it or not, there are many vehicles for finding the perfect speaker. And each has its own pros and cons.
There are speakers associations, like the National Speakers Association or Toastmasters International, who support the develop­ment of speakers' skills through membership opportunities for educa­tion and networking.
These types of organizations can provide you a catalog of their membership, or an online search engine containing their membership, for the selection of a speaker. While these catalogs and searches are gen­erally free, keep in mind that associations only represent those individ­uals who voluntarily join their organizations. This voluntary inclusion is not necessarily a bad thing, as even veteran speakers may belong to pro­fessional associations; however, because of the exclusive nature of their rosters, you may want to include your yields here as part of your greater search.
Speaking of searches, you can now also do an Internet search on individual speakers in your area, or the area of your projected event/con­ference. And, while this has the potential to be a good option because it cuts out the obvious middlemen, like agents and bureaus who receive a cut of the speakers booking fee, don't overlook the obvious: Individual speakers are out to sell their own services and programs, often for as much as the market will bring. Or, they may want to refer you only to someone with whom they have a special (often reciprocal) relationship.
Individual speakers must believe their pro­gram is "perfect" for many event planners because that's how they obtain business. If you are contacting a potential speaker, directly, you might want to consider talking with several simultaneously to gain some comparison and objectivity, as well as bargaining power.
Probably the best option is to find one per­son, whom you trust, to do an exclusive search for you based on your criteria.
Think about an executive search firm for a minute. If you were looking for a new CEO of say a Fortune 500 company, you would hire a search firm to find the perfect person for you. You would provide your key contact person at the firm your needs and criteria and give them a timetable for presenting you with three or more candidates, right? Do the same when searching for a speaker.
One person acting like a search firm can save you both time and money. He or she can potentially negotiate you a lower fee. This per­son may be a staff member, one committee per­son or a speakers' bureau staff person. An employee or committee member dedicated to finding you a speaker is great because they are just that—dedi­cated to you— and will most likely not request a cut. However, understand that an employee or committee mem­ber may not always have the volume of con­tacts, or the expe­rience, as say the agent at the speakers' bureau.
A bureau keeps files cur­rent, can access any speaker quickly and do all the paperwork to book them for you...and sometimes for less than advertised. And, a bureau will generally do the search for free, in good faith, contingent on you simply acquiring the speaker from the bureau when and if you do book the speaker. The bureau must get you the perfect speaker, or you pay nothing.
Granted, bureaus are paid by the speaker, and only get paid when you book the speaker; however, as mentioned above, bureaus have the added benefit of being able to negotiate fees for you. Recently, I booked a speaker for a large group of 700 people. Her published fee— an Olympic gold medal winner—was $10,000. We got her for the client at $2,000. Everyone was happy. Not all speakers, however, will negotiate.
Don't mistake agents at full-service speak­ers bureaus for "agents" representing one speak­er, exclusively. Much like the individual speaker who represents herself or a small circle of col­leagues, agents or speaker marketing agents can provide you with information on their clients, but they do not, generally, provide a more broad-based search like an agent at a full-service speakers bureaus can.
If you already have a specific speaker in mind, this may be the time to go directly to that speaker. But, if you are looking for help in find­ing a few "perfect speakers" to choose from (and a backup for your first choice), try a channel that can yield more options, like the entities that can provide the "Executive Search" mentioned previously.

4. Now that you've identified the type of speaker that's appropriate for your intended meeting or event, as well as selected the most appropriate search firm or person to help you find that perfect speaker, make sure you do your due diligence and really take a look at the materials pre­sented to you on each of your potential speakers.
Says Karen Susman, the Denver author of 55 Ways to Improve Your Laugh Life: "Since demo videos can be massaged to make even a lousy speaker look swell, I suggest you take two of your bosses and two of your potential audience members with you to experience the speaker 'live' in a session (if possible). Spend time looking at the audience, viewing their response and the speakers' responsiveness to the audience. Get exit reviews from a range of audience members and the people with you."
If you don't have time to see your potential speaker in person, ask for references—several, spe­cific references—from event and meeting planners like yourself, and call to see how their clients or employees responded to the speaker you are inter­ested in booking.
Testimonials on speaker websites are conven­ient, but taking an extra moment to contact a peer can ensure your speaker dollars will be well invested. Your perfect search person or firm should be able to do all this for you or provide you the reference information.
So what if all that careful preliminary work doesn't yield the perfect speaker? Well, first reevaluate your criteria, making sure that you haven't made your specifications too broad or too narrow. You may be missing a whole group of nearly perfect speakers by either including or excluding too many candidates. Then, go back to the person or firm you've chosen to help you find that perfect speaker and ask them to come up with a few more options based on your refined criteria.
If you've chosen the most appropriate search firm or person, one who understands your needs, has done the homework for you (to the tune of 100-plus "potentials" sometimes) or has the resources to redo it on the spot, then trust that you have found the perfect speaker because you had the perfect party searching for you.
And, if that perfect person searching is you— here's wishing you fantastic success.

Author, Thom A. Lisk, President, Professional Speakers Bureau



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