How to Vet Speakers

May 12, 2013

Finding the right speaker for an event is paramount to the success of the conference.  Speakers do more than just share content, they set the tone for the whole meeting.  But finding speakers who can have the right impact is getting more difficult, as more people are calling themselves speakers.

As a speaker I know that I am not the right fit for every event, yet I also am an attendee at many events.  I am perplexed sometimes as to how a speaker ever ended up on the stage.  Matching up topics and experience to the goals of the conference are paramount to the success, and speakers must be chosen for more than filling a slot on the agenda.  It can be painful if the speaker is awful.

Then there is the long-suffering debate between the idea of content vs. style.  I have always argued that it is not an "either / or" decision, as the best presenters bring both.  It is not too much to expect the people you put on stage to have the ability to communicate and inspire the audience.  Your event is more than an 8th grade book report!

Yet I still hear the cry that "Content is King" ... and many people are capitalizing on this by marketing themselves as "Content Speakers".  After all, what meeting planner does not want content?  But is content alone enough?   Content is not king ... it is more like mayor.  It is important, but alone is not fully capable of doing everything.

The term "Motivational Speaker" has been marginalized - as many who are not focused on the audience experience have tried to make "motivation" a negative term.  They push professional speakers aside and define them as "fluff" (not true).  

Besides, what is the opposite of motivation? --- "De-motivation"?  "Blah"?  "Sucks the energy out of the room"?  

What planner would want their conference seen in that light?  (I have never seen an event professional brag that they plan boring events, but we seem to attend lots of conferences that meet this description!).  

The reality is that all speakers should be motivational speakers, as without a call to action (or other impact on the audience) the presentation is reduced to a "talking white paper".  ***I am not saying content is not important, but so is the speakers ability to captivate!!!  Do not let you organizing committee settle for less than both content and pizzazz if you want a great conference.

Remember.... learning is not just about dumping data into the air.  People learn in a variety of ways, and how the speaker engages the audience will make a difference on if anyone retains information or takes action when they get home.

Vetting speakers is key to finding someone who can provide the right mix of information and still connect with the soul of the audience.  My mantra is "Just because someone is smart, or has done something cool -- it does NOT mean they belong on stage".  We have to go beyond a resume to determine if someone is the appropriate speaker for an event.

How does one vet a speaker?  Seeing them live is often the best way to know if their presentation is going to be a fit for your conference.  Reality is that not every planner can see every speaker, so we then move to relying on others recommendations.  Speakers Bureaus a good option, but can be limited.  The best way to find speakers is to ask your network of other event professionals whom they have seen live and / or worked with at their own events.  Beyond the speakers presentation, how did they engage with the audience?  Were they easy to work with before, during and after the event?   Would the planner hire them again?

Another good idea is to ask the prospective speaker for a list of the last 50 places they have presented.  If they have not delivered that many talks, or if that list goes back more than a few years, you at least want to know these details about their level of experience (this is NOT a reason pass on hiring them, but you need to know how often they speak to make an informed choice).  Some people are naturals, others must hone their skills.  I believe for many people it can take hundreds of presentations to master the art of speaking at large conferences.

To vet properly means digging deep, asking questions, and doing research.  Anyone can call themselves a speaker, but few can "wow" an audience.  I recently spoke at an event where I met another keynote speaker.  He privately shared this was the second presentation of his career.  When he took the stage it was clear he was not really what the organizers had assumed they were getting when they booked him to speak.  He was intelligent, but people were walking out of this talk.  Experience can make a difference.

5 Tips to Vet A Speaker:

1.  Watch them speak live, or make sure someone you know and trust has witnessed their presentation.  Watching a video is nice, but it does not give you the full perspective.  You would not marry someone you met in an online dating website without some live interaction (I would hope!).

2.  Ask them about their experience and get a list of former conferences where they have been the speaker.  Two Rotary clubs and four months in Toastmasters does not necessarily make them ready for prime time on your main stage.  Take the time to call several of their former clients and ask questions about the whole experience of working with the speaker.

3.  Have an extended conversation with them by phone or Skype.  Discovering their personality off-stage can often be as important as how they speak on stage.  A detailed chat can put both parties at ease that this is the right match for the speaker and the conference.

4.  Find out in advance how long they intend to participate in your event.  Do you want them to be engaged with your audience before and after their time on stage?  If you want them to stay for the day, make sure you communicate this with them while negotiating the contract. Participants often like to talk with speakers, and if you desire their participation you need to let them know in advance.

5.  Share with them the vision and goals for your event and get the speaker engaged as a partner in the success of the entire conference.  How can they help you promote the event and build community?  Make sure they see themselves as more than a hired gun or an interchangeable vendor.

Embrace the special place that your speakers play in the success of your event.  Seek out people who line up with the culture of your organization, and those who are willing to make you a priority in their schedule.  

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