Speakers Set the Tone for Live Events.
While there is much talk about the importance of content (and yes, content is important), a speaker who is experienced and has the presentation skills to educate and inspire will make an impression that will last in the minds and hearts of the attendees. When that same speaker can motivate people to take action, you have a winner.
Being Smart Is NOT Enough
Just because someone is smart, or has done something cool -- it does not mean they belong on stage. Often when speakers are selected for having some level of "fame", but without dedication to how they convey their story to the audience, they may fall flat. Speaking is a learned skill and an art that needs to be practiced. The more times someone presents, the better they become at delivering presentations.
Selection by Committee Brings Compromise
Compromise is simply a mathematical equation to split the difference. Those who are choosing speakers should not assume they are buying a commodity item. No two speakers are the same, and the ones that are put on the agenda should clearly meet the goals of the conference. Create a list of what you want from every speaker, and do not trade away the important factors to have peace on the planning committee. Certain things are worth the emotional investment to fight, and speaker selection is top of that list. Pie vs. cake for dessert often gets more attention than who is asked to set the tone for the whole event.
Ask Other Speakers for Referrals
One of the best way to find great speakers is to ask other speakers for recommendations. While some are not clued into who else is out there, most professional speakers have colleagues in the business who you otherwise may not be able to identify. Experienced speakers will not give suggestions without having vetted the other speakers ability to "wow" an audience, thus your inquiry will bring you amazing talent.
Call a Speakers Bureau
Speakers bureaus exist to help you find the right speakers for your event. They make their money from a percentage of the fee you pay the speaker, and thus there is not additional charge to your budget. They will uncover what your needs are and find you several options. They will also handle all the negotiations. Bureaus are excellent at vetting those who are committed to art and business of speaking, and they will not put an inexperienced speaker on your agenda. To find a good speakers bureau ask your favorite professional speakers for introductions (they will happily connect you with a couple of bureaus!).
Know How Often the Speaker Presents
A speaker who only speaks on occasion is not going to have the same skill level as someone who speaks 50 times a year. While there is no magic number as to how many talks make a speaker great, there are warning signs to those who are not at the level you desire. Some people are naturally great speakers, but for most their abilities are linked to experience. Those who are good will be invited to speak often. Someone with over 300 professional level speeches will usually deliver a better experience for your audience than an expert who has given ten talks. Ask the speaker about the number of presentations they have given at events similar to yours (over a lifetime and in the past two years).
Content and information are important, but do not fall for the old line that "Content is King". Content alone is not king. It is widely reported that the human brain learns from stories. Go back 2000 years and man did not sit around the fire and pass out graphs, charts and excel spreadsheets. Instead, the village elders told stories to educate the next generation. If you think that storytelling is not important for the speakers you put on stage, then you may be organizing a boring event. If the idea of "stories" make you think "fluffy", you are missing the point. I do not mean fairy-tales, but stories as examples that will anchor the content in the mind of the audience. Do not fall for the "content speaker" label, as that could be code for a long and drawn-out data dump.
Find Interactive and Engaging Speakers
No longer is a lecture enough to meet the needs of an audience. A sage on the stage who tosses out brilliance is yesterday's news. But interactivity is not a formula of having three exercises where the participants talk to the person next to them or touch their neighbor's elbow. Interactivity and engagement are created through how the speaker communicates and sparks the whole experience for the audience. A speaker with a conversational style can weave engagement into a lecture while making people think and feel. Do not force speakers who are not experienced with engagement activities to do formulaic exercises. Inquire how they engagement and what they consider "interactivity", and if they are not sure, move on.
Communicate with the Speakers
Once you have selected speakers, spend time getting to know them personally and engage them to utilize their unique talents for a positive impact on the overall event. A phone call at the time they are booked, and one a week or two in advance of the event is common, but when planners engage the speakers as part of the team, they will have better results. Make sure the speaker knows all the goals of the meeting so they can assist. If you want them to attend happy hours or meals, discuss this up front. Often the expectation of additional participation is dropped on the speaker once they arrive at the conference. Many speakers will happily engage with your attendees if you set that expectation in the beginning.
Schedule Follow Up Sessions After Keynotes
Keynotes by their nature are not the same as workshops. If you have a great keynote speaker, and want the audience to have a more intimate opportunity to learn from them, schedule them for additional breakout sessions in addition to their main stage talk. Experienced speakers know that a great keynote is different from what makes an impactful workshop. Give them the chance to do both at your event. Some speakers will charge more for breakouts, others will add additional sessions as a bonus for the doing the keynote. Talk to the speaker and / or speakers bureau about what you are seeking and negotiate a mutually beneficial solution.
Filling the agenda with speakers is more than populating names into the blanks. The speaker's content, style, personality, engagement, and dedication to your event have a direct impact on your success. The more you communicate your goals before you hire speakers, the better chance you will have for amazing presentations by talented experts who are committed to helping you create an amazing conference attendee experience.
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