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5 Mistakes Event Planners Make When Hiring a Speaker

It was an event planner's worst nightmare...

She was in charge of an educational event designed for physicians and high-level executives in her healthcare organization. She had a couple meetings with the featured speaker. Nice guy...very smart, and yet maddeningly elusive when she tried to pin him down to specifics of hi s presentation. He would smile slyly and say, "Trust me! It will be great! I guarantee I'll have their attention."

As the event drew closer, the only individual the speaker would speak to was the media tech and he swore her to secrecy.  She was put in a very difficult position and the event planner fatefully decided not to push her for details thinking, "How outrageous could it be?"

It turned out to be pretty outrageous.

With the participants all seated, the media tech blacked out the room, hit the strobe light, and hit the play button for the 2001 Space Odyssey cd.  The speaker leapt from a side door and made his way around the room.  This 5'7", rotund gentleman was wearing an Elvis wig, sunglasses, and a spandex outfit that showed off his abundant chest hair.

The song ended and the lights were brought up.  Audience members weren't sure what just happened and weren't optimistic about the next hour.  I don't know if the spandexed individual had thought through the fact that he would have to present the rest of his talk in his present attire, but that realization was beginning to dawn on him.  He fumbled an opening that included a lot of interference from the lapel mic.  The "interference" was his chest hair muffling the mic and the media tech had to come up front and find another position for the mic along his spandex.

Are you cringing yet?  It wasn't a pretty scene, especially for the event planner who watched the scene unfold through slits in her fingers as she covered her eyes with her hands.  Ten minutes into the presentation 25% of the audience had left.  Ten minutes later, half were gone with the other half wishing they would have left when they had the chance.  It was an unequivocal disaster.

The speakers you hire are a direct reflection of you.   You are the person who hires, promotes, and ensures audiences that their valuable time is well spent listening to this individual.  It's important for everyone involved that you hire the right person. 

Through my own experience and through interviews with speaker bureaus, event planners, and speaking agencies, I've put together a list of five common mistakes event planners make when hiring a speaker.  Avoiding these mistakes will help you find the right speaker for your event and ensure a great experience for everyone involved. 

Mistake #1 - Not identifying the specifics of the event before beginning the search for a speaker

Speaking for speakers everywhere...we love hearing from you!  But if you don't have a theme, date, location, and/or budget, there isn't a lot to talk about.

Help us help you! I got a call a couple months ago from an event planner who was interested in hiring me as a keynote.  It was not for full fee, but it was in Florida and maybe I could cash in some frequent flyer miles for my wife to join me for a brief getaway.  I work up a proposal and wait for final approval.  The planner calls a few days later...Whoops!  Apparently, someone else hired a keynote, but they would still love me to come and present a breakout for no fee.  AND pay my own way.  AND pay to get into the conference.  Thanks, but no thanks.

And a side note about budgets...even though it can be an awkward transition in the conversation, I like to talk budgets within the first five minutes of the phone call.  I don't want to be impolite, but the reality is that the budget needs to be addressed up front to save both parties a lot of time. 

We want to be of service, but be respectful of our time by having as much information in place as possible.

Mistake #2 - Haven't defined the audience needs

"Motivational/inspirational speaker needed" isn't specific enough.  A representative of one speaking agency said that 85% of their listings include the terms "motivational" or "inspirational".  The better you understand the audience, the better informed we will be about being a fit.  Once again, I'm happy to shoot some ideas to an event planner, but dynamic speaker/audience experiences typically begin with a strong direction from the planner.  I can then take that information, ask questions, present tailored options, and put together a program customized for that specific audience.

Mistake #3 - Ineffective committee management

Committees...(I can hear you groaning!)  You can't avoid them.  From my interviews, a fair amount of your work involves committees.  I heard horror stories of how committee members decide on one direction, only to change their mind three weeks later...stories of committee members "going rogue" by hiring speakers on their own without the permission of the committee.

A couple event planners shared with me that they were able to greatly improve their interaction with committees by being highly proactive and focused with the members.  They provided a plan that clearly outlined roles and responsibilities.  Often they would have a discussion about the type of topic and speaker the group is looking for, date, budget, and location (see Mistake #1) and then they (event planner) locate some candidates to present for the committee's consideration.  The planner would provide criteria to the group to help review and rank the candidates.  (Side note - if you do have criteria, please share this with the speaking candidates as well.  It's very helpful to know how to focus the material and information for the group.)

The biggest factor in working with committees is to ensure that you maintain control of the process.  You need their input, but you are the process expert.

Mistake #4 - You Get What You Pay For

There is a reason some speakers command high speaking fees...because they are worth it and they deliver.  Speakers with higher fees have a proven track record.  They are professional, easy to work with, produce great results, and have expertise.  Tight budgets are always an issue, but event planners shared with me that they are able to convince constituents to loosen the purse strings by pointing out that lower fees increase the likelihood of a hit-or-miss experience.  They remind the stakeholders that the reputation of the committee is at stake if they hire an individual who does not provide an impactful experience.

"But sometimes I really don't have the budget..."  Well, if that's the case, let's move onto Mistake #5.

Mistake #5 - Don't think creatively about how to land a premier speaker on a small budget

Speakers speak to earn a living, but we also love to (get this...) speak!  We love being in front of an audience and we need audiences to keep our material sharp and to continue to hone our craft.  So, it's not unusual that under the right circumstances, premier speakers are willing to reduce their fee for other considerations:

  • Offer to provide a testimonial and testimonials from participants.  Speakers need testimonials.  It is the lifeblood of our profession and reputation.  Gushing testimonials from event planners and participants can be more valuable than fees because those words between quotation marks will help us land future speaking jobs.  Offers to provide testimonials from participants will gain leverage in your request to lower the speaking fee.
  • Offer to refer our names and programs to twenty colleagues or provide contact information for those planning similar events.
  • Provide a write-up in the press or use of other media that we can use for promotional purposes.
  • Provide a video recording of the presentation.
  • Allow the sale of merchandise.

In the end, I want what you want.  I want for your audience to have a great experience, and if I'm the right person for the job, let's talk. 

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