For conference and trade-show organizers, selecting, attracting and working effectively with speakers can be a make-or-break determinant of the success or failure of any event. The keys to a good result are doing thorough research, ensuring a proper match between speaker and event, getting things down in writing, and fostering clear and thorough communications right up through the day of the appearance, regardless of which of three general levels of speaker an organizer is engaging.
The top tier consists of marquee talents that cost from four to six figures, such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani who lit up the International Autobody Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas in November with a $100,000 address. Another, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, reportedly collected $150,000 to host a panel of magazine editors at a now-infamous MPA event during AdWeek.
The second level consists of speakers who are simply well known in their verticals, such as Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, who agreed to keynote PBI Media Holdings’ PROMO Expo.
The third tier are the rank-and-file business executives, managers and creative people who make up the bulk of most trade-show and conference programs. “Our main focus is to try and get practitioners to speak at conferences so that peers are truly speaking to peers and you’re learning from each other and promoting the industry you’re all in,” says Florence Torres, conference program manager for Stamford, Connecticut-based PBI, formerly a division of Primedia.
But perhaps surprisingly, handling speakers in the third category may be the most difficult. They usually speak gratis and often, because they’d likely be attending the show anyway, and don’t even require travel expenses.
Building a Speaker Base
By issuing a “call for papers,” knowing the players in their industry, and networking, conference directors can usually obtain a good list of candidates. Hanley Wood Exhibitions, among others, keeps a vast and detailed database of speakers “because we’re so vertical in building and construction shows,” says president Galen Poss. “Someone who speaks at a remodeling show might be good at a pool or spa show.”
But because these folks usually aren’t professional speakers and at the least may be inexperienced, there’s “an X factor,” says Claire Roderick Keerl, vice president and director of the events program for ZweigWhite, a Boston-based company that stages architectural and engineering shows. “Are they going to be physically dynamic? Are they going to be able to generate interest, or do they have the kind of voice that’s going to put you to sleep?”
Another danger with “free” speakers is that they’re more likely to represent a brand, product, or other corporate interest and be tempted to;or even feel entitled to;spin their talk into an advertorial. “Our criteria are that, while their logo can appear, they’re not allowed to pitch their products,” says Marian Raney, director of publishing services for Allured Publishing Corp., based in Carol Stream, Illinois, and organizer of personal-care and spa-industry shows. “But if they start to go down that road, our moderators will intercede.”
Landing the Big Fish
Securing the appropriate upper-echelon speaker can be the smoothest exercise, organizers say, once they’ve decided that their big investment in a fee is going to become a major lure for the show.
The trickiest gambit for show managers can be in trying to land a second-tier speaker, someone well-known mainly in their industry, for a bargain. Saatchi & Saatchi’s Roberts happened to agree to a small honorarium and to have PROMO donate it to a charity.
Once a speaker is secured, continuing communications are vital to make sure the presentation ends up hitting the mark. These begin with an agreement in writing about what the speaker is going to address. PBI, for example, sends the speaker a “benefit form” that asks for a title and intended main points of the speech as well as a promised “takeaway” for the audience. Conference managers also may send a list of speaking tips, or a form requiring the speaker’s assent to having her materials published by the show organizer in other ways.
The publishers should then send periodic e-mail and other correspondence between show and speaker right up to a final, speech-day pre-appearance at the venue. “We make sure they feel abreast of what they need to do, and we do it in concise, friendly correspondence that ties it all together and creates a bond,” says Torres. “And usually it creates a good speech.”