A conversation about hiring professional speakers with Jane Esparza, Owner of Esparza Speakers, LLC. of Arlington, VA. Interviewed by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE.
ER: Jane, when I first met you in 2003, you were the Director of Education for the Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA) and now you own a speakers bureau; please tell me about your journey.
JE: I started my career of coordinating and booking professional speakers in 1982 as the Executive Director for the Forth Worth Chapter of Certified Public Accountants then moved to the state office, Texas Society of CPAs. After a stint with a national employment training organization, I spent eight years with FSLIC and FDIC, where I managed internal meetings but didn’t need to hire speakers. After that I spent ten years with HIDA, where we met when I booked you for one of my conferences. I left HIDA in 2006 to be a partner at Cornerstone Speakers and then started my own speakers bureau, Esparza Speakers, LLC, in the fall of 2008.
ER: With the economy in bad shape, it sounds like an odd time to start a bureau?
JE: To the contrary, this is a wonderful time to offer a different approach; high value (cost ratio) Professional speakers are in demand and that is my specialty.
ER: How long do you think the current meetings slowdown will last?
JE: The quick answer is two to four years. As long as companies are streamlining there will be tight budgets. Organizations can either reduce the number of their meetings or look for speaker bargains; lower cost and higher value. There are currently some wonderful opportunities for NSA members because of tight budgets.
ER: For over 25 years you have booked speakers; how has that helped you in your new effort to sell speakers?
JE: My insight to the challenges and issues of those that book professional speakers is strong from my quarter-century of doing their job. I understand what goes into their decision making process. I understand their life and that gives me credibility—allowing me to connect with these folks quickly. I approach my discussions with them as colleague, rather than a sales person, and I hope our shared experiences gives me more credence.
ER: From your experience, what is the biggest mistake that professional speakers tend to make when trying to sell their own services?
JE: They contact the economic buyer and expect to turn it into an immediate sale. In the association world speakers are generally hired before the conference marketing materials are published creating a long lead time prior to the meeting. Many speakers do not realize the actual planning cycle.
ER: What’s the biggest mistake that professional speakers generally make after they have been hired?
JE: We all want confident speakers who know how to present to audiences, but some speakers tend not to trust the input of planners. I cannot tell you how many times I had to argue with a speaker about the customization needs for my groups—and how many that did not customize for my groups at all.
ER: I’ve had my share of receiving the wrong audience information from planners. How can a professional speaker tell if the planner knows their stuff?
JE: Communication, communication, and communication. After the initial ice has been broken in the planner/speaker relationship, have several conversations with them and others in their organization. Ask how long they have been with the organization. That can be an indicator; if 5-7 years or more, chances are strong that they know their group and can communicate their group’s needs. Additionally repeat what you hear. For example state, “You said that you wanted (this and such) do you mean (this and such) or (such and that)?” This exercise will always be helpful.
ER: In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the process of hiring Professional speakers?
JE: The Internet has made the process so much faster. No longer does the meeting planner have to wait for the speaker or the bureau to mail a video or DVD, or any other marketing collateral for that matter. Since most speakers have their video footage online; one can review their work instantly, even when while on the road. Video and PDF formatted brochure URLs can be emailed to committee members for their immediate review. Reading about a speaker is good and instantly experiencing them at work is far better.
ER: While on the subject of online professional speaker videos, what gives any speaker the best opportunity to be selected?
JE: First, I would never watch a video unless their topic was correct for my meeting. Then in the video:
- How well does the speaker connect with their audience? Will they grab me with an idea, humor, or a story? I can tell if the audience is clicking.
- Is it a canned speech delivered beautifully or is the speaker live in the moment with their audience? I generally prefer a speaker that is in the moment. I feel like I can trust them. If they are “live” they can better adjust if there is a problem than can one that has a canned speech.
- Shorter clips (5-8 minutes) tend to be best especially when I have to review quite a number of speakers. I just do not have the time to watch much more. However after I’ve narrowed it down to just a couple speakers, the longer video was usually important to my boss, just so they could be sure of the speaker.
- Higher quality videos tell me a speaker has been around long enough to spend the time and money on a professional production. Low quality might indicate they are newer to the circuit or their venues have been smaller. While I usually would not book a “newbie” for a high profile keynote, I would seriously consider them for breakouts. The quality of the program recorded is more important than the quality of the recording.
ER: When you get down to just a couple speakers being considered, and with most elements being somewhat equal; how do you decide which speaker?
JE: I’m not too sure if you are going to like my answer; it is the empirical knowledge gained from so many years that gives me a “sixth sense” about which speaker will be best. (Not just speaker knowledge, but an insider’s perspective about what is going on at that moment with my organization and the audience.)
ER: What can a professional speaker, or their staff, do to help a planner get that speaker approved by a convention committee?
JE: Add value, look at financial considerations, and offer other benefits or goodies for the attendees.
- Offer your book at a greatly discounted rate when the sponsoring organization buys for all attendees
- Offer the same with your DVD or CD products
- Offer to post on your speaker web site a special page for the meeting attendees to answer survey questions or pose questions to the speaker for program consideration—it helps guarantee a ‘spot-on’ presentation, and meeting planners love a sure thing!
ER: How important are hard DVDs and printed speaker materials?
JE: Not as important as in the past. So much either gets lost in files or thrown out. Most planners are happy to print speaker PDF formatted brochures from the Internet and distribute to conference committee members.
ER: What did speakers do that would drive you crazy?
JE: Absolutely not pay attention to what it means to customize or would show up 15 minutes before they were to go on and want to change the whole room—I don’t think so! Some speakers would deliver a great program but be so difficult to work with that I’d go to my room at the end of the day so exhausted that there wasn’t anything left for the next day.
ER: What did speakers do that would cause you to not want to hire them again?
JE: What I mentioned above; and speakers that were top of the top in selling but after they made the sale, they forgot what was important—wow the audience. Don’t just focus on the sale, deliver what you promise.
ER: What did speakers do that would cause you to want to hire them again?
JE: They would satisfy my audience, stay flexible, and not make my life difficult. From the planner’s perspective, make me a hero for hiring you. Be a team player. I’d always want to bring back speakers that were a delight.
ER: Jane, can you put on your bureau hat for a moment and tell me the fee levels at which you are currently seeing the most action?
JE: For corporations, with layoffs and such, this is a risky time to spend money and make the wrong impressions (think AIG). For associations, many do not want to give up the number of meetings and are trying to keep registration costs affordable; they are looking hard for better value. There are more opportunities for a speaker with a fee in the neighborhood of $7,500, than for their colleagues at $25,000. I know there are lower to mid-priced speakers that can perform at a level far beyond that which they’ve been given credit. In the end, the planner must stay within their meeting budget. Now is the time for the $5,000 to $15,000 professional speakers to shine and grab the market.
ER: From your perspective as a bureau owner, in this difficult economic time, should professional speakers be lowering their fees?
JE: No, it is not necessary. What is necessary is for speakers to offer additional value that will help planners to stretch their meeting dollars. Consider the following:
- Offer flat-rate travel fee
- Offer two presentations at one event, for the price of one or perhaps just a few dollars more
- Offer multi-event or multi-year deals
- Offer a complementary webinar; pre, or post convention
- Having flexibility is better than trying to undercut other speakers
- No surprises; first class airline tickets or extravagant expenses should be avoided—or a the very least discussed openly in advance
ER: Jane, thanks so much for your time and insight.
Ed is the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, Cigar PEG Philanthropy through Fun, and president at Rigsbee Research which conducts qualitative member ROI research and consulting for associations and societies. He has been called “the dynamite that broke up our log jam” by association executives—rarely politically correct and almost always provocative—and from a dozen years as a United States Soccer Federation referee, Ed calls it the way he sees it. Exceptional resources at www.rigsbee.com.