A conversation about hiring professional speakers with Joseph Thompson, CEO at Thompson Management Associates, LLC, ( TMA ) Annapolis, MD.
Interviewed by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE.
ER: How many client organizations does TMA manage?
JT: We manage four different not-for-profit trade associations and two educational alliances sponsored by 44 wholesale trade associations.
ER: For how long have you been hiring professional speakers?
JT: I’ve been hiring speakers for about 20 years.
ER: Over the last five years, what has been the fee range of the speakers that you’ve hired for your various associations?
JT: I’ve used speakers at fees as low as $3,000 and up to $25,000. Fees are relative to the event and my client’s needs.
ER: Who have you recently hired at $25,000?
JT: One client has hired Jeffrey Gitomer on two occasions.
ER: How do you approach hiring a professional speaker?
JT: Once I’ve decided to consider a speaker, based upon referrals or personal observation, I try to weed through the issues I don’t want to put up with, such as canned or irrelevant topics or presentations or the degree to which a speaker will do what they say they will do. Then I consider the minimum performance that I’ll accept, and finally, what makes me happy as to the speaker’s attitude, style, and content.
ER: Would you expand on your last thought?
JT: What makes me happy with a speaker encompasses four basic areas:
- When my understanding of the content that the speaker offers matches with what I believe my client needs.
- A speaker that has the personality to keep the audience awake.
- Make my life easier, I don’t want to receive a 12-page pre-program questionnaire—I’ll never get to it.
- Beyond simply delivering content, I prefer speakers when they make the extra effort to connect with the audience. This is generally done through interviewing audience members and visiting their Web Sites prior to the talk. Then the speaker will better know what’s going on in the industry and be able to better speak to the needs and issues of my client’s members. Additionally, I appreciate a speaker putting in a bit more effort than just showing up, speaking, and hitting the road. Following up their presentation with additional outreach to the attendees is always appreciated, even if it’s just posting their handouts on their web site for audience access afterwards.
ER: How do you generally find the professional speakers that you hire?
JT: Mostly I contact the speaker direct based on a recommendation from a colleague or prior contact when they have called my office. I do occasionally use speaker bureaus, mostly when a particular speaker prefers that method or if they have an exclusive arrangement with a bureau. Sometimes I see a speaker at an event where they are showcasing for a particular bureau. In that situation, I’ll book through the sponsoring bureau.
ER: What else do you do in the area of selecting speakers?
JT: I’m involved with the 20 year-old Association Education Alliance (AEA) where we, association executives, gather twice a year and one of the topics covered is speakers—participants offer their feedback on speakers they’ve recently hired. The AEA also maintains a speaker rating listing in the “members only” section of our web site. Additionally, I’m active with NAW, the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors, where they also have a similar speaker listing that includes ratings. In situations where I’m not familiar with a speaker, third party endorsements are very important.
ER: What is your lead time before an event for selecting a professional speaker?
JT: In most cases it is from six to twelve months before the event that I need to select and hire my speaker.
ER: What role does the Internet play in your speaker search and selection process?
JT: First, speakers need to have a Web Site that offers more than fluff. I tend to check out the bio section to determine if the speaker has the depth of knowledge to serve my group. I also pay close attention to the “clients” section, especially when the planner’s contact information is included—frequently, I will call the planner and talk to them about the speaker’s performance. Then the program descriptions must be descriptive enough to give me a good idea as to what the speaker will deliver. And last, I hate crummy video. Speakers should spend the money to have quality clips, five minutes is fine, on their Web Sites. I’d rather watch high quality studio video than low quality live video with awful sound and jumpy and grainy frames.
ER: Why do you hire professional speakers rather than to use industry speakers that come to you at little or no cost?
JT: First, because they are professionals. Industry speakers generally have excellent content that is specific to the needs of my audiences; however they are generally not skilled presenters. For some of the breakout sessions, industry speakers are the best choice. For other sessions, especially general sessions or keynotes, I want the commitment that a professional speaker brings to the platform—they add an emotional element rarely found in industry speakers.
ER: What do you expect of professional speakers?
JT: I expect them to be on time, delivering the right content and humor for my audience at that particular point in time. I want them to share their passion and knowledge in a way that moves my audience members. I expect a professional speaker to keep my audience interested and engaged for the duration of their talk. It’s all about a speaker connecting with his or her audience, that’s what makes me, and my members, happy.
ER: Tell me about your organizational process for selecting speakers.
JT: Unlike a number of trade associations that use the committee process, my clients (trade associations) trust that the association management staff, I and the associates, will select the right speaker for their meetings. We’ve been doing this successfully for quite a number of years. Each event is crafted differently and may require using recommendations, bureau catalogs, or an online search to find the correct speaker.
ER: In dealing with you, what could a speaker do to create an advantage for themselves over another speaker?
JT: Like all of my peers, my time is at a premium – do the translation for me. Spend time at the Web Sites of the associations that I manage, visit the Web Sites of some of the members and figure out for me how your presentation will make a difference in the lives of my meeting attendees—don’t expect me to figure it out from cryptic marketing materials. The speaker that helps me to cut through the clutter by addressing how they can truly meet my members’ needs has the upper hand in my book.
ER: What is the best way for a speaker to initiate contact with you?
JT: Let me know that you understand my client’s industry and issues and how you are able to deliver compelling business value through your presentation. By doing your research before you call me, you send a message loud and clear that you have something of value to share. Your Web Site is mostly to legitimize yourself to me and present yourself in a way that assures me that you can deliver on your promises. And finally, when listing you own clients on your web site; include a brief description of their industry or profession as well as the types of content that you presented.
ER: Joe, Thank you 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.
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