A conversation about hiring professional speakers with Larissa Schultz, CMP, LJS Meeting Strategies, LLC . Interviewed by Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE.
Larissa J. Schultz, CMP has been in the meeting management business for over 13 years and currently reside in the Los Angeles area. Throughout her career she has been fortunate to work as a full-time meeting planner for the California Association of REALTORS®; International Council of Shopping Centers; and ING Advisors Network. In 2008, she founded and started LJS Meeting Strategies, LLC, to focus on bringing strategic meeting planning management to her clients. With her professionalism and high level of service she is able to serve her clients both domestically and internationally.
ER: In your past life at ING, what were the percentages of speaker types that you hired between celebrity speakers, professional motivational keynoters, and professional content experts?
LS: Most of the meetings and conference I have helped plan have been educational-content focused. Therefore, professional content experts were generally hired to assist with meeting the goals of the conference and meeting. Knowing, however, that motivational speakers bring a balanced approach to both personal and professional lives—which help the two, work together; professional motivational speakers were hired when there were multiple general sessions over a few days for meetings.
ER: Looking toward the next 12-18 months, what trends to you see for the hiring of professional speakers?
LS: Over the next 12-18 months I see the need for more professional content experts to be hired. As meetings have recently come into the media focus, somewhat negatively, corporations and associations are looking to prove the business ROI that meetings provide. I think that many of these organizations will feel the way to do that is show how there is direct correlation with the content required and the individual providing the content. This could prove to be short-sighted, but the current perception of meetings is the current reality.
ER: Why are live meetings important to the American economy?
LS: Meetings bring people together for common goals and common purposes. On a pure basic level, meetings occur each and every day. When more two or more people ‘meet’ to discuss their common purpose, goals or to come to an agreement; a meeting has occurred. From that level; meetings are important in order for all of us to achieve something better than what we have.
From an economic standpoint—live meetings stimulate the economy. The amount of industry’s that live meetings touch and economically influence is extraordinary—this is why the hospitality and tourism industry is a major factor in the national economy, as well as the global economy.
ER: How much lead time do you plan prior to searching for a speaker?
LS: I would say we generally book 9-12 months out. However it generally has to do with the planning of the meetings and currently in today’s economic climate meetings we are seeing a shorter lead time, similar to 3-6 months out.
ER: What role does the Web play in your search for speakers?
LS: The web is an integral part of speaker research. I find the web is a great way to learn more about a speaker I may be interested in as well as being able to utilize it to find a speaker about a specific topic. I tend to use multiple speaker sites as well as individualized speaker sites in order to gauge a balance of biased information.
ER: What’s the best way past the clutter and into the final four?
LS: In today’s world it can sometimes seem that a speaker is a dime a dozen. The best way to move past all the clutter is the ability and opportunity to see the speaker in person at another conference or meeting. However, due to scheduling and timing in today’s world that is a very difficult task. Therefore the next best option is an unedited video of the speaker. The unedited part of that statement is crucial as editing can lead to an unfair overall assessment of the speaker. When a speaker is hired you are looking for the overall; not just the “high points.”
ER: Which is more important in their decision making; website content and video, or direct personal contact with the prospective speaker candidate?
LS: In the decision making process you can’t just go with one or the other—you need to take both the website content/video and the personal interaction with the speaker into play. Any planner who hires a speaker without both has not thoroughly done their job.
ER: What are the top 3 considerations that sway you to hire one speaker over another?
- The content matches the need of the conference.
- The speaker can actually bring the ROI to the group – it makes sense to hire them.
- The speaker is the industry expert on the specific topic.
ER: Given the fast changing audiences we speak to, how do you rate the following in order of importance (given that the speaker is rated excellent to work with). Original Content; New Ideas: Audience Involvement/Interaction; Audience entertainment; Presentation skills; Contrarianism; Humor; Political correctness; Fee.
LS: It is hard to list the importance as with each group and conference the important needs can change dependant on why the speaker is hired. Sometimes it is for pure motivational purposes only. Sometimes it is for the “star power” of the event. Other times it can be for and educational need where the keynote speaker is the only educational component of the event. Therefore, to try to list the importance of each would be impossible without knowing the objectives of the conference or meeting.
ER: Is there a fee now below which you don’t look at speakers, feeling “they must not be that good if that is their fee?”
LS: No—there are many speakers out there who are competent in their message but just new to the scene and therefore, are offering a reduced fee to help build business. Then there are many speakers who have large price tags but don’t deliver the message.
ER: What really makes you angry with a speaker you hire?
LS: Someone who promotes themselves differently than what they actually deliver.
ER: What are your thoughts about working directly with speakers verses through a bureau?
LS: Working with a speaker you get a genuine feel for their personality and work ethic. Also the message you are communicating about the conference, meeting and attendees is potentially better delivered than running through the “telephone game”. It is not always guaranteed that a bureau or agent is going to expressly explain to the speaker the importance of what the meeting is about and what to highlight or not.
ER: It seems that today every professional speaker authors an electronic newsletter. What are you’re your thoughts about receiving them—joy or pain?
LS: I find electronic newsletters a pain due to the amount of them I receive on a daily, even hourly basis. I generally work on referrals.
ER: What is more important; hiring a speaker who will deliver great take away value or one who speaks on the selected subject and is available at the budgeted price?
LS: Take away value. This is the reason the speaker was hired.
ER: What’s your quick thought on speaker bureaus?
LS: At this point in my career, a speaker’s bureau is somewhat like Orbitz to me—it can provide me a great search engine, but in the end I tend to like to work directly with the individual. However, during a very busy season of planning meetings I have also found a speakers bureau to be a huge asset—but this is only when I have a contact with the bureau who specifically understands the group’s needs that I am working with. Speaker bureaus can be a great asset to a meeting planner if the relationship is set up correctly in the beginning.
ER: How do you search for speakers on the Internet?
LS: Through bureaus if I am looking for subject— through another search engine or the speaker’s main site if I am looking for a particular speaker.
ER: What do you look for on a speaker’s website?
LS: Video examples of live interactions with an audience—preferably unedited. I like to see the delivery of the speaker and how it is received by the audience.
ER: How much credence do you give to the speaker’s promo or speaking reel?
LS: It depends on if it has been edited or not.
ER: What aspects of a website turn you off?
LS: No videos. No examples. And most importantly—no clear, definitive subject matter. I search for speakers that are knowledgeable on one or two main topics. A speaker than can speak on anything and everything is not of interest.
ER: Do you look at the blogs of speakers?
LS: No, but mainly it is due to the fact that I am not a “blogger” by day.
ER: What proves to you the value of hiring a professional speaker?
LS: Proven experience on the topic and successful outcome of that topic. Any one can talk on anything for any amount of time. However those individuals that are talking about something they personally experienced and sharing what they learned from that experience…those are more valuable.
ER: What is the number one qualifying factor that you look for in hiring a professional speaker; hiring a speaker someone can vouch for, 3rd party testimonials, speaking promo or reel, most popular/in demand, or word of mouth?
LS: Word of mouth is huge. Getting a referral from someone that I respect as being credible is better than any press release or unknown testimonial.
ER: Are you generally open to new speakers contacting you about upcoming/pending events?
LS: No. I get more than enough emails and phone calls on speakers.
ER: What do professional speakers do that drive you crazy?
LS: Call too often and not take the time to learn about the type of meetings and conferences I do. Not every speaker is good for every event. Figure out where you or your speaker works best and focus on those industries or those types of events
ER: What do professional speakers do that make you not want to work with them again?
LS: Not take the time to understand and meet the audience needs.
ER: What do professional speakers do that make you WANT to hire them again?
LS: Take the time to meet and understand the audience needs. Being professional and really bringing it to the table.
ER: Some other surveys are pointing out a dichotomy for planners between executives who want a celebrity name on a program, and participant feedback saying they want practical substance instead. The planner can be trapped on being evaluated in part on participant feedback on one hand, and being pressured to create a piece of program they know participants will pan. Are you seeing this?
LS: No—at this point the “celebrity name” isn’t working in this type of economy. Spending $40,000 on a retired athlete just doesn’t cut it on how that can impact the education of the attendees.
ER: For an association planner, how do the dynamics of a selection committee play into the final decision? Does it make a difference if one or more of the people on the committee have heard a speaker?
LS: Definitely input from committee members is important if they have seen a speaker. Again, receiving credible referrals from known entities is better than working on unknown testimonials. In my experience generally selection committees, if they don’t have their own recommendations, look to the planner to provide speaker ideas.
ER: For the corporate meeting planner, how has the planner role changed with regards to speaker selection? As a planner, are you more involved or less involved in influencing the decision?
LS: It can be the same as associations in a lot of sense. You can be just involved in recommending speakers if none are recommended.
ER: Are there any words, phrases, or descriptions that groups feel really uncomfortable about?
LS: Depends on the group—you cannot provide a blanket statement/response to this one. It is important for the speaker to take the time to get to know the audience before interacting with them.
ER: What criteria do you use when looking at a stack of media kits and DVDs from speakers?
LS: If the planner works with the group on a regular basis for a long amount of time—they generally have a gut instinct on whether it will work or not. And for each meeting, with the same audience, some speakers may work for one but not another….
ER: What is the unwritten rule on speaking fees? Do you consider it appropriate for speakers to have different fees for different client groups?
LS: No—if the message is the same, the fee should be the same.
ER: Larissa, 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.