Hiring speakers is a tricky business. Will they engage audience members or have them struggling to keep their eyes open? Will they work for your attendee base, especially when planning events for youth? Will they wreck your budget by demanding more money for things you thought were standard in their fees? Little factors stand in the way of the perfect presentation, but you can anticipate and prepare for most of these bumps and roadblocks by following a few fundamental guidelines.
1. Start with a number in mind. You need to know your budget and speaker-fee price range—$5,000 to $10,000, $10,000 to $20,000, or $25,000 and higher—says Jeff Hurt, executive vice president of education and engagement for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting; Hurt has hired thousands of speakers throughout his career, at one point securing 1,300 industry speakers a year. Recently, Hurt’s firm produced the Speaker Report, an independent report that surveyed almost 250 meeting planners about using professional and industry speakers at events. If you regularly work with speaker bureaus, they can suggest speakers that fit your budget and audience.
2. Consider celebrities, then consider alternatives. Big names bring buzz, not necessarily crowds. “Just because someone is an actor or author doesn’t mean they’re a good presenter,” says Hurt. Research in the Speaker Report provided surprising results on the topic: “A keynote who is a household name—an actor, a musician, politician, or an athlete—does not affect increasing registration,” reveals Hurt. “That being said, on-site at your conference, a famous person will cause people to show up for that session.”
There are benefits of hiring a celebrity, of course. “It gives you some PR, hype, and something to market,” Hurt says. “Conference attendees who go to see a household name are much more forgiving. A famous person can be an average speaker, and the audience will love it.”
3. Book famous speakers early at a fraction of the cost. Once upon a time, practically no one had heard of Frank Abagnale, the forgery expert whose life inspired the film “Catch Me if You Can.” Today he’s a highly sought-after speaker who books gigs at tens of thousands of dollars a pop. “Work with a bureau looking at what movies or books will be released right before your conference starts,” says Hurt. “If the movie is [a biopic] about an unknown person, that’s the perfect time to hire said, unknown person. Secure them a year out to speak at your conference in a general session.”
Burgess booked Chris Gardner, author of “The Pursuit of Happyness,” just before the movie of the same name was released. “He was around $17,000 when we hired him. After the movie, his fee jumped to around $79,000.”
4. Research, check references, interview, then hire. A bad speaker can reflect poorly on the person who hired them. “I’ve had speakers who cursed on stage or told inappropriate jokes,” says Hurt. “The number one question to ask a reference is, ‘Would you hire them again?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ move on. If the reference hem-haws around and won’t give a direct answer, the answer is ‘no.’ If they answer ‘yes,’ do a little more research.”
Look for the delivery style, content, and visuals of your speakers. “You can have great delivery on stage and poor content, and the audience will love you,” he says. “You can have poor delivery, great content, and the audience will hate you. See a video clip of that speaker in action. Watch shots of the audience responding. If there’s no audience footage, can you hear them laughing with the speaker or clapping?”
Hurt advocates are taking a chance on rookie speakers, too. “I may place them in breakouts at first, but I’m always about new partnerships. Many times, speakers who you take a chance on, if they become successful later, will do favors for you because you gave them their start.”
5. Set your speaker up for success. Give speakers every possible advantage by outlining your expectations for the event and giving them background information on your organization. “Give them your audience demographics,” says Hurt. “I would [tell speakers], ‘I’ll consider you successful if you reach an 80 to 90 percent favorable rating with our attendees. If they walk out of the room talking about you, they want to stand in line and buy your book; if they’re enthralled with what you say and say that it’s relevant—you’re successful.