Originally published in the National Speaker Association’s Professional Speaker magazine,
July/August 2004 Issue (Updated May 2012)
I have seen both sides of planning meetings: 18 years as a meeting planner running citywide international technology meetings and fifteen years as a professional speaker whose target audience is meeting planners. I have spoken before tens of thousands of planners for more than 40 meeting industry organizations in 31 countries. What do meeting planners want from speakers? Read on…
The meeting planner profile:
Meeting planners have a lot on their minds. Meeting planning can be compared to putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Every piece must be in place or there won’t be a complete picture. If the planner forgets or does not adequately communicate a need at a seemingly small event — a coffee break for example — or predicting the number that will attend a banquet the ramifications can be huge. With angry attendees and questioning bosses, chances for failure lurk at every turn.
The analogy of the duck stately floating on the top of the water while paddling like crazy beneath the surface has never been more apt. In well-planned meetings, things seem to flow seamlessly with meeting planners working almost invisibly behind the scenes. If something goes wrong, however, his or her job can become the “javelin catcher.”
Meeting planners are 75% female. Successful planners tend to have good people skills as well as excellent attention to detail. In general terms, they are garrulous, they like to work with people with whom they have established a relationship, and they typically possess a strong sense of fairness. They are also very good at networking.
Their job often hinges on the success of the meeting. Happy attendees and good evaluations are a part of how success is rated. Selecting speakers is often part of the job, but only a small part. They are usually juggling lots of balls.
What meeting planners expect from speakers:
- For you to “WOW” the audience
Your role is to move the audience. This can be accomplished in a number of ways: through a visually dazzling performance, a soul-stirring program that lifts the audience or an insightful presentation that gives new meaning and clarity to a topic.
A trend in the meetings industry is to carefully measure ROI (return on investment) from meetings. The MPI (Meeting Professionals International) tagline says it well: “Defining the Power of Meetings.” To this end, speakers will see meeting planners use more evaluation forms, mobile polling apps other tools in determining future speakers and whether they will rebook you. Strategic planners know that what happens on the dais is crucial to the success of the event.
- Absolute reliability
Once you are booked, planners need to count on the fact that you will be there as scheduled. Book your travel so that you have backup options in case a flight is cancelled or there is bad weather along your route. Be there early and be prepared. Plan for contingency backups for travel, A/V, course notes or anything else crucial to success.
- Absolute integrity
This goes without saying. But to reinforce this, the meetings industry is very well networked. There are about 60,000 professional meeting planners in the U.S. and many belong to professional associations. And they talk. The word gets around quickly about suppliers with unscrupulous or unreliable business practices.
- Make the planner look good.
The best way for a speaker to make the planner look good, of course, is to do a terrific job on the platform. But beyond this, nurture relationships with planners whenever you can. Let all of your actions with the meeting attendees shed a positive light on the planners. In the planning stages, the meeting planner will often appreciate your advice as an experienced speaking professional when it comes to how to structure your presentation, the timing and the events surrounding it. Send thank-you notes and praise their good work to supervisors if the opportunity allows. Never publicly criticize planners or their organizations — not only because it’s unprofessional but because planners often have a significant voice in whether to book speakers again.
- Quick responses
With so much on a meeting planner’s plate, a quick response is often the difference between getting the booking or not. One trend in the meetings industry is increasingly for shorter lead times for meetings. We are all living in an age where FedEx is not fast enough. A quick response, preferably by e-mail within the day, or two days at the most, is what they expect. Either you or your staff, and preferably both, should have honed technology communications skills.
How speakers can help planners:
- Be flexible.
Back to the jig-saw puzzle analogy. Things are crazy behind the scenes at many meetings – thousands of pieces are being put together. Schedules change. Stuff happens! Speakers who can roll with the changes and still get great evaluations are like gold to planners.
- No prima donnas please!
Be easy to deal with! Unless you are on the very top echelon of the speaking circuit and can ask for just about anything, remember that you are just a piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important one. If you are a prima donna, your chances of being rebooked will decrease. If you are particularly difficult, your reputation will precede you.
- Have a very clear, complete contract.
Planners commonly have contracts with hotels, speakers and other suppliers. The trend in the last few years is for lengthier contracts that cover all of the contingencies. Planners want clearly written, balanced and complete contracts/letters of agreements. No legalese, please. Particularly important, in addition to times, dates, rates and place are: details on cancellation (both sides); reciprocal act of God (force majeur) clauses; what travel charges will be covered; specifics on A/V if you use it; and emergency contact information. I also routinely include in my contract the information I know they will be asking for anyway, such as my bio, a link to online high-resolution publicity photos, the full course description (with learner objectives), and anything else I think they need.
- Provide your information online.
Planners use the web to research hotels, cities, suppliers and speakers. It is simply a more efficient route. I have followed the principle that anything that I would send out in paper, or any question about my speaking services that I get asked more than twice, I put online. My calendar, bio, publicity pictures (both high-resolution for printing and low-resolution for the Web), course descriptions, clients, testimonials, travel expenses, video clips, sample introductions, past speaking engagements, you name it – it’s all at my web site.
The model changes a bit in working with speaker bureaus, but the trend is to put more information online instead of less. Planners prefer it.
- Be prompt and clear with your billing.
To use an old Broadway phrase, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” The implication is that any charges must be clearly detailed and agreed upon in your contract before you speak. There should be no surprises. My billing typically goes out no later than two days upon return to my office from the engagement. To speed delivery, I always send my invoice and scanned travel receipts as .PDF documents via e-mail.
For you speakers and planners reading this article: is there something you would like to add to this list? I am happy to provide updates as they are received.