Diana Boulter’s top tips for working with a professional speaker bureau

Sooner or later, and very likely on a day when your to-do list looks interminable, you may be asked to organise an event for your company or its clients. It could be the annual Conference, a dinner for your company’s most important clients, a product launch or the AGM for shareholders.

Finding the venue might be quite straightforward, selecting the menus can be a pleasure, but how do you find your guest speakers, MC or chair?

Access to a little black book of the world’s best contacts might be the answer. But if you can add the expertise of a professional bureau offering personal service, genuine first-hand insight, plenty of experience and pro-active advice, you stand a much greater chance of success. Let’s take a closer look at how this success can be achieved with minimum stress for you, with our ten top tips below.

1 Have a clear picture in mind

You may not know exactly what type of person you’re looking for. And that’s fine. But good, open dialogue with a professional speaker bureau should help to define and refine the brief so that they can start compiling a shortlist for you. This should be at no cost to you.

It is true that choosing a speaker by committee can be onerous if everyone has different objectives, but asking the right questions usually results in a clear speaker profile. Speakers cover a very wide range of topic areas including business, politics, management, the Arts, sport, economics, IT, cyber-business and HR in both the public and private sectors.

They speak worldwide, adding value and sharing knowledge. Experts in their own field, they have a combination of the communication skills and the personal motivation to share their experience with audiences. The majority of international conferences and business meetings are conducted in English, but it’s always worth checking.

It’s very important that we attend events each year to hear both new and established speakers. Clients often ask if we have actually heard a speaker “live”, as our first-hand comments form part of their selection process. I believe there is no such thing as a “standard conference” or a “standard audience”.

2 Save yourself time

Forgive me if I make two assumptions – firstly, that you don’t have hours to trawl around the internet and may not trust the results you find. Secondly, that you’d probably prefer (if given the choice) to be offered suitable and appropriate options, with relevant information, fairly quickly and with minimum fuss?

Do you recall the logo for a world-famous construction company showing a line of men in a tug-of-war team, all pulling in the same direction? That’s how I envisage the triple-sided relationship between my client, the speaker and DBA – all pulling the same direction to get the best result.

One of our longest-standing clients calculated that we had saved her months of time over the years we worked together, simply by knowing whom to approach and how to persuade the speakers to accept the invitation to speak. It’s not as simple as it can sometimes appear.

3 Speaking style

Most of us have favourite presenters on TV, radio and in the media. By the same token, there are people whose style and delivery annoys or irritates us. My personal bĂŞtes noires are when people say “you guys” or “you know” several times per minute, adding nothing of value or interest – just wasting my time and that of the audience.

If booking an MC, chair or host, it’s worth knowing that some will write their own scripts from the briefing you supply and following a briefing meeting with you which they are happy to have. Others, including some of the best-known TV presenters, will expect you to have written the whole thing for them – they just turn up and read it. And they may not be willing to meet you beforehand either.

4 Treat the speaker like a delegate

Ensure that the speaker receives all the information which you send to each delegate or guest. Please don’t assume that the speaker will check your website for every tiny detail or change of timing. Last-minute changes are often not put on websites, or the whole event may be strictly confidential, with no details at all given to the outside world.

Speakers will respond, and read, the information you send to them, but it’s up to you to make sure they receive all that information. No speaker can tailor their speech – however talented they are – if they have no idea as to what it should be tailored to fit. One simple way is to imagine yourself in their shoes. For example: would you give the same talk, using the same vocabulary and examples, to address a room of 400 hundred 16-year-olds at a college awards event, and if you were speaking just to 10 members of a Board of a FT SE-100 company?5 Who is listening? Who will be in your audience when the speaker stands up to speak? This should be one of the fundamental aspects behind every choice of speaker, but is frequently overlooked in the initial rush to book a celebrity. It is much easier to describe the audience accurately if the event is your own firm’s annual Conference, but less straightforward if you are inviting your clients to attend as you may not know their ages and preferences.

5 It’s not all about money

Don’t think that it’s all about the fee – it’s not. This is often the last detail which speakers ask me when I contact them to see if they’d be interested in a particular invitation. Many speakers are multi-millionaires in their own right, so a large fee won’t necessarily attract them and they’ll pay tax on it. While some speakers do earn the majority of their income from speaking, many are also writers, lecturers, independent consultants, journalists, inventors, polar explorers, technicians, code-breakers, psychologists, health specialists… they wear as many hats as you do and it might be something quite different which persuades them to accept your invitation when they have declined so many others.

6 It’s not all about celebrity, either!

Don’t assume that a famous person from TV will be a good speaker. They might not wish to accept your invitation to speak, or feel that they cannot add anything pertinent. A superstar entrepreneur might not be an excellent communicator either, although many have had professional training to improve their performance.

After the stellar performances of the Olympics and Paralympics at London 2012, we were inundated with requests for the leading gold medalists to speak. Very few of the enquiries became bookings because the young athletes concerned had other things they wanted to do with some of their rare “time off”. And just because you’re a medal-winning Olympian does not, in itself mean that you’re a great communicator, although there are some truly notable examples of sporting legends who speak really well.

A few years ago, I was asked to approach a well-known young person who had been a popular choice on a TV reality show. Our client was a charity for young people. They held an annual awards event to thank, and celebrate, the invaluable and altruistic work of their volunteers. The brief was very straightforward: the speaker simply had to read the autocue, smile at the cameras and present the awards to the happy winners. Fortunately, I asked the speaker if they’d be comfortable working with an autocue and all with the other aspects of the brief. Good thing I did. It became immediately obvious that this would be a major and insurmountable problem, as the speaker had never learned to read. They’d learned to sing by ear, just by listening to the words and music over and over again. I phoned my client, tactfully explained why the speaker could not accept and suggested other people for them to consider.

7 Speakers are human too

Contrary to what you might expect, not all speakers enjoy all events, even if they do have an ego the size of a house. Many have their own strong preferences. Some will not speak for companies in certain sectors. Some really don’t like speaking after dinner (no matter how much money is offered) as they don’t feel comfortable being thought of as “the entertainment”. Others don’t like to be given a brief as tight as a straightjacket – they feel they need more freedom in order to shine.

Some are brilliant on motivation and inspiration. Some are better in a businessfocused setting. A few speakers can successfully combine both aspects into one cogent, coherent whole. One of our most requested speakers is Dame Stella Rimington, the former Director General of the UK Security Service MI5. She accepts only a limited number of speeches each year as she has many other projects including writing her excellent thrillers which have a female central character, who is based, as Dame Stella was, in the Intelligence Service. Due to the nature of her work, she is not able to divulge all the details of her professional role and, consequently, many events at which she speaks are on the basis of Chatham House rules of confidentiality and non-attribution. If your conference is for your own colleagues and about your own company, you’ll probably have your own in-house experts on those topics.

If you need to bring in an external speaker, get them to add something different not “more of the same”. A cutting-edge pharmaceutical company recently achieved excellent feedback by bringing in a sports-based motivational speaker to enthuse and energise the audience after a long day.

8 If a picture doesn’t say a thousand words, scrap it

You may be very relieved to know that there is an increasing trend away from “death by Powerpoint”. In my opinion, there are two examples of when pictures or diagrams are justifiable and useful. One is when an economist is showing graphics, charts and statistics, and the other is when an explorer is showing photos from their recent expedition which no words could adequately describe, because most of us don’t have the shared experience of having seen similar sights. If a speaker simply reads the slides, I question why they are there at all. Why not just send the slides to everyone, let them read them at their desks and save thousands of pounds on travel, hotels, meals and – very importantly – everyone’s time.

The worst example I ever had the misfortune to suffer was a lady who showed one slide per minute in a 60-minute talk, having kindly “condensed” the bullet points to just 10 per slide. I’ll leave you to do the maths. She certainly knew her topic, but had no idea how to structure her speech, what to cut out, and how to present it in an informative and accessible way. That was one of the longest hours of my life. I am not a smoker, but I was desperate for a cigarette break, just to escape!

I was invited to give a speech in the Channel Islands a few years ago. One of the ladies in the audience ran a recruitment company and summe up our work like this, “What you do is much like running a successful dating agency, without the sex. In other words, it is the process of understanding what each customer wants and then matching this to the skills and knowledge of the speakers available.”

9 A special quick tip to win friends

Think very carefully about where you place your speaker in the schedule. If your speaker is a star and a fabulous performer, I strongly suggest that you do not follow them with an internal speaker unless you are 100% confident that your internal speaker is themselves excellent.

It’s daunting and unfair to put someone in such a position. Better by far to invite your CEO to introduce the speaker, and let the speaker take it from there. Don’t make a senior person in your organisation look weak or unimpressive by placing them after someone who really shines. You’ll be on a losing ticket, nobody will thank you, and it might affect your next appraisal.

10 Add value for no extra cost

Why not persuade your speaker to stay to lunch informally after their talk, or stay to a drinks reception, to meet your delegates and add value to the experience for your guests? Few people bother to ask, but it can pay big dividends.

Diana Boulter founded DBA Speakers in 1995, having previously worked in investment finance, the travel industry as a Tour Director across Europe, and running a British stately home. Known for her extensive connections, she now manages some of the world’s ... (Read More)

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