Speak Up, or Pay the Price!

It might seem like an obvious mistake, but in the heat of negotiating a contract, planners can overlook the critical due diligence they should apply to every speaker. Assumptions made and queries never posed can lead to disasters such as athletes who won't schmooze and presentations that offend attendees. If you don't investigate the way your hired guns operate, what do you expect? To avoid this, you must ask all the right questions beforehand. Here they are, along with a few horror stories from planners who failed to do so.

Fumbling the ball

As Andrea Gold remembers the story, it was a speaker coup that would thrill any attendee. Her client, a corporate meeting planner, had landed a popular pro football player for a closing night gala, where he would first mingle at a reception, then appear as the featured speaker during a post-dinner presentation. The problem was, he signed on for the awards ceremony -- not the reception.

"Weeks after the agreements were finalized [and shortly before the meeting], the client insisted that the athlete appear at the reception as well, but he refused," says Gold, president of Tucson-based Gold Stars Speakers Bureau. His contract was clear: awards, yes; cocktail hour, no -- and at this late date, he'd already made other plans. As a result, planner and client were in a pickle, having goofed not once, but twice: first, by forgetting to ask for the athlete's additional time, and then by advertising the "celebrity reception" in the program. Tough lesson learned: "Speakers are very particular about their commitments," says Gold. "Never assume they'll do things like mingle with attendees at receptions -- always confirm it."

Fed to the lions

Here's a surprise: Timing is everything. John Fuhrman understands and respects the seemingly endless deadlines associated with meetings. Between his 60 annual speaking engagements and a board seat on the New England Chapter of National Speakers Association, Fuhrman, CEO of Frame of Mind in Manchester, New Hampshire, runs a fairly tight ship of his own. That said, he's less than happy when a planner neglects to talk about the group's, and his own, time constraints. This oversight caused a problem at a recent incentive program.

"I was scheduled as the motivational speaker for a group of top salespeople in New York," says Fuhrman. "The planner's first mistake was that we only had two weeks to put it together, and no one was available to provide me with any insight about the audience." Fuhrman also warned the planner from day one about his tight schedule, which included flying to Chicago shortly after his pre-lunch speech.

"I got there at 10 a.m. and was told that the CEO would give a short talk," he says. Two hours later, Fuhrman was introduced to his starving audience this way: "Here's John. After him comes lunch." Worse yet, just 15 minutes into his now-abbreviated speech, Furhman lost his audience entirely to the appetizer carts and bar.

"The planner said, 'That had to be tough on you, but at least you're getting paid,' then handed me my check," says Fuhrman, who barely made his flight—and has since incorporated the experience into his speeches about bad customer service.

The dating game

Michelle Rathman, president of Impact! Communications in St. Charles, Illinois, recalls a planner who came to her looking for a speaker to address improving interpersonal relationships. To her dismay, she ended up with a dating expert. "The event was a conference's spousal session that was designed to be on the personal side, and I represented the speaker," says Rathman. The woman arrived promptly, began a snappy, boy-meets-girl spiel, then suddenly realized that her befuddled audience was comprised not of singles but of married folk. Savvy professional that she was, the speaker didn't miss a beat, but she was forced to shoot from the hip for the remainder of her time slot.

"The planner that I dealt with was never clear about the audience and I never asked," says Rathman. "We were both derelict in our duties, and the speaker ended up suffering because of it. It could have been disastrous, but she was a pro and made changes." The speaker also expressed these feelings to Rathman, who was thereafter wiser from the experience.

Think about it: Would you consider hiring a CPA to pump up attendees at a sales rally, or procure a trash-talking comic for deep, thoughtful commentary at a board retreat? Not likely -- or at least not intentionally. Yet when planners fail to flesh out a speaker's style and area of expertise, and match it to their audience, they could easily (along with the CEO, several VIPs, and dozens of other attendees) be witness to a jarring, unforgettable scene, or worse.

Now, says Rathman, "Before I hire a speaker, I send them to our Web site for research, then have them write a treatment on what they'd say to our client -- hopefully something the group hasn't heard before."

Another good reason for planners to do this: to avoid a potential bait-and-switch. But even when when the mistake is an honest one, "Some speakers may jump at any assignment without knowing their audience," she says. "Their message and delivery may not fit your particular group, and there's nothing worse for them than facing a packed ballroom and realizing that they're just not connecting at all."

Gold recalls one painful awards dinner where the speaker and her audience, while physically sharing the same room, were worlds apart mentally. "She was a content-focused speaker, but the occasion called for someone entertaining. She flopped terribly," says Gold, who was on hand to preview the speaker for one of her own clients. "The attendees were talking, laughing, and being rowdy, and the speaker's reaction was desperation -- I could see it in her eyes from across the room."

In this case, adds Gold, both planner and speaker shared the blame. The planner should have pressed the speaker on her limitations, and the speaker should either have retooled her speech to fit the festive mood or passed the job to someone else when she learned the event was going to be festive. "It was like teaching math in a bar," Gold quips.

Who's the boss?

When coming to terms on a speaking engagement, it is a smart idea to identify who has the final say on things such as content, direction, budget, and last-minute course corrections. Of course, planners can't relay the right information to a speaker unless they themselves know who that individual is.

Rick Segel, president of Rick Segel and Associates in Burlington, Massachusetts, works as a frequent speaker in the retail and gift industries. Among his biggest pet peeves: planners who fail to connect him with the client's real decision-makers. That became critical recently when Segel agreed to speak at an event held by a large retail chain, and the client asked him to mix some company gossip into his routine.

"I prefer to have my material censored beforehand by someone who really knows the company, so that I don't hurt or offend anyone in the process," says Segel, who, in this case, asked for and assumed he was getting final script approval from the right person. "They said, 'Yeah, this is good, this isn't,' et cetera, but sure enough, after my speech, someone in the audience made a negative comment about it," he says.

If the planner had bothered to ask his bosses about who would be the best liaison for the speaker, says Segel, the situation might have been avoided. "Just give me someone who knows what's appropriate, and who can make the right call," he says.

Devil in the details

It's much too tempting to sign off on a big contract without finalizing those last few items. Yet as most planners eventually learn, even the smallest details left unresolved can come back to haunt them. That applies across the board, including the speaker's role. Steve Schultz, convention and exposition director for the National Electrical Contractors Association and a 14-year meetings veteran, learned during his first planning opportunity to leave no question unanswered before signing off on a speaker.

"We had discussed the city, his fee, and the topics on that first interview, but it wasn't until we were getting close to our deadline that we both realized we'd never set the date," says Schultz. The good news: He was still a few days shy of publicizing the speaker in his brochure. The bad news: The speaker had already booked that slot with another client.