Circuit Breakers

This year, the National Speakers Association published a white paper called The Expertise Imperative. The 12-page treatise discusses the future of the professional speaking industry and concludes, much as the title forewarns: "Expertise is the new imperative."

The paper recognizes a trend that has matured into the basic principle for planning meetings in 2004: "Conventions and conferences are now looked at not as a perk for a job well done, but as an investment." And when it comes to selecting presenters, "The fundamental value of employing paid professional speakers is being reexamined like never before."

In other words, planners next year won't be booking as many of the big-name, big-money speakers they once relied upon to draw crowds. Rather than relying on marquee presenters who tend to deliver motivational or inspirational speeches, planners are turning to industry experts and academics to deliver pertinent information to an audience increasingly impatient with what they perceive as wasted time. Increasingly, planners are aiming at the middle ground to please their attendees, mixing industry experts with professional speakers, often on the same stage at the same time, to create dynamic yet informative presentations.

"There's an emerging gray area," says Diane Goodman, owner of the Goodman Speakers Bureau in Windsor, CT. "Clients are much more focused on take-home value and content, because that's what their participants want," she says. "It's not ever going to fully supplant having celebrity or motivational-type speakers, but there's far less demand for them than there traditionally has been."

Content is King

Joan Tezak, meeting planner for Denver-based Colorado Society of Association Executives, says attendees are already forced to spend too much time in their daily lives sifting through an overwhelming influx of information. When they attend meetings, they want information that is directly relevant to their professional lives. To that extent, meeting planners must "act as a filter," says Tezak. "We filter out the irrelevant information and give them just what's useful to them."

As a result, content is most prized on the speakers circuit for 2004. "Attendees are less enamored with someone's title," Tezak says. "They are far more concerned about what's in it for them." And this holds true not just for corporate meetings, to which attendees are required to go, but for all meetings, including conferences and conventions. "In voluntary-attendance meetings, there's also a trend toward content and educational value," says Colleen Rickenbacker, who plans meetings for the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People want specialization because they have to go back with a return on investment. Otherwise, why take the time to attend?" Jennifer Lindsey, meeting planner with Tulsa, OK-based DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition, says she's just giving the people what they want when she forgoes flashy names and presentations. "My conference attendees are more than happy to tell you that they want to hear industry speakers. If I brought in a speaker to entertain or motivate, [the audience] would be okay with it, but the evaluations would greatly reflect their wish for [more content]."

But planners facing weak attendance often feel forced to use a celebrity speaker just to get attendees in the door. "In my target market, one of the biggest challenges I face is to get them to come to our conference," says M.J. Grenualdi, meeting planner for Denver-based Colorado Association of Home Builders. Because so many of the association's members own small companies with only one or two employees, they are particularly reluctant to sacrifice two days of selling to come to a meeting. "We are trying to find a way to make the conference of such high quality that it would cost them not to come to the show." And, she says, booking a high-profile speaker wouldn't do the trick. "Our attendees are very specific," says Grenualdi. "They want to know how someone succeeded and what they themselves can do to succeed."

Just the Factzzzz . . .

On the downside, speakers who focus too much on content can be a real snooze. "Experts are important, but very few of the true industry experts can speak well or make a subject interesting," says Grenualdi. That is why it is crucial for meeting planners to introduce elements that will jazz up the proceedings in a manner that won't get in the way of the message.

Recently, Grenualdi tried a new approach, one that is quickly gaining popularity among planners. She organized a panel discussion of industry experts facilitated by a professional moderator. The panel members provided the industry-specific content, and the moderator kept the pace. "He was able to pull answers out of some of the speakers and keep the topic rolling. He would 'override' a speaker if they got to be too long-winded," says Grenualdi. "This really helped."

Other planners report similar success with panel discussions. "You can get much more dynamism out of the expert, and it's much more popular." says Rickenbacker. "But you have to make sure you pick people for the panel who are really experts in this industry."

Still, panel discussions aren't for everyone. For those looking to stay the course with professional presenters, customization is key. "One of the most important things planners need to do is look at those presenters who are really willing to customize," Goodman says, meaning "those who are willing to spend some time with them upfront." Goodman says planners often fail to ask how much, if any, customization will be done, or simply assume the speaker will be unwilling to make the extra effort. But, more often than not, those planners who have asked speakers for customization have received it, and say it's more than worth it.

"There used to be a sense that professional speakers could be daunting [to the audience] because there was such a big difference between where they were and where the audience is [careerwise]," says Dan Maddux, executive director of San Antonio, TX-based American Payroll Association. So it helps to hire a speaker who's willing to do all the work it takes to bridge the gap between the speaker and the attendees. "Really good speakers are willing to extract certain information from the audience to make their presentation unique to those to whom they are speaking."

Customization, planners say, also serves to present the speaker in a more affable light. "Speakers who tell stories about people in the audience make the whole thing more human, more accessible," Maddux says. "You want the audience to feel less removed from the speaker, because then they're more apt to listen." And, Maddux adds, while speakers willing to do this extra work ahead of their speeches used to be hard to find, they're becoming increasingly common. "I've found that there are plenty of speakers out there to hire who are willing to do that sort of work."

In other words, planners who find the right mix of professional speaker and industry expert are getting the best results. And by all accounts, this trend will continue throughout the new year. "Those speakers who hit the nail on the head had more fun, could play off the audience, and interject occasional case studies," says Laura Benjamin, former president of the Colorado Springs, CO-based Society of Human Resources Management. "They had the knowledge [of the audience] to put spark and life into their presentations."