“This should be a great presentation,” said Jess as we walked into the Chamber of Commerce breakfast and grabbed a table near the platform. The speaker made a gazillion dollars taking startups public. He’s the CEO of…”
“Why does everyone assume successful people make great speakers?”
“Don’t you want to hear how he built these enterprises from nothing, and how he…?
“Of course, I do. But I don’t want to fall asleep, either. Last month’s latest-in-a-long-series-of-boring speakers had a brilliant career, too, but his presentation was mind-numbing. And the month before that, Mr. Success bragged about himself and his organization for a half-hour and then kept going. They had to wait for a pause and clap him off the stage.”
Jess took a breath. “I see what you mean … but how is the chamber supposed to find speakers who can deliver valuable content and keep the audience from falling asleep in their scrambled eggs?”
“Easy,” I said. “Engage the speaking community.”
“Speakers have a community?” asked Jess.
“More than one,” I said. “The National Speakers Association has chapters all over the United States. NSA speakers have a culture of learning. They work on their craft, their professionalism, their expertise … they even have a code of ethics. Anyone can find polished speakers on the NSA website.”
“Okay,” said Jess, “but professional speakers get paid a bunch of money. What if the organization is like ours—a small chamber of commerce or a Rotary club or…?”
“Anyone who engages a professional should offer something in return; that’s just good business acumen. Surely the chamber doesn’t expect to offer real value to its members without offering anything to their presenters. If the budget is small—or zero—let the speaker know there will be influencers in the audience and offer to make introductions. Offer to shoot video of the speaker’s presentation. Encourage members to buy the speaker’s books and videos. Can the speaker invite a few guests—maybe fellow speakers who can critique them or prospects who might hire them for a paid engagement? Professional speakers travel all the time; many of them are happy to build opportunities at a local level. Why not offer a chamber membership and bring the speaker into our community?
“And then there’s Toastmasters,” I suggested.
“ToastMasters?” Jess raised an eyebrow.
“Silly name, I know,” I replied. “And NSA could use some naming help, too—they’re the NSA that talks, not the NSA that listens—but Toastmasters is a global organization that teaches public speaking skills. They’re everywhere; we have 53 clubs within a 25-mile radius of Miami City Hall.”
“How could the Chamber use Toastmasters?” asked Jess.
“First, they could send their leaders there and encourage members to join. It’s a great program and it costs peanuts. And they could ask local Toastmasters clubs to recommend experienced speakers. The chamber would find professionals who share eloquent and useful messages, and the speakers would get an opportunity to introduce themselves to the community as local thought leaders. No more boring speakers. It’s a win-win.”
“I get it,” said Jess. “There’s more to booking speakers than I thought. What do you think the disconnect is?”
I considered Jess’s question. “There’s a myth that the only skill a speaker needs is expertise. We see it on the platform, and we see it in the classroom. Schools assume that if you have a degree, you’re automatically qualified to teach. Organizations bring in speakers who have high-level positions or success records, or who work with big brand names. We end up with boring speakers and teachers who know their stuff but can’t keep us awake.
“Professional speakers show up early. They communicate with the meeting staff. They have their content down, and they know how to present it. They can tailor their talks to a 20-minute time slot or a 40-minute slot and never run over, especially if other speakers are following them. If the audio system fails or a projector bulb blows, they keep the show going. Professional speakers don’t monologue about their life struggles or brag about their successes. They produce an outcome for the audience—and if their special way of looking at the world inspires people to act or communicate differently, their presentations help listeners close sales, deliver better service, build stronger teams, attract and retain talent, or show up at work on Monday morning ready to kick butt. There’s a reason companies pay big fees for professional speakers: It’s a good investment.”
Jess nodded. “So let’s get back to earth. We know the Chamber isn’t going to shell out ten grand for a speaker. I like the idea of calling on NSA and ToastMasters—it makes sense to engage with the speaking community—but what can Chamber staff do on their own to find better speakers?”
“Here’s an idea,” I said. “Put out a call for speakers on the chamber website and in the email newsletter. In the online application form, ask for links to speaking videos, recent speaking engagements, and what value the speech will give to the audience: ‘After my speech, audience members will be able to… (fill in the blank).’ You’d be astonished at how many professionals can’t answer that question with respect to their own work—and that will rule out the ones who just want free advertising. Ask applicants to submit an introduction. If it sounds like a résumé, you can move on. Speakers make it all about the audience, not about themselves. It isn’t hard to weed out the amateurs if you know what to look for.
“I don’t care how much money you’ve made, what degrees you’ve earned, or what conglomerates you’ve worked with. Success in business does not correlate with success on the platform. If you think you’re good enough to walk up on-stage and wing it without any training or practice, you’re disrespecting your audience and you’re probably going to bomb.”
After a long introduction by the Chamber president that included an interminable list of achievements, the morning’s speaker approached the lectern. “Hello,” he said. Tap tap. “Is this on? Can you all hear me? Good. How are you all doing today? I’m really honored to be here. Um … Today I want to talk to you about…”
“Jess,” I whispered. “Can I have your mimosa?”