It never ceases to amaze me. Association meeting planners spend money to hire me, publicize my presentation, pay my expenses, and then set up obstacles to my success. Of course they don’t do it intentionally, but all too often roadblocks are put in my way that prevent me from giving the best customer service. How does this happen? Being in the communications business, I believe that it is a result of missed communication signals — the association meeting planner and the speaker are speaking two different languages.
For example, what the speaker considers essential for the restful night preceding a presentation is often seen as “prima donna” requirements by the meeting planner. The speaker asks for assurances that the hotel room be quiet, away from the elevator or ice machine, and not located just above the cocktail lounge. The meeting planner thinks this is being too particular and merely reserves a room in the hotel. When the speaker arrives at the morning presentation bleary eyed and “out of sorts” because of lack of sleep, the meeting planner may question his or her decision about the speaker’s room selection. Who is to blame? Could it be a lack of communication?
Sue Hershkowitz, a professional speaker and author from Scottsdale, Arizona, sat in on a planners meeting at the Georgia Chapter of Meeting Professionals International Conference. They were talking about “speaker selection” and she saw an opportunity to learn more about the decision making process from the planner’s point of view. “One meeting professional was discussing his pet peeve: speakers he must call repeatedly to get them to send hand outs and appropriate materials in advance,” she said. “He was so upset about it, his association was now writing a rider to each speaker’s agreement that stated: “If handouts and all requested materials are not provided at least six weeks prior to the meeting, ten per cent of the speaker’s fee will be deducted.”
“The meeting planner asked the professional speakers there if they thought he was being too difficult,” Sue added. “We agreed that he had every right to hold the speaker accountable — after all the speakers work for him,” she concluded. However, as speakers, we need information about the organizations we address as much as he needs the material from us. We often do not get the appropriate information so we can’t use the right terminology or know about a recent crisis in the company or their industry. Do we have a right to make similar demands?
I personally do not like arriving at a speaking engagement when I don’t know the name of the president or CEO, what important changes the industry has just been through, where I fit into the schedule, that my speaking time has been changed, or who the other speakers at the convention may be. With that knowledge ahead of time, I might make changes in my presentation. I always ask for this information but I don’t always get it. As speakers, we are often asked to customize our remarks for a particular group. This is possible to do only if we have received advance information. I was told about a speaker who had promised to customize a talk to an association. He had been sent information about the association well in advance so he could incorporate it in his speech.
As the meeting planner and speaker were walking into the ballroom, however, the speaker asked the planner, “Oh, by the way, what do your association initials stand for?” Obviously he had not read any of the material that was sent to him.
Often, meeting planners hire a photographer to take pictures of the speaker during the presentation. They tell the photographer when the speech will begin, and he or she starts shooting immediately so they can get on to the next assignment. The meeting planner is pleased the photographer arrived on time and is looking forward to seeing the photos.
The speaker feels differently. The photographer creates a visual distraction, away from the speaker, just as he or she is getting the full attention of the audience. The listeners will follow the photographer with their eyes, watching where and when the camera clicks. The speaker understandably feels interrupted and thinks the meeting planner is undermining her/his chance for an expert performance. The speaker has been hired to serve and now the planner is keeping the speaker from being a success. What the planner considers another “prima donna” request, the speaker sees as giving good advice and customer service.
George Walther, CSP, CPAE, wrote in his book, Upsidedown Marketing, that the most persuasive form of advertising is word of mouth from someone you know. “It doesn’t matter how many slick…brochures you see promoting a certain automobile (or speaker)”, he writes. “If your neighbor (a meeting planner you know) owns one and complained to you about its poor performance or persistent mechanical problems (unreasonable demands), you’re not likely to buy that type of car.”
Sue Hershkowitz also told me about a planner who works with a high profile association. She received a letter from her speaker telling her she had invited a planner from another organization to come to the event. The speaker requested a guest pass, badge and a staff member to meet her invited guest. The speaker said she would be too busy preparing her talk to take care of her guest.
Speakers and meeting planners must learn to “partner” with each other. Meeting planners are paid to determine how to make the meeting successful. This involves having the speaker look good, helping them get a restful night’s sleep, and other reasonable special requests. Speakers must learn to make the planners look good. They can make the meeting professional a hero for selecting you.
If the planner or speaker have not communicated for a few weeks and either wants to confirm details again, try to set up a telephone appointment. This is important as the speaker is often constantly on the road and messages left by the planner often are returned when the planner is not in. Whoever makes the first call should leave a message stating what times would be best to call back and give the telephone number. The speaker can then reconfirm the audio-visual requirements, the room setup, and the microphone needs. Planners should reconfirm how the speaker will get from the airport to the hotel. The speaker should give details such as the flight number, where the flight originated, and the arrival time. Once the speaker has arrived at the hotel, he or she should call to let the meeting planner know he/she has arrived.
If your speaker is slated to speak after a meal and wine is being served to guests, do not offer wine to the speaker. Ask if you can get them a soft drink or bottled water. You are paying for optimum performance and should not encourage any behavior that may take away from the performance. If there are cocktails before dinner, offer water or a non alcoholic drink. As a speaker, you should always decline alcohol. No matter how well you think you can tolerate liquor, even one drink can impact your speech. You would be surprised at how many meeting planners keep offering me alcohol before my speech, just at the time I should be confident, prepared, and interested in my group.
Actually, as meeting planner, you should never schedule a speech with any heavy content after a meal. People are too relaxed. If they have been drinking, they will not be open to a message about how they can better perform in their jobs or learn about new technology for their industry.
As a speaker, are you there for your own ego or recognition or to deliver a message? As a planner, are you there to look good or to provide something meaningful for your members? The answer to both should be: we are there to make life easier and more successful for one another.