A Reputation for Great Speakers

By Brian Palmer, CMM

A Reputation for Great Speakers

Competition for the time and attention of business people is fierce. Association executives more aggressively scrutinize how time and resources are being used. They desire tangible proof that their organization’s events are creating a positive impact on their members and membership. With the constantly evolving marketplace—chances are this trend is not going to change.

Building a reputation for excellent speakers will increase the odds that people will return to and recommend your events year after year.

Below are suggestions based on my 45 years supporting membership-based organizations on how to plan and deliver a strong, profitable program.


There are two misconceptions about choosing great speakers.

1) The first should be viewed on a continuum. At one end is the belief that speakers should work Picture of crayonswithin the industry being addressed; these are the people who prefer not to listen to a speaker who has not “walked in my shoes.” At the other is the belief that the most value resides with bringing in outsiders to provide a unique perspective. These people know just about all there is to know in their industry and want to get an outsider’s perspective. Everyone who has a part in selecting speakers falls somewhere on that continuum.

I often see associations getting pulled in either direction due to the makeup of the group or community making the selection, or in many cases, because of that one person who feels particularly strong. I’ve observed both types in action and suggest that it’s wise to invite speakers from a variety of spots along the spectrum and not to cluster them in one area.

Network Interactive Networked Together Play Stone2) The second misconception has to do with the idea that all presentations should be interactive—that members don’t care to hear from a “talking head.” I draw from an excellent book by Susan Cain titled Quiet: The Power of Introverts, in which she argues that group projects and interactive sections can be veritable torture for the introverts that often make up 40% of the people in the room.

I infer from her book that it is a mistake to base all your programming on one particular format. Again, variety can improve the odds that your events positively impact a wide range of your attendees. Further, it would be wise to articulate the degree of interactivity that a particular session might have so people can choose based on their temperament and—in the end—be satisfied with their experience.


In 1969, BJ Thomas had a hit song, “Hooked on a Feeling.” Here at the National Speakers Bureau we have our own version of that song we’ve titled: “Booked on a Feeling”—the feeling that someone will feel good and look good on a program, perhaps draw attention and attendance, yet with relatively little consideration to how they will perform the day of your event.

Don’t discount this notion. Almost each day, we have these kinds of conversations where people say Hooked on a Feeling Memethings like, “I want people to say wow when they see my program.”  That “driver” often leads to audience members saying something like, “wow, that was bad” and harming the organization’s reputation. That day at that session the speaker needs to BE good, not just FEEL right. Someone’s ability to deliver a relevant, interesting, and somewhat entertaining message is as—if not more—important than the buzz they create before they step on stage.

You cannot leave your reputation to chance.

It is critical to have a disciplined process to collect and consider speakers for your events. The reason for the event, the objectives in place for it, and its target audience should be clear. Clear criteria leads to better decisions. Without it, a “shopping instinct” often develops when people want to look at more and more, waiting for something that strikes or “wows” them. Committees considering several dozen people over several weeks for a particular slot are common.

Finally, when it’s time to sign speakers up, you shouldn’t leave it to chance that they do what you want.

Make sure you tell them what it was about their background and any presentations you might have seen that contributed to the decision to hire them. Share them with them the objectives for your event and how you would like them to contribute. Show them the targets you wish them to hit.

Additionally—develop, refine and maintain a list of “deal points” that work well for your group and make those parts of the invitations you extend.

People are attracted to environments where they learn, arrive at new conclusions, and are reminded of things that are important to them. Consistently providing programming that fosters that kind of environment will—year after year—make your events more attractive, talked about, easier to market and more successful.

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