As a professional business speaker I have, for some time, had a page on my website entitled ‘Getting the Best from Geoff.’ We had a look at the statistics and realised that it wasn’t exactly the most popular page on the site. The content of that page still bugs me and I feel bad when I attend events that don’t go as well as they could.
I spoke to a very famous TV personality – dare I say superstar – who made a huge extra income from after dinner speaking. I asked him how he coped with a room full of rowdy drunks who are paying no attention, he replied “I lead them in twenty minutes of community singing, usually ‘show me the way to go home’, then get them to give themselves a huge round of applause, pocket the large cheque and go home smiling.” Good advice to a budding after dinner speaker but I feel it does leave the organiser a bit short-changed.
If you are organising an event I suppose the first question should be why are you hiring a professional speaker and how will they contribute to the success of your event – always assuming you have a very clear idea what the success of your event is and how you will subsequently measure that success.
If one is a speaker in demand, it is very easy to become lazy, or worse complacent, or even worse compliant, simply to keep the client happy. What I mean by that is I have lost count of the number of times that I have arrived at an event to find a cavernous darkened room, packed with tired uncomfortable people, their tongues lacerated by too many boiled sweets, their bladders full to bursting with gallons of mineral water and their will drained by hours of management presentations. My brief from the organiser is often a despairing “Just give ‘em a bit of a lift will you Geoff.’
To return to our famous celebrity for a moment, he also worked in the conference circuit. He was very popular but had strict rules. Three months of the year on TV, three months on projects, movies and the entertainment circuit, three months on conferences and then three months at his luxury tropical island retreat. For corporate work the limit was firm, no more than three events a week. He was always fully booked and nothing would persuade him to take on one more job.
Early in my career I found that I had been booked to share the stage with him at a major corporate event and I received a mysterious phone call from a very aggressive man.
“Hello, I’m X’s agent. I understand you are presenting at the same event and I’ve been told you use humour in your presentations. Well X refuses to work with anyone else who’s funny, you’ll have to stand down.”
I rang the organiser in high dudgeon. They backed the agent but said they would try to sort things out. Sometime later the phone rang again.
“’Ello, I’ve watched some of your videos, you’re not THAT funny. X will work with you!”
The organiser told me what a pain this aggressive agent was, he had specified the make of microphone, the layout of the audience, the level of lighting and had even requested a copy of a particular newspaper, a specific drink and a comfy chair for his client. The day came and we all awaited this demanding celeb. A jolly, friendly, person appeared, grasping the Chief Executive’s hand and with almost tearful gratitude said “Oh you wonderful kind people, my favourite drink, a comfy chair, my newspaper and the very best microphone – how did you guess?” And because everything was in place and perfect of course his presentation was perfect and I had learned a lesson.
May I share some thoughts and ideas with you?
The first thing is never to trust the venue’s own sound system; I literally give a sigh of relief when I see a professional crew with a sound man.
In that big darkened room with the air con howling like a banshee the dilemma is do you turn it off and cook them or leave it on and get “Can you hear me at the back?” for the whole event. When you view a venue get them to run the heating/air conditioning and if you can’t hear yourself think don’t book it.
The neglected part of my website ‘Getting the best from Geoff’ was put there because I wanted to avoid “Oh Geoff are you alright to work without a mic?” “I know that you asked for a tie clip mic but can you manage with a handheld?” “We are running just a few hours over, that’s OK isn’t it?” “The ceiling’s a bit low so the lights are in your eyes, do you mind?” “They’ve been in the bar all day and are a bit lively but you can handle them can’t you?” “I know it’s a bit short notice but can you handle another event this week?”
There are loads more of these and I always find myself saying ‘yes’ to them because I don’t want to let the client down, but perhaps I should show a bit more courage and say ‘no’ once in a while, because although I assure you I will always GIVE of my best, due to circumstances beyond my control and similar situations to the above, you may not always ‘GET the best from Geoff.’
To put an event on may cost thousands and a good speaker is expensive (there are of course cheap speakers but there are also cheap brain surgeons, would you hire one of those?) The whole thing could be a waste of time and money if the audience are worn out or bored, a two or three hour chat from the finance director can make people lose the will to live. Even I struggle to breathe some life back into that lifeless corpse.
In conclusion, If you want to put on a great event, put on a GREAT event, give the speaker a call before the event, have a clear idea of what the point of the whole thing is and then spend money to get the best of everything. Or, alternatively, if you have an important message to deliver, a change to make or a subject to teach, consider something a bit more modest – something intimate, friendly and inclusive, less a conference and more a retreat. Find a speaker who can communicate with, rather than talk at, your audience.
In my experience I have found, particularly lately, that clients are gaining considerable success from the speaker making themselves available after the event for skype-type chats so that people can comment on and understand the messages and I feel this may be going to be the way forward. However although the online and virtual conference is very popular, as proved by the current comedy circuit, there is never a substitute for a live appearance.
CONFERENCE SURVIVAL GUIDE
1. Are you sure you need a conference? Why? (Not just because you always had one)
2. Choose the venue with care. Listen to the ventilation. Taste the food. See how fast the service is (I once spoke to ten thousand people in Las Vegas and the hotel gave everyone in the break cake and coffee and had them back in their seats within twenty minutes)
3. If you think you might need a microphone, you do need a microphone and a good one at that. Be very suspicious of the venue’s own sound system
4. Do a full run through and ask yourself “could I sit through this?” If the answer is “no” shorten everything until you can
5. Know how to stick to time and keep everyone to time, even the Chief Executive’s “just a minute to talk to the troops” Then plenty of breaks, no one should have to sit for hours without a bum break and a leg stretch. It is very disruptive for everyone if people are forced to get up mid-presentation to go to the loo.
6. Never book a speaker until you have spoken to them. If you do that in good time they should be happy to help you get the event spot on, and also see if they are prepared to include follow-ups