10 Questions You MUST Ask To Avoid Booking a BORING or IRRELEVANT Speaker

by Billy Riggs, MRE, MDiv, CSP

Speaker, Author, Illusionist, Comedian, Business Consultant

            I’ve known meeting planners to get fired for booking the wrong speaker for a conference, and no wonder. Convention committees that have invested years in the planning and burned through tens of thousands of dollars in preparation can watch it all get ruined by a presenter who bores, offends, or misses the mark. When the speaker is bad, the conference stinks! After spending 25 years on the road as a keynote speaker, I’ve heard all the horror stories, like:

  • The speaker who hit-on half-a-dozen women after his speech, one after another, in hopes of luring one to his hotel room. (I was actually a speaker at that very event and watched it unfold all evening long!)
  • The presenter who knew nothing about the audience and delivered a completely irrelevant message.
  • The professor who was so dry-as-dust that half of the audience slipped out during the presentation. (If his speech could be broadcast to the whole world, this would no longer be a crowded planet!)
  • The woman who spoke 40 minutes past her allotted time, turning the entire conference schedule on its head.
  • The guy whose entire speech script was saved on an iPad and his battery died just as he took the podium.
  • The man who mounted the stage either drunk or high or both. Who knows which?
  • The celebrity who decided a few minutes before her speech that she had the sniffles and wouldn’t be able to speak that evening. She spent the evening in her hotel room while the meeting planner scrambled to fill her time slot any way she could.
  • The prima donna who showed up 5 minutes before her scheduled speech and had never bothered to tell anyone about her late arrival plans.

It’s not enough to know whether a speaker is “good” or not. Be sure to contact his or her former clients to establish that fact before signing anything!

Here are ten more questions you should ask before ever booking a presenter:

1. Does the speaker have four-fold capability? By this, I mean that you’ll want a speaker who can touch hearts, fill heads, tickle funny bones, and raise goose bumps – all four – in every presentation. Said another way, a truly professional speaker is:

  • Dynamic – He or she takes the audience on a roller-coaster of emotions. People rarely remember content unless it is accompanied by powerful feelings. Great speakers are powerful communicators who know how to rivet an audience with oratory, not just a lecture.
  • Informative – Content must be relevant and fresh, and deliver new insights. Useful takeaways that can be applied immediately are a must!
  • Funny – Humor disarms the audience and makes them not only pay attention, but receive the message with less resistance. Audiences will forgive a lot if a presenter makes them laugh. Even when a speaker has lots of good things to say, delivering it without humor puts people to sleep before they have a chance to hear the message.
  • Applicable – Does the audience leave with useful takeaways they can and will put into action?

ALL FOUR ARE ESSENTIAL, JUST LIKE THE FOUR TIRES ON YOUR CAR. Without even one of them, you’re not going to enjoy the ride!

2. Is the speaker easy to work with and responsive? I’m always astonished to hear meeting planners tell me how hard it is to get speakers to provide them with bios, AV needs, and publicity photos. Sometimes it takes them several reminders and weeks of time to answer a simple email! I guess I’m wired differently. I’m embarrassed when I can’t respond in under 20 minutes! I aim for 5 minutes.

3. Is the speaker reliable? Can you be absolutely certain that the speaker you book will show up at his or her best, fully prepared, and in plenty of time to do adequate sound checks? Be sure to ask around to find out if a particular presenter is prone to drink too much, arrive late, or cancel if he or she gets a better offer. I frequently tell clients, “If I’m even one minute late, look for substitute speaker because I’m in the morgue.”

4. Does the presenter customize presentations or deliver a canned speech that’s the same for every crowd? The latter might be acceptable, but only if you’ve previously taken the time to listen to that entire speech to be sure it’s relevant. The YouTube clips are like movie trailers: you only get to see the “hot” clips while the boring ones are conveniently left out. Great speakers tailor-make their presentations to meet the exact needs of each audience.

5. Does the presentation leave the audience with any practical takeaways, or does it just make people laugh and cry, but ultimately do them no good? I know of one high-paid speaker who always draws lots of tears and laughter, but I’ve never heard him say a single thing that was helpful or practically useful.

6. Does the presenter stick to the allotted time slot? More specifically, do they have a strategy that ensures that they don’t go overtime? I bring a clock with me to keep onstage, and I always ask the meeting planner before I take the stage for a “drop dead” time. That’s the time when I have to be off the stage regardless of when I started. Even if they introduce me 20 minutes later than expected, I don’t take my full time unless authorized in advance by the meeting planner. No matter how good a presenter might be, going overtime shortchanges all subsequent speakers that day as the conference-planners try to play catch-up. I always plan several items that I can drop out of my presentation on the fly to save 5 or 10 minutes (or, as sometimes happens, add more content if we’re embarrassingly ahead of schedule) as needed.

7. Is the speaker honest? I was told by one speakers’ bureau owner (after she spent 35 years in the business) that I am the most honest speaker they’ve ever worked with. Others have told me horror stories of being cheated by speakers repeatedly. Always work with people you can trust. You’ll sleep better knowing that you’ve always been told the truth.

8. Is the presenter experienced? Those new to the speaking business make lots of mistakes. I should know, because I’ve made them all at one time or another, and I’ve learned from them all. I’ve even kept a running list over a quarter of a century of everything that might go wrong, and of the steps I now take before every presentation to be sure they never occur again. Here are a few safety measures I employ:

  •  I bring a dozen patch cords and adapters with me in case the hotel’s equipment won’t talk to mine.
  • I save my PowerPoint presentation in the cloud, on my laptop (in two different folders) and on a flash drive.
  • I find out before I arrive whether the screen will be in 16×9 or 4×3 format. (Be sure you know which it will be well in advance so that you can notify all presenters to set up their presentations in that aspect ratio. Otherwise, you’ll have black bars at the top and bottom of every slide, or at the right and left – very unprofessional.)
  • I walk the entire ballroom before my speech to be sure sound is coming out of every speaker (hotels frequently pull movable walls and forget to connect the speakers properly).
  • I show up many hours in advance to be sure the room is set properly, place reserved signs on tables that will have an obstructed view, and make sure that the platforms don’t squeak or wobble when walked on.
  • I don’t eat dessert before I speak because the cloying sugar weakens my voice temporarily.
  • I stop in the restroom to look in the mirror and make certain my lapel microphone isn’t crooked, my fly is zipped up, and my jacket straight.

I feel sorry for the meeting planners who had to endure my learning curve in those early days a quarter of a century ago.

9. Has the speaker ever done what they purport to teach others to do? I think you’d be shocked how many “sales trainers” have never held a sales job, or how many leadership speakers have never worked in management. Be sure to ask!

10. Will the presentation be entertaining? Talking heads can be downright dull when compared with their competition. A century ago, hearing a lecture was about the most fascinating activity available. Presenters today are competing with television, movies, You Tube, Facebook, video games, and the ability to watch any of the above from a device in their pocket! Better be sure your presenter knows how to do more than just talk.

      The potential disasters listed above don’t even include situations that were beyond a speaker’s control: sound systems that didn’t work, air conditioning systems that broke down, outdoor events disrupted by gale-force winds, or LCD projectors with bulbs too dim to be of any use. I was once booked to be the closing speaker for a conference that was supposed to end at noon – after my one-hour speech. However, all of the presenters who preceded me went way over their allocated times so that I wasn’t even introduced until after my stopping time! I hadn’t even taken the platform yet and attendees were already looking at their watches and eager to bolt for their cars. I quickly asked the meeting planner if I could just deliver a five-minute closing thought and come back the next year at a greatly-reduced fee to do my intended speech. She was very grateful and eagerly accepted my offer.

Just two months ago I delivered a program – my blend of motivation, comedy, magic and training – to a company in San Antonio, Texas. Afterwards, the meeting planner pulled me aside, told me of the previous two years’ train-wreck speakers, and thanked me for saving her job! I hope this article will give you the guidance you need to not only save yours, but become a hero! Stay away from boring, unreliable speakers… at least until you don’t want to keep your job any longer!