Behind the Scenes

Where the ‘Cool Stuff’ Happens

Speakers today need to connect with their audience on many levels.

More than 30 years ago, I had my first experience booking a speaker. I was an editor at Random House, and working on two books about a new kind of psychology — one by the “guru” of this new self-realization movement, the other by a psychologist who used its principles in his practice.

My boss thought the guru author would be the perfect speaker for our upcoming 1,000-attendee sales meeting. Having worked with both of them, I thought the psychologist would be better. Being young and inexperienced, I didn’t press my case hard enough, and my boss won out. So we asked the guru to speak to our salespeople, thinking that having him trace his path from high-school dropout to enlightenment would inspire them.

I don’t recall any of what he said when he took the stage. But what remains burned in my memory is that his philosophical ramblings were indecipherable to the audience — and that his failure as a speaker was also my failure.

Writing about the meetings industry, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to pull off a successful face-to-face event. But thanks to that experience, I’ve always had the speaker part down cold. I know firsthand that they can make or break your event, and whether or not you’re responsible for selecting them, how they perform reflects on you.

That reality hasn’t changed in the past few decades, but what about the ways in which speakers engage with attendees on and off the stage? We explored this topic in a recent online survey, and share the results in this issue’s cover story and CMP Series article, which is also laced with interviews with speakers, speaker-bureau executives, and planners.

One recent development is that more than half of our planner respondents said they’re asking their speakers to participate in pre-event marketing videos and print and online interviews. The Future of StoryTelling conference — an invitation-only, two-day gathering of 500 technology, media, and communications visionaries from around the world that was held in New York City last month — takes that one step further. In the months leading up to the conference, the organizer, Melcher Media, paired its 25 speakers with filmmakers to create five-minute preview films, each focused on that speaker’s topic. Attendees received links to the videos and ranked their favorites, which were used by Melcher Media to match them to small-group roundtable discussion sessions with the speaker.

“It’s a very engaged, lean-in, high-level, participatory conversation with this leader,” Melcher Media Founder Charles Melcher told BizBash. “What’s beautiful is, we knew people would love getting to know the speakers — in fact, my big complaint about most conferences is I really don’t get to meet the speakers — but what we didn’t realize was how much people would get to know each other. We’ve gotten compliments that, unlike at other summits, here the cool stuff doesn’t just happen between the sessions out in the hall; it actually happens during the session. And then the connections made there continue.”

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.