Event Planning Checklist (Pt 3): On-site Event Tips from Top Speakers
This is the last in my series on avoiding disaster when booking event speakers. The idea is for top speakers to talk about their onsite experiences in a way that provides some useful lessons and reminders. Ideally, their insights will find their way into your event planning checklist.
Part 1 of this series focused on the venue and how room size, configuration, and construction impact outcomes. In Part 2, I asked a group of top speakers to explain how to create great outcomes in the pre-event phase of the process. In this third and final installment, the idea is to get top speakers to offer tales from the road – what’s gone wrong on site and how it might have been avoided. What they have to offer here may make you laugh – or cringe – but hopefully, their comments will spur an additional item or two for your event planning checklist when booking event speakers. In certain spots I (or someone from my team) have added insights; I hope you’ll find helpful as well.
With loads of years of experience in this industry, there is one thing I know for sure: the speaker and the event planner have the same goal – to give the audience the best possible experience. Whether you book motivational speakers, experts from academia or former world leaders, the advice shared here will help assure a smooth-running event and a great experience for the audience.
I hope you find this article (and series) filled with useful tips. If you have a story, a tip, or a comment you’d like to add, please be sure to contribute to the conversation below.
BOOKING EVENT SPEAKERS -
ON SITE SUCCESS
Contributors (top, l-r): Claire Shipman, Geoff Colvin, Jim Abbott, Dan Pink, Jerry Linenger, Tom Morris
(bottom, l-r): Josh Linkner, Jenny Taylor, Gary Bradt, Polly LaBarre, Mike Abrashoff, Nick Morgan
SHOULDA HAD A CLIP-ON MIC
“I was speaking at the very striking new federal courthouse in Boston. Dinner was set up on a vast, curving balcony. Unfortunately, it curved around behind me on both sides. The podium was set up so that I was looking out into space; I had to look over my right and left shoulders alternately in order to see anyone. I had asked in advance for a wireless lavalier mic, as I always do, but they didn't have one. So I had to use the mic that was connected to the podium -- but of course, when I looked left or right to see the audience, I was no longer talking into the mic. It was miserable.” – Geoff Colvin
EXTRA SOUND SUPPORT IS WORTH THE EXPENSE
“One time I spoke to several hundred people in a large, traditional meeting room in a conference center. I thought everything had gone fine until afterward, at the book signing, many people shared they liked what they heard but hadn't heard much because the speakers were not set up properly to cover the room. Only those in the center of the room could clearly hear my remarks, while those on either side were left out. Some had even gotten up and moved around during my talk in an attempt to hear me. The most frustrating part was people shared the same thing had happened the day before with another speaker, but the meeting organizers had not addressed the problem.” – Gary Bradt
In the Las Vegas Convention Center once, I was sitting waiting to go onstage to speak to several hundred people when I noticed my slides started to automatically cycle through, one after another. After a few moments of panic, I realized on the other side of the curtain was a large trade show with dozens of display booths also set up to show PowerPoint presentations. My clicker frequency must have been tied into some others over there leaving me with no control over my slides. Disconnecting the clicker and having the tech guys advance the slides on my verbal cue averted disaster. But it was not fun having to figure that out at the last second.” – Gary Bradt
A/V DOS AND DON’TS
“Don't plan to hand the speaker his clip-on lapel mic as he's walking onto the stage. Wire him up in advance and test it.” – Tom Morris
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
“Probably the worst was a talk I gave on one of those dinner cruise ships. This was a fairly small group, maybe 30 or 40, and the ship's dining room was barely big enough to hold them. When I checked it out before the cruise departed, the air conditioning was so loud that I knew I couldn't be heard -- there was no sound system -- so I asked that they shut off the A.C. when I started my talk. When the time actually came, however, the ship was underway and the engines were far, far louder than the air conditioning. So, when the staff obediently shut off the A.C. at the beginning of my talk, it didn't make a bit of difference to the noise level, but it did cause the crowded dining room to become very hot. I tried to yell my remarks over the sound of the engines, but I doubt if more than half the audience could hear anything. Perhaps the one saving grace was that by that time pretty much everybody, except me, was pretty drunk.” – Geoff Colvin
“Always have someone on the sound board to lower the volume if there's feedback. That can ruin a talk. I was once introduced to 800 people, handed the clip-on mic as I walked up the stairs to the stage and discovered it was set way too high and screeched and wailed as I tried to speak. I moved the clip lower and lower and lower on my tie until it was at the tip end of the tie, at my belt where the feedback stopped but my voice was so soft folks had a hard time hearing me. There was no sound guy in the room. And the audience was a famous electronics company.” – Tom Morris
MORE ON THE CONTINUING MYSTERY OF A/V ISSUES
“I was recently at an event where they didn’t have my slides (though I sent them ahead). They didn’t have a computer that could run the slides I had with me on a thumb drive or hook up to my computer. All these tech needs are in the contract and were part of our pre-event call, but the information didn’t find its way to the people on site. Finally, some guy backstage figured out how to load them up, but then the clicker didn’t work! So, he took the initiative to advance my slides whenever he thought appropriate. It became this semi-hilarious exercise in me negotiating a three-way conversation between the audience and the guy backstage, missing many of my visual punchlines, but winning the audience based on the sheer humanity of it. Mostly, I’m so surprised by what an afterthought A/V can be (especially sound).” – Polly LaBarre
IS THERE A SOUND DOCTOR IN THE ROOM?
“People underestimate the role of acoustics. I have seen so many programs go awry because of poor acoustics or the program next door bleeding over and becoming a distraction. I had one meeting planner come up to me after a speech in Scottsdale and say that they couldn't hear me in the back for the whole speech. STOP me and get it fixed!!!! Also at yesterday's speech in Phoenix, the wait staff was rolling tables and carts behind the stage while I was speaking. Work with the staff in advance to make sure there are no clanking dishes or noises coming from backstage.” – Mike Abrashoff
CARE AND FEEDING OF SPEAKERS
SOME SPEAKERS LIKE A LITTLE ZEN
“Many speakers like a little quiet time before they're on stage. It's not ideal to put the speaker through an endless round of visits and meetings and long walks in the sun in a hot suit right before presentation time. As the speaker for their preference” – Tom Morris
NOTHING LIKE A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP - The Heavenly Bed
“It's a given that a meeting planner wants the speaker to be at their best on stage. One of the key ingredients to a great presentation is whether the speaker has gotten enough sleep the night before. There are lots of things that a meeting planner can do to ensure a good night's rest:
--A room away from the elevator: many attendees like to stay up late and socialize in the bar. Am all for that but many times they are loud when they got off the elevator at 1 am and the speaker's room is right next to the elevator. Also . . . that annoying "ding" she the elevator door opens and closes prevents a speaker from getting a great night's sleep. Speaking of noise - make sure the speaker's room is away from the elevator and the ice and vending machines.
--I’ve had calls to my room by some well-meaning event planners at 11 pm to see if I got in OK or if I need anything. I generally turn in early so the late night calls can be disruptive. Most speakers are generally responsible people and will contact you if something is needed. Likewise, don't call a speaker at 6:20 am if they’re not going on till 11 am.
--Please "protect" the speaker's room reservation. Sometimes speakers get in late and the front desk personnel have given out all of the rooms. Believe it or not, I have been offered a Murphy bed in the dining room of a suite. Several times, the hotel was completely sold out and I had to go to a different hotel. One event in Atlanta, they moved me to a Ritz Carlton 30 minutes away. They sent a town car to pick me up the next morning and it broke down on the way to the event. Such is the glamorous life of the speaking professional!” – Mike Abrashoff
COMMUNICATING WITH THE SPEAKER
“I did an event recently where the speaker was scheduled to speak for 45 plus Q&A. Onsite – given instructions to speak less and do more questions by the exec in charge. The speaker dutifully spoke for 35 – there were no questions. Time was cut short – schedule was thrown off and the event planner was unhappy. She called me to complain. She didn’t know her host made this change. Two lessons: 1) make sure speaker doesn’t get mixed signals/direction and 2) plant questions.
“The same kind of mixed signals thing happened with content not long ago. The speaker arrived in the ballroom ready to cover the content that was discussed in the pre-event call. Before he took the stage the speaker had a conversation with the new executive in charge of the organization who told him to be sure to cover content that wasn’t in the talk. So the speaker dutifully made the change on the fly – thinking he was doing the right thing. Not so. The event planner was furious when she called me. But she had no idea that the speaker had been given last minute direction by the new executive.
“The lesson is to be certain everyone in the organization is on the same page to avoid sending mixed messages to the speaker.” – Tony D’Amelio
TIMING AND SCHEDULE
HOW MUCH TIME DO I HAVE LEFT?
“I gave a speech a number of years ago to a Fortune 500 company that involved a great number of prep meetings. Now, I'm all for prep, and it's great to gain insight into the audience, but in this case it turned out that what was really going on was that several political factions in the company each had certain points of view and messages they wanted included in the speech. I was anxious to please and said "yes" to it all, hoping to keep all of the factions happy. Heck, I wanted to be invited back to give more speeches -- this was a big company with lots of opportunities.
By the time the date rolled around, the speech was festooned with probably a half-hour too much material. I was going to have to race to get done.
But the speech started late -- the previous activity ran late -- and the organizers and I had a quick huddle just before I went on to figure out what to do. We all agreed I would run late too and get my full hour.
Midway through my speech, however, one of the top executives checked in (as I later learned) and was horrified to discover that we were running 30 minutes late. He instructed the timekeeper to change my countdown clock from 45 minutes left to 15. (Caution: this is not a nice surprise to throw at your speaker.)
Imagine my surprise when I checked the clock about two minutes later and noticed that I had 13 left. I've never talked so fast in my life, nor given such short shrift to matters that seem hilarious now, but were of grave import at the time.
The ending of the speech was, if we're being kind, a train wreck. I was hoping to deliver a more quality experience for the audience but it fell well short. Hopefully the event planner took a lesson away from it and didn’t cut a speaker’s time in half after they’d hit the stage.” – Nick Morgan
Create great outcomes with your keynote speaker. See advice from top event planners on what they look for when booking speakers for
their corporate events.
“Finally --- I am always SO grateful when there is a nice, visible countdown clock someplace near the stage. I am fully capable of talking for an hour and a half straight,
and nobody wants that. It is a huge help not to have to look at a watch (rude) or my phone (awkward) to check the time. – Claire Shipman
WHO’S THE OFFICIAL TIMEKEEPER
"I was giving a talk to 200 CEOs plus another 1000 senior executives, and I was the closing speaker. The meeting planner wanted me to bring it home big and inspire the audience. Unfortunately, the event was running late and the schedule got way behind. Since people had to catch flights and I was the finale, there was a hard stop. As the clock ticked on, my client texted me five minutes before taking the stage and requested I reduce my talk from 60 minutes down to 35. The problem is that a good speech takes the audience on a journey, and I carefully research and prepared custom content for this important audience. The end result was not nearly as strong as it could have been since I had to rush and skip some important stories to meet the planner's timing request. The audience was still very happy, but I knew it wasn't my best performance. The inherent lesson: watch the schedule like a hawk and build in buffer time in case things get behind. This way, the experts you bring in to inspire and inform your audience can do their best work and make their biggest contribution."—Josh Linkner
MURPHY'S LAW: MAKING THE BEST OF AN UNEXPECTEDLY BAD SITUATION
“I spoke at one event where the fire alarm went off in the middle. I kept talking — that’s what I do — but the hotel personnel came into the room saying “This is serious. Everyone out!” Since the conference was on a tight schedule, about 400 people went outside — and I continued the talk – and do q&a – standing on a bench outdoors with a megaphone. The lesson for speakers and event planners: stay calm, improvise, and do right by the audience.” – Dan Pink
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
“I love to meet casually with attendees before the talk if at all possible. I personally feel so much more comfortable if I can attend a breakfast or listen in on the presentation before mine -- meeting people, shaking hands and getting a feel for the mood and the energy of the conference. It’s extremely helpful in settling those pre speech nerves. You can always pick up some tidbit or inside joke that makes your presentation feel more personal for you and the host. Event planners might be surprised how open speakers are to getting to know the folks attending before their talk.” – Jim Abbott
THE MOB SCENE AFTER THE TALK“People generally like and are fascinated by astronauts. I am greeted warmly by the audience and my goal is to always give a talk that matters to them, that allows them to live vicariously and experience the challenges and thrills of being ‘off the planet.’ I always try to weave my way through the (hopefully, standing!) audience at the end of the talk and then remain in the foyer to greet them as they exit.
Meeting planners often have an ‘oh my God’ look on their face when they see the mob surrounding me. I think that people want to touch someone who has been “out there", and with ubiquitous cameras on cell phones, often want a photo. Often, they have a story or two to tell of someone that they knew who contributed in some way to our space program.
While more than glad to do this, and while I absolutely enjoy talking, shaking hands, and getting blinded by the phone flashes (well, not so much to the latter) – time is limited. Often break-out sessions are about to begin, and I do not want to disrupt the flow of the meeting. I NEED HELP! Meeting planners need to provide a few people to gently urge people to have their cameras ready and to keep moving because others want their turn. When done well, someone grabs my lavaliere microphone, someone repeatedly announces ‘Keep moving please,’ and when time is up, someone escorts me to the elevator with a polite, ‘We are sorry but Dr. Linenger has to go.’ Ideally, throughout this evolution, I look like the last thing that I want to do is to stop talking about Star Trek or not take five more photos with the same person. I am being pulled away! I absolutely would like to spend the next five hours with you! It was great meeting you! In order to make the person feel important (and do not get me wrong, they are important – might be your best customer – but again, time is limited) I need to appear helpless that we can’t keep on talking. The event has to stay on schedule.
So bottom line: do not breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the lecture – it is not over yet. Please do your best to be firm so that the speaker can give full attention and respect to every one of your guests, within the constraints of limited time allowed." – Jerry Linenger
SUPPOSE EVERYONE WANTS AN AUTOGRAPH OR A PICTURE
“The end of a speech and exit strategy is the only area where things get uncomfortable at my talks. Clear communication is really important. We generally book for 90 minutes, 60 for the talk and 30 after for meet and greet. Those 30 minutes often turn into long lines with camera phones and autographs and it invariably lasts longer than 30 minutes. Event planners can get uncomfortable about the next event on the schedule, I get uncomfortable when I know that the line could be cut off and some attendees may be disappointed . . . and truthfully it's difficult to stand and take pictures for longer than the speech itself.
“I am always thrilled to be invited to speak and will do everything I can to make it a great experience, but negotiating through those after-talk moments can be awkward for everyone. Pre-event planning is usually pretty good about coordinating the time leading up the presentation, usually to the minute, but the time after sometimes gets overlooked.” – Jim Abbott
"Photo opportunities can be tricky business. Over the years, we’ve refined and perfected a seamless process for VIP photo opps that keeps stress to a minimum and is supremely organized and efficient. This process has been used by presidents, heads of state, captains of industry, show business superstars, and more – with great results. Here’s a link to the blog by DN's Jenny Taylor with more details."– Tony D'Amelio
DN's Jenny Taylor, who served as event coordinator for and traveled to events with President George W. Bush has done her fair share of book signings. Here is Jenny's best advice on arranging a smooth and efficient book signing with your speakers:
It is very important that book signings are organized and efficient so that the Speaker has the opportunity to meet as many attendees as possible. The last thing a Speaker wants to do is to waste attendees’ time in a long line or not having the chance to get through the line in the time allotted. Please follow the instructions below to ensure that your book signing is a success:
- If you will be handing out books to all attendees, consider having the Speaker pre-sign all of the books prior to the start of the event. To streamline the process, the following steps should be made:
- Please have all books unboxed and stacked on the desk in the room before the Speaker arrives on site.
- Ask the Speaker if the books should be flagged to a particular page for signature so that this can be coordinated as the books are unboxed.
- Along with the books, please provide 2 or 3 black Sharpie markers and the name and number of someone to call to retrieve the books when the Speaker is done signing them.
- When the Speaker finishes, they will give the contact for the books a call to let them know they are ready to be picked up.
- Please note that it can take approximately 1 hour to sign 200 books using the process above.
- Sometimes travel will set limitations on how many books a Speaker will be able to sign. A great alternative is sending bookplates to the Speaker in advance.
- Book signings should immediately follow the Speaker’s presentation. Please designate 2-3 staff members to assist with organizing attendees and moving the line. If following the steps above, the books will already have been pre-signed and the speaker can use the time at the book signing to personalize the books while keeping the line moving. We suggest calling these signings, “Meet the Author.”
Event Planning Checklist (Pt 1): Room Set-Up Tips from Top Speakers
and EVENT PLANNING CHECKLIST (Pt 2): Pre-Event Tips from Top Speakers
FINALLY, READ THE CONTRACT
"It's so basic. It's where you'll find all the essentials and learn what's important to your speakers. When onsite it’s best to check, double-check and check again, that you’ve got the specifics covered. It will avoid the uncomfortable situation of finding out at that last minute that something assumed to be acceptable to the speaker is specifically outlined as “not acceptable” in the contract. It avoids putting the speaker in an awful position which can sour the mood. He/she likely won’t be happy and won’t feel 100% comfortable giving their presentation." – Jenny Taylor, DN Operations Director
About Tony D'Amelio
Tony has spent his career putting talented people and audiences together, first in the music business and later representing the world's leading speakers. After concluding 27 years as Executive Vice President of the Washington Speakers Bureau, Tony launched D'Amelio Network, a boutique firm that manages the speaking activities of a select group of experts on business, management, politics and current events. Clients include: Mike Abrashoff, Geoff Colvin, Katty Kay, Polly LaBarre, Nicole Malachowski, David Meerman Scott, Bill Taylor, Bill Walton, and Bob Woodward.