The meetings industry spent $120 billion on professional speakers in 1999, according to The National Speakers Association. Why? Because quality speakers can raise the level of a meeting. They can make connections, offer perspective, motivate, and amuse. They can bring an audience to its feet.

The good ones do extensive work with companies before they step into the spotlight so that they know their audience, they know the meeting's goals, and they know what company executives want their employees feeling and thinking when the speaker leaves the stage.

But how do you find the good ones? To begin, says David Lavin, president of The Lavin Agency, a Toronto- and Boston-based speakers bureau, “Don't outsource the intellectual content of your meeting.”

Too many managers leave the choice of speakers to an independent planner or others who don't have an insider's understanding of the goals of the meeting and the audience, he says. “Technology audiences are pretty bright and pretty charged up. A lot of the typical motivational speakers aren't appropriate.”

But even event managers who take control of their meeting's message can trip on the way to the podium. Here are Lavin's pet peeves:

  1. Putting names before goals. Too often clients begin searching for a speaker with specific names in mind. “The last thing to think about is the speaker,” says Lavin. “Start by knowing what your issues are. What do you want the audience to walk out the door thinking and feeling?”

  2. Confusing your taste for the audience's. You and your CEO might think that a speaker is terrific, but will the presentation work for your group of twenty-something engineers? Know your audiences and respect the differences among them.

  3. Not communicating expectations. Most speakers are willing to customize their presentations, and some are quite adept at it, but it means work for the event planner. You need to outline the issues for the meeting, communicate them to the speaker, and be available for questions. When the speaker hands in a presentation outline, read it! This is one of the key ways to ensure that what you expect is what you'll get.

  4. Relying on videos. “Videos are the least trustworthy decision-making tool,” says Lavin. “I've seen lousy videos of great speakers,” and vice versa. Lavin suggests that event planners go to see the speaker in person before booking; if that's not possible, “Find someone whose taste is consistent with yours.”

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