Choosing a speaker for an event can be fraught with peril. If you make the right choice, everyone goes home after a few chuckles or with great notes from an informative speech. Make the wrong choice, and you’ll be wishing for Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility as the event unfolds to icy silence.
Professional speakers—those folks the speakers bureaus are always e-mailing you about—often have glowing resumes written by marketing folks who leave out one simple detail, namely that the presenter is a lousy speaker. This means that he or she is often nervous and might try to break the ice by telling a joke.
This is unfortunate, because presenters are almost never comedians. Yet the vast majority will nonetheless attempt a Letterman-like opening sequence as the audience squirms, hoping for some semblance of a punch line. When it comes, there's usually a wave of relieved laughter, which only encourages the speaker to massacre yet another joke.
After the humor part, it’s time to get on with the presentation, usually accompanied by some sort of visual aid. Of all of these, the PowerPoint presentation is by far the most excruciating, especially if the speaker has just discovered the wonderful world of graphics. Balloons, triangles, and other geometric shapes will dance about the screen, with the speaker pleased as punch with himself. The worst is when the computer skips to the wrong slide and then refuses to obey the commands of the speaker, who’s jabbing at the remote like a text-crazed teenager. By this point, the audience is fashioning deadly weapons out of paper clips in hopes of ending the ordeal.
Choosing an entertainer can be equally daunting for a planner. An impersonator who does a spot-on imitation of the CEO may cut a little too close to the bone, causing the offended CEO to start revising his list for the next round of layoffs. A stage hypnotist is always fun, but does anyone really want to be reminded that they were flying around the stage impersonating Superman belting out Celine Dionne’s greatest hits?
Whether you’re hiring a speaker or entertainer, the most important rule to remember is to carefully consider your audience. For example, more reserved attendees like engineers or accountants may not want to follow the leader’s urging to “…simply let go, wave your arms and visualize being a supple sapling in the spring breeze.”
Of course, with today’s budgets being so tight, expense is a major concern. But be careful about cutting back too much. You won’t get very high marks if you hire “Mike Wazinski and His Amazing Kazoo Polka Extravaganza”—even if he comes cheap. And be sure to carefully screen your entertainers, especially in these days of reality TV, where everyone considers themselves a major talent. If too hastily chosen, the singer might end up being Miss Screemensteader, head of the local P.T.A., performing “The Many Moods of Britney Spears.”
Follow these simple guidelines, you—and the speakers and entertainers you choose—will make it through the event unscathed. But just in case, you might want to sign up for that “PowerPoint for Dummies” course or start practicing ventriloquism so you can act as a fill in.