It’s a mantra heard (or read in email) regularly by speaking professionals: “We don’t hire outside speakers for our conference.” That justification is totally understandable for many small conferences that must rely largely on the efforts of volunteers responsible for nearly everything, from selecting a meeting site to food menus. Regardless of the association conference size and scope, continued professional development remains a top priority for attendees.
The 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report (Marketing General Incorporated) received responses from 870 executives and 1,005 unique associations that revealed the top four reasons members join professional associations and attend conferences:
- Networking with others in the field
- Continuing education
- Access to specialized and/or current information
- Learning best practices in their profession
Given (1) the above member priorities and (2) associations struggling with gaining new members, retaining existing members, and engaging all members as mentioned in the above-referenced report, the elephant in the room seems to be ignored in the conversation.
A Problem with Using Only Members as Conference Presenters
Three of those four top responses (I would say all) involve breakout sessions, keynote addresses, panel discussions, Q & A sessions, pre- and post-conference seminars and workshops. And what happens at most conferences? Many of the speaking slots are filled with the same association member presenters, some (perhaps many, depending on the conference) of whom aren’t interesting. Why aren’t they interesting? Because their content-only, busy Powerpoint slides distance and disconnect them from the audience who expects to be informed, educated, and enlightened in a manner that is also interesting. It’s never the audience’s fault for being bored; it’s the speaker’s fault for not being interesting.
These presenters often aren’t aware of their communication blind spots that affect the way they connect (i.e., being interesting) with larger audiences they are trying to inform, educate, and enlighten because such experts often excel in conversations, not presentations. In fact, the most important element to be built in to conference presentations is enhancing the experience of the listening audience. Wrap those facts and numbers in a story or anecdote, and they have a better chance of being embedded in audience memory. Show a Powerpoint slide with tables and charts, and that information is forgotten as soon as the next slide appears on the screen.
Many of these member presenters simply don’t know how to tell stories to make the facts interesting, memorable, and pertinent.
Bringing in Outside Speaking Experts
It’s no surprise that meeting and conference professionals hold one of the most stressful jobs today. I have several friends who are meeting professionals and have personally witnessed how hard they work when it’s showtime for them (I’ve also worked on conference committees for national conferences). Having to juggle a variety of tasks involved with large-scale meetings and conferences (not to mention doing it all with fewer resources) is today a Herculean effort that demands patience, comfortable shoes, a knack for balancing necessary expenditures with return on investment (ROI).
A critical factor for such large conferences is outside speaker selection; someone who can set the opening tone and tenor for the meeting, provide seminars/workshops with a perspective or insight external to the group collective wisdom, or bottle up the excitement and energy from the conference to finish the closing ceremony on a high note. That’s a tall order for a speaking professional, but that’s why they get hired: to shift paradigms, motivate audiences to action and, as a by-product, promote association value and the value of membership in that association.
I recently heard of a conference that stated it doesn’t pay outside speakers or expenses, but would provide a discount on conference registration. There would be 3,000 attendees paying $1800 for a three-day conference, bringing in $5.4 million just in registration fees alone. Other lesser sources of income might be realized from selling exhibit hall space, bookstore sales, subscriptions for streaming conference sessions for those unable to attend, etc.
“Discount on registration fee” might be OK for people presenting breakout or poster sessions, or serving on a panel because (1) their employer is likely covering expenses and registration; and (2) speaking at conferences is an infrequent and minor responsibility. But what self-employed business owners or consultants who want to present and have great ideas to share with attendees? Registration fee discounts may not amount to much incentive for them.
Coffee and Bagels Cost More Than a Top-Notch Speaker
A top-notch, non-celebrity speaking professional’s fee will fall between 0.002% and 0.004% of that $5.4 million registration revenue. That’s it! I’ve done the math: The conference organizers will spend more on one morning’s coffee, bagels, and pastries for 2,000 or 3,000 attendees than for a great speaker who can take the audience to the next level of their personal or professional lives. In fact, they’ll spend a lot more if the conference is held in a “tier 1” conference location such as New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, or Los Angeles. If you’re stressing about whether attendees prefer blueberry or cinnamon bagels, you (and your organization) are missing the value of what’s really going to feed attendees well beyond breakfast.
So, where’s the problem seeing the value difference here? Seems to be a disconnect between the parties “owning” the conference and those implementing the task-heavy responsibilities to pull everything off without any hitches. All too often the person delivering the “we don’t hire outside speakers” news is a hard-working conference committee volunteer who is just following handed-down protocol from previous years.
But not always.
After inquiring about a main-stage speaking opportunity for a large national association conference, last week a board member serving as conference chair responded to me with an email that included a link to the “speaker abstract submission form.” Most professional speaker/experts don’t fill out such forms since the decision to hire them for the specific function they will serve is usually much higher up in the organization.
I replied back to this board member with: “Is there a different process for selecting main-stage speakers? I’m sure that if Tony Robbins, Oprah, or former GE CEO Jack Welsh were interested in addressing your conference, a different process would be involved…” Her succinct reply: “ALL soliciting presenters must submit an abstract…”
Well, there you go. Can you picture Oprah filling in that form? That was either a clueless response or I was getting the brush-off from this board member, which is too bad for all potential speaker experts outside this association who have something of value to share with attendees.
“We don’t pay outside speakers, but you’ll get so much exposure…”
That’s a typical justification given for paying your own travel expenses, registration, and speaking for free. A non-compensated speaking gig can work in a target-rich environment, such as a conference hall full of meeting professionals or CEOs, but for the most part, the promise of “so much exposure” reminds me of a cold-weather warning: “Exposure kills people.” (One speaking expert I know when promised “more exposure” told a conference organizer: “I don’t need exposure…after all, you called me…”). You can’t deposit “exposure” in the bank, either.
So, lets look at five reasons why a “we don’t hire outside speakers” policy is a bad one for members and associations.
1. It smacks of the “IKEA effect”
The “IKEA effect” (named after the Swedish furniture manufacturer that requires purchasers to assemble their purchased furniture with a few simple household tools) is a cognitive bias where consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. It’s a variation of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Behavioral economics researchers found out that people become smitten with their IKEA creations. Even when parts are missing and the items are assembled incorrectly, customers in the IKEA study still loved the fruits of their labors, Frankenstein creations notwithstanding.
The research conducted by Yale University and Harvard Business School also discovered such a condition is widespread in business. Organizations have this propensity to fall in love with what they create, often bypassing the step in the creativity/self-assessment process that asks: “Are we really that good? What can we do better or different this time?” (“Do we really need that extra nut and bolt to put this bookcase together? Nah…”) All too often they seek counsel from their own internal wisdom, which just seems to affirm their “awesomeness.”
When that attitude is adopted, it starts the downward spiral into becoming a…
2. Closed-loop information and idea exchange
When a policy of not hiring outside speaker experts for conferences is in place year after year, the conference is at risk for degenerating into a closed-loop information and idea exchange; same breakout speakers, same panelists, which leads to…
3. Idea inbreeding
When people’s ideas become more similar with little diversity within a community, a type of “inbreeding” of ideas happens whereby committee, board, and team decisions become impoverished, leading to “group think.” Such a phenomenon is well documented in organizational psychology. Because we all adapt to the environment in which we find ourselves, without the stimulus of conscious external intervention – something to punctuate the association or conference equilibrium – we all adjust to the newfound surroundings. We reach a new level of stasis (stability), which is a state of “same old, same old.”
Without the interjection of outside thinking, tangential ideas, or total paradigm shifts, the closed community will soon suffer from…
4. Member value degradation
Remove those paradigm-shifting ideas, strategies, and approaches offered by speaker experts outside the association that challenge attendee and member assumptions (and stasis), and members will likely start to: (1) question the value of their (or their employer’s) investment in membership in that association; and (2) forego attending future conferences if the real and perceived value is lacking or absent.
And when members perceive little or no value to membership in the organization, then what’s left is…
5. Association value degradation
And when members ― the lifeblood of any association ― start heading for the life boats, it’s difficult to stave off the looming titanic disaster.
Given these previous considerations…
What Impact Does Such a Policy NOW Have on Your Conference Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Event (ROE)?
The answer is obvious.
But it’s not easy breaking out of an association comfort zone; some associations are comfortable with the status quo. But, how else does the oyster cultivate the pearl without a single grain of sand (the intervention by something external) to act as an irritant? ROI provides some level of quantitative feedback on the financial investment for the conference, but what about ROE? ROE is the pearl to be cultivated: Your outside speaker expert is the grain of sand needed ― the necessary external intervention ― for your conference and association to cultivate its own pearl.
Not many meeting professionals have heard of ROE. Ira Kerns, Managing Director of GuideStar Research and Meeting Metrics, described the term “Return on Event” in 1991 to explain the perceived benefits expected before a conference or meeting with post-event results from various measurements and attendee feedback.
I use the term “extended ROE” or eROE in short form to better explain what happens. Extended ROE is the value conference attendees take with them (and even more so when a speaking expert provides post-conference followup) when they return to their work environments. When they begin implementing those mind-shifting strategies, jaw-dropping ideas, and insightful solutions presented by outside speaker experts that YOU brought in for your conference, YOU look the hero. And in turn, so does the association sponsoring the conference.
A strong eROE usually indicates the conference event has a long tail; in other words, its value remains high as measured over time after the event through what’s termed the “extended chain of impact.” Are attendees still implementing ideas they got during the conference and through any speaker expert followup three or six months later? If so, that’s HUGE eROE. (You can read more in my white paper entitled, “How Return on Event (ROE) Boosts Member Value, Member Retention Rates, and Member Engagement” on the Member’s Page at my website.)
And Finally: It’s Not a “Speaking Fee”
Associations don’t hire outside speaker experts just to dole out information; Google will feed everyone with free information forever and a day. Associations that do hire external speaker experts do so for their pattern-breaking insights that make them agents for change. If you continue to view the “speaking fee” as an expense item, then you have a misconception of what it truly represents: It’s an investment in moving your audience to the next level of their personal or professional potential while also bringing more value to membership and your organization. The old expression “you get what you pay for” is rings true for conference speakers; free could just turn out to be the most expensive choice you can make for many reasons.
Next time, skip the blueberry bagels for one morning and put that money into hiring a speaking expert who can provide insightful breakthroughs to success for attendees. There’s no time like the present to start cultivating that pearl for your next conference.
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© 2018. Donn LeVie Jr. STRATEGIES. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint and distribute is freely given so long as the information remains complete and unchanged in its current form and the following information (with links) is included.
Speaker, success expeditor, positioning/influence strategist, and award-winning author Donn LeVie Jr., has nearly three decades in management and leadership positions for Fortune 100 companies (Phillips 66, Motorola, Intel Corp.), academia (University of Houston Downtown College), government (U.S. Dept. of Commerce – NOAA), and is the author of two award-winning professional success strategy books.
Donn LeVie Jr is the speaking expert you want to help elevate your conference ROI and extend the Return on Event for enhancing association value and member value. His E.P.I.C. RESULTS™: The Power of Leadership Presence program teaches new and up-and-coming leaders the Four Pillars of Leadership Presence: Engagement, Positioning, Influence, and Conversion that help them turn any and all decision makers into advocates, allies, champions, clients, or customers.
Donn is a member of the National Speakers Association (NSA), the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) where he holds the “Certified Fraud Examiner” designation. Donn holds certifications from George Washington University in “Managing Projects in Organizations” and “Project Risk Assessment.”
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