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The Perfect Speaker

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The Perfect Speaker Meeting professionals often ask me for recommendations on everything from books to venues to…speakers. After all, I share the stage with dozens of established and upcoming keynotes every year.

And really, the answer depends on the objectives of the event. As wishy-washy as it sounds, a great speaker may still be a miss for your event. It's not just about skills, high-level content or even fame. Speakers these days must deliver game-changing ROI.

To paraphrase author and speech coach wunderkind Nick Morgan: The only reason to have a meeting is to change the world. Meetings need to move organizations forward. They are the social operating system, the values delivery system for leadership and the relationship-building platform for their followers.

In the case of carpet manufacturer Interface Inc., a single sales meeting in 1997 produced a paradigm shift that led to radical innovations in how it produced, sold, distributed and disposed of its products. This meeting is credited as the tipping point in the company's culture as it climbed Mount Sustainability. Previous, the prevailing thought at Interface was that environmental sustainability was costly. The outcome of the meeting was a widespread belief that "doing well for the environment is free."

According to a case study by the Houston Advanced Research Center, the meeting was a teaching metaphor. Speakers such as author and firebrand Paul Hawken were chosen with this objective in mind. Hawken referred to waste as "stealing from the future" and discussed how companies could save money by giving efficiency a new and deeper meaning. His talk reinforced what company founder Ray Anderson had been evangelizing around headquarters and in the field since 1994.

To support the content, meeting professionals teamed up with the Grand Wailea Hotel team members to measure electrical, propane and waste usage during the event, and showed how it declined as each day passed. During plenary sessions, they reported the progress during housekeeping announcements. The audience was transformed, and within a few years, the company had cut its carbon footprint by more than 25 percent.

The best speeches move audiences from Point A (status quo) to Point B (vision), according Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences. My job as a speaker is to validate and activate your agenda or point of view. If you hire a speaker to generate buzz or get butts-in-seats, you're wasting your money—and slashed budgets during the next fiscal year.

So, take the following approach to pick the right change agent.

1. Create a post-meeting vision
Consider the current thinking/doing pattern that your leadership team wants to change. That's Point A, and there's no organization that couldn't use a little thought tweaking. Determine where you want to be after the meeting, and how new attitudes can translate into changed behavior. That's Point B. These two coordinates are the framework for choosing a speaker.

Example: At a recent event, we determined that company leaders saw technology as the center of their business. The new CEO wanted to change this and install a new perspective: people as the center of the business. His vision was the secret to the company's turnaround, and he wanted to leverage the offsite leadership meeting to get the ball rolling. My job was to move the audience to a more people-centric way of conducting business...Point B.

2. Screen speakers for their ability to move the group to Point B
Ask if your speaker's credentials are sufficient to get the audience to grant provincial authority, does her personal story resonate with the point of view you are aiming towards, do his talking points line up with and validate your leader's own, who is willing to do the hard work of customization that's required to install this new belief.

Review speaker videos for content, energy and familiarity. Consider which of the qualified finalists will resonate with your culture—or, as in the case of some old-school companies, which speaker will be a pleasant surprise for your audience, a breath of fresh air on a widely talked about change-subject.

Schedule a phone call to interview the top candidates—they are willing to do it to win some business. Divulge your exec's agenda for the meeting, outlining current thinking and desired outcomes. Let the candidates explain how they'd move the audience, including examples or proof points. When you've found the right speaker, you'll know it through her authentic excitement about the challenge and the synergy her points will make with your direction.

There's a side benefit to this selection process too. Your speakers will give you one-of-a-kind talks. By giving them a very clear goal—help us move the audience from here to there—you'll ignite the creative force of purpose. Unlike a "gig," where a speaker tells a story and doles out some takeaways, you'll get a determined performer that's got an eye on making a real difference from the platform. One+
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