Speaking Of Speakers

Hosting a professional meeting or event requires much more than securing a suitable location and sending out invitations. Effective event planning in today’s highly interactive world is about creating a unique and unforgettable experience for attendees. Planners today are not only tasked with delivering a program that ignites a lasting spark of inspiration in the minds of attendees, they are responsible for keeping that flame burning long after the event date has passed. Luckily for those of us who are afraid to play with fire (flammable metaphors included), there are plenty of flame-retardant channels of communication available, and at an extremely convenient (yet safe) proximity to our target audiences.

Some of the best motivational speakers possess a superhuman hybrid of persuasion and intuition. This super power of charisma allows speakers to connect with a diverse group of participants on multiple levels. That’s not to say that presentation timing and coordination aren’t crucial to the success of an organization’s event — a multi-faceted meeting without efficient planning strategies in place would be absolute anarchy — but in terms of establishing that coveted reputation of industry greatness, don’t be afraid to seek out the inspiring phenomenon known as the super-speaker. Although it may sound intimidating or even unnatural to us mere mortals, the irrepressible spirit that propels this influential being forward as an industry leader is almost always used for good and not evil. After all, super-speakers are historically known for their calling to instill passion, confidence and, in more modern times, innovative marketing strategies into the hearts and minds of others.

Holly Heer, director of membership and special events with the Arkansas Hospitality Association, recalled an event featuring one such super-speaker, environmentalist Chad Pregracke.

“A few years ago, there was this really laid-back, normal guy who spoke at the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Fort Smith,” Heer said. “He talked about how he’d been cleaning up rivers nine months out of the year since he was 17 and how he would just walk up to people on the street trying to get sponsors.”

Heer and industry partner Cheryl Ferguson of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s Group Travel division remembered this so-called “normal guy” and his inspirational message with enthusiasm, though it took Heer a few seconds of research to come up with his name.

Pregracke grew up around the Mississippi River and founded his own environmental organization when he was 23, simply because he was tired of the lack of effort he’d seen in improving the quality of the nation’s rivers.

“He just had this vision. His speech was so inspiring and he was hilarious,” Ferguson said. “I attended the conference luncheon where he was speaking and he was so inspirational and funny. He had another session scheduled directly after that so people were literally running from the luncheon to the next session to hear him again, myself included.”

Heer had the same impression.

“Whenever someone is looking for speaker recommendations I always tell them about him and his phenomenal ability to naturally engage an audience,” she said.

Alan Sims, vice president of sales for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, has worked in the tourism industry for 20-plus years. If you’re new to event planning and have little experience in hiring keynote speakers, Sims recommended doing your homework and speaking to industry experts like himself as opposed to grabbing the least expensive speaker found on your first Google search.

“Event coordinators have so many different levels of experience these days,” Sims said, “from someone right out of college to a seasoned employee who has hundreds of professional contacts. Regardless of an event planner’s personal level of meeting planning experience, getting recommendations from someone who had an amazing experience at any size or type of event is still the best way to ensure a positive and meaningful event experience.”

Among the best practices for hiring a worthy event speaker, Sims said, it is always a good idea to contact the helpful folks at any of the regional organizations that provide industry support, such as the Arkansas Speakers’ Bureau, the Arkansas Hospitality Association or the Arkansas Society of Association Executives. As with most of the hospitality organizations in Arkansas, well-intentioned speaker suggestions are only a click away, or if you happen to be away from an Internet-enabled device in your time of need (gasp), an old-fashioned phone call will likely do the job.

Sims also suggested hiring a speaker or public figure with appropriately marketable credentials. For example, in order to garner more visibility at future meetings and trade shows, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors’ Bureau may enlist the help of someone like well-known author and professional speaker Paul Vitale. By promoting the occasion as a chance for attendees and exhibitors to meet an established author and receive personally autographed copies of his books, (“Sell with Confidence” and “Are You Puzzled By the Puzzle of Life?”), the CVB’s trade show booth instantly becomes an opportune place to engage with prospective customers and industry partners between sessions.

Nicole Hunnicutt, copywriter at Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, works on multiple projects for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and routinely attends the annual Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism. She recommends variety if an event is going to feature a multi-speaker slate.

“For instance, this year’s conference was held at Southland Park in West Memphis; it was my first trip to the historic greyhound racetrack,” she said. “My favorite speakers from this year’s conference couldn’t have been any more different: Dave Carroll, a quirky Canadian singer-songwriter, who presented United Breaks Guitars, a discussion about how his protest song-turned-viral video [viewed millions of times on YouTube] became an eye-opening example of how social media has changed the culture of customer service.”

Keynote speaker, straight-shooting U.S. Army Gen. (retired) Russell Honoré, had a different approach tailored to his subject.

“A straight-shooting retired Army general who served as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, [the general] spoke about preparedness in the face of natural disasters,” Hunnicutt said, adding it was a subject “you wouldn’t necessarily think about at a tourism conference, but it makes sense after witnessing tragedies like Katrina and like the BP oil spill and how long it takes for communities to recover and rebuild. When you consider Arkansas’ location, especially our position on the New Madrid fault, it’s important for us to equip ourselves with knowledge and resources.”