Many of you may know that in addition to writing and consulting I also do speaking engagements. The topics vary depending upon the venue and the audience, of course. Generally, I know the topic in fairly specific terms well in advance of an appearance. I also usually have some idea of the audience and the venue. There are occasions when I will agree to speak at events or forums where things are less well defined than others. Those occasions are generally smaller formats and less formal meetings where the presentations are going to be more town hall meeting than keynote speech or expert topic lecture.
There have been few occasions where I have had the unexpected pleasure of having almost every aspect of the speaking engagement change. Let me tell you – when it happens you better be prepared to laugh and to talk, because a funny thing happened on the way to the forum this time.
The Means and Method
“We’d like you to speak at our national conference. We’d also like you to be part of a panel at the event.” Well that is what the e-mail stated and I still have it. Thank God, or I would doubt my sanity! Could you suggest some topics for your individual talk which should last 45 minutes to an hour. The panel will be another session of at least 30 minutes. Sure…here are three topics. You pick…
We’d like topic B. Okay. Topic B it is. Here is a 25 word description of the topic for your brochure, my bio, and the company logo, etc. and my invoice for the speakers fee and per diem.
Good News! You Don’t Have to Pay to Attend
“We are pleased to let you know the conference organizers have decided not to charge you for attending the conference since you will be speaking. Also, we’ve negotiated a discount for your room. Please complete the conference registration form and be sure to get your hotel reservation made before the discount expires!”
By the Way…We Can’t Find Your…
“Could you please send us the name of your topic and a description by Friday? Oh, and please be sure to register for the event! Remember, you don’t have to pay as a speaker but you do have to register!”
Confirming the Event Details
Excuse me. The agenda doesn’t show a panel group and there seems to be three people scheduled to speak in a two hour time block. Each of us has been told to prepare a one hour presentation…could you clarify how long my time slot is and when you want me to start?
“Oh, well…I think you should do 30 minutes…and we decided not to do the panel. We don’t pay speakers or their expenses we just don’t charge you for attending. Thanks so much! Oh and we aren’t using the hotel we told you to book in, so you need to change your hotel reservation to this other hotel by the end of business today. It is such a good thing you called us!”
The Booth, The Exhibit, The Handouts, The Door!
Yes, I’m the speaker for the topic “A Credible and Capable Organization – Doing Your Best to Be Visible in the Right Way”. Could you point me to my exhibit table so I can get set up and also show me where the auditorium I’ll be using for the presentation?
“Oh, you’re here. Why…I just left you a message an hour ago. We decided to change your topic. We’re just so excited and we know you will be too! We thought it would be so much better if we called your topic: “Immediate Visibility!” After all it sums it up – that’s what “right away” means!”… “Hmm…oh and we sold your booth to someone else because we ran out of space and they really wanted one. And you’re only speaking for 30 minutes because one of our state senators is running for office and he REALLY wanted to talk to the group since the local TV channels are going to be here, so you understand…
Professional on the Way to the…
The names have been omitted and events have been edited and combined to conceal the identities of the true perpetrators, to protect the innocent bystanders of these groups and not to embarrass the guilty parties, though arguably they probably wouldn’t recognize themselves. Some people wonder why anyone would go ahead and keep the commitment to speak at any event if things go this wrong prior to the event or even walking in the door to the event…to date my philosophy has been the attendees of the events are the true customers and they will know only that the speaker didn’t show, that they were disappointed by the speaker. They won’t know the event coordinator failed to pay the speaker, didn’t book the speaker a hotel room and airline ticket, or changed the speaker’s topic on the program.
One of my worst experiences as a speaker occurred when I agreed to be a last-minute substitute at an IT/Banking conference in St. Louis. The group organizing the conference promised to get me the original speaker’s notes, information on the audience, venue, and the topic of the conference…all before I arrived at the event. Keep in mind that I agreed to substitute as the keynote one week before the event was to take place…I never received any information on the event prior to leaving to speak. I even arrived at the airport to find NO TICKET had been booked…When I arrived at the hotel, I learned the room had not been transferred into my name from the original speaker. I got the room taken care of and found…I can’t have room service or any charges because…they hadn’t been authorized when the room was transferred from the previous speaker’s reservation to me. No information was waiting for me at the desk…I still had no information on the conference, attendees, purpose, or the other speaker’s notes…I did finally have a topic…the name of a piece of legislation…Needless to say that was the worst keynote of my life! Thank God I got paid in advance!
Most people would have turned around at the airport ticket counter when the ticket wasn’t waiting or maybe even before, when the information on the event didn’t arrive. But for the audience, the show must go on. I’ve gotten better on the way to the forum adapting to the idiosyncrasies and outright failures of various events and organizers. I can adapt. I can ad lib. I can edit and expand on topics as necessary. I can also laugh with my audience and learn about them by watching how they react to what I’m saying in the moment. After all, the talks are about them and what the audience needs, not what I’ve planned to say or what the organizers have decided to call the topic.
Make the Connection to the Forum
Next week is another venue and another topic. It is also another instance where the organizers have changed the topic title, the length, and, well, let’s just say the similarities to the scenario above are substantial. I know from the e-mails and the calls I’ve had from people who will be attending that they are looking forward to my presentation. So I’ll be there for them. I’ll have fun on the way to the forum and I’ll connect with the audience, and it will be about them. It doesn’t matter what they’ve called the presentation. It doesn’t matter if they’ve mangled the description or misplaced the bio for the fourth or fifth or sixth time. I’ll be there delivering and demonstrating capability and credibility. I’ll keep my commitments and my promises to my customers. The forum is a conduit, not a customer.
Copyright ©2007 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.
All Rights Reserved