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Explaining What You Talk About

Earlier sections in Resources For Speakers addressed a variety of topic-related issues. An article on Establishing Stature & Credibility covers the ins and outs of presenting your credentials and accomplishments effectively, and how you can establish your stature and credibility both in general and then topic by topic (credibility does NOT transfer from one topic to the next, even if you think perhaps in some cases it should). A second article entitled Describing Your Topical Focus digs into more elements of developing your topic descriptions.

Much of the discussion referenced above addresses how to select and describe your topics in generic and fixed terms (on website pages, on PDFs, etc., where one size fits all because the content is essentially locked by the static nature of the media). However, many of the concepts presented in the articles are also useful in guiding how you interact with inquiring venues (where the content is not generic and is not fixed in advance). In addition, the articles linked above offer a variety of comments and suggestions directed to interacting with the venue about topics.

All of that said, this article expands on the discussion of interaction with the inquiring venue, and focuses primarily on the special opportunities and pitfalls of interacting directly to discuss topics.

FIRST Listen & Ask Questions

Before you even start any discussion describing what topics a talk by you could cover, you should refresh your earlier review of their website. Most inquiring venues will have some sort of site or sites, sometimes one for the organization and sometimes a special site or section specifically focused on the event or conference they are inquiring with you about. Look again at this online information. The better you understand them and the issues that concern them the most, the smarter and more in alignment you’ll sound to them from word one.

The most important thing to know at the outset of discussion with any inquirer is this: How an organization considering booking you will take in, understand, and interpret what you say about your speaking topic or topics varies wildly, and in very important ways, from one inquiry to the next.

Related to this, be alert to figuring out the level of experience and understanding of the person with whom you are interacting. While some will be deeply experienced and be on top of everything, many more will have neither the experience nor the knowledge to do their jobs the way you’d hope. Paying attention to this will help you explain when explanation is needed and not when its not. And paying attention to this will also help you anticipate and prevent problems or misunderstandings before they get out of hand.

If you say too much before you understand the lay of the land, the risk of making errors in presentation that cost you the engagement is very substantial. Once an organization (or its booking agent) decides you are probably not a very good match (topically or otherwise) with what they are looking for, you are pretty much toast. Theirs may be a snap judgment, an uninformed first impression, but that won’t matter. Once this view is established, it is almost impossible to come back to salvage an engagement.

Two Questions To Ask, But Carefully

Question: What first attracted your interest in considering me as your speaker?

Comment: Be prepared to ask several careful follow-ups to try to tease out as much insight as you can. It is a skill to get lots of information without making the person you are talking with feel like they are being grilled.

The first answer is often that someone suggested considering you. That someone could be the organization’s leader, or it could be a volunteer with little influence. It could be someone who feels strongly that you are a good prospect, or it could be a much more casually motivated suggestion. And you may be the only suggestion from that source, or one of several.

Imagine that you are told that the organization’s Executive Director directed the person you are talking with to contact you, imagine further that very positive comments were made in giving that direction, and imagine that you were that leader’s only suggestion.

Or alternatively, now imagine that you find out that a volunteer on the speaker search committee added several names to a list compiled by the committee, and you were one of those names. The person you are talking with doesn’t recall anything in particular said about you in the process.

Both of these circumstances happen all the time, but how you respond to them should be as different as night and day.

In the first case, this is a hot prospect and you don’t want to blow it. Never talk past the sale comes to mind. Saying the wrong thing could harm you much more than saying the right thing could help you. Making a real effort on the process described below (or something similar of your own invention) is an investment that makes sense.

In the second case, unless other issues are involved that make you want to go for a long shot, these circumstances don’t usually justify much special effort. Your chances of coming out on the top aren’t very good, and your best move may be to give them your generic one-size-fits all materials. If they come back expressing more interest, then you can decide if investing more effort seems like a good bet.

One of the reasons little time may be warranted at the outset is that there is usually a speaker in contention, on their long list, who IS being championed by someone with influence in the selection process. The odds under these circumstances favor you keeping the position you started with, on the list but not at the top.

Question: What are you looking for in a speaker? What about a speaker’s abilities OR presentation OR topics addressed would make that speaker or presentation a good match with what you are looking for?

Comment: Again, you should use a few follow up questions to try to tease out as much insight as you can about they want without making the person on the other side of the interaction feel like they are being interrogated.

The range of responses is huge, and it takes experience to recognize what you are hearing. Topic fit may not be at the top of their list of wants, or even be on that list at all.

Speakers often assume that high on the inquirer’s list of concerns will be the topic fit between them and their prospective audience. While this is sometimes the case, it is more common that concerns about topic are easily satisfied, and the most important concerns then emerge. Will their audience really enjoy listening to you, or will they be restless and not very interested? After all is said and done, the person who makes the booking decision is accountable to somebody. Maybe that’s their board, maybe their Executive Director or the organization's managers, maybe that’s the event attendees via feedback about the keynoter. The person who picked you will be judged by how well you do, and what that person most wants to hear is, "Everybody loved the keynoter. You made a great choice."

More often than not, getting that approval for a job well done is a key motivation for the person with whom you are interacting. Not that they may not care about the issues, but if their boss (or the client, or the customer, or the membership) isn’t happy with their choice of speaker, their own future is less bright.

So, they may say they want a speaker who is motivating, inspiring, energizing, or the like. Or they may say they want somebody who is engaging, tells good stories, has great examples, is funny, charming, and overall, fun to listen to. They may not be able to easily describe what they want, but they’ll sure know it when they see it.

Alternatively, the person you are talking with may simply not know, and thus not offer much of an answer, when you ask what they are looking for.

If the person with whom you are interacting cannot reasonably answer either of the two questions above (what attracted them to you and what are they looking for), one conclusion that’s easy to draw is that you aren’t dealing with somebody who will be much help in this process. Unfortunately, speakers find this kind of cluelessness, or something close to it, pretty common.

The best way to see this situation is on two tracks. First, you have to get the information you want to convey, and the questions you want to ask, through this uncomprehending intermediary and into the hands of a person who can answer your questions and make decisions.

Second, and seemingly in direct conflict with the fact that you must relate to this intermediary as a problem to be overcome, you should befriend this likely-insecure-in-their-assigned-role person. Nobody likes to feel inept. If they can’t answer your obviously simple and common sense questions, it can make them feel embarrassed. And people hate that feeling. All of this creates an opportunity. You should make them an ally (while not expecting them to relay communications effectively).

You can make them an ally by explicitly establishing that you have a common goal: To find out if you would be a good match for what they want from their speaker.

You should NOT be in selling mode here. You are exploring what they want just as much as they are exploring what you can offer. It should be understood as a mutual interview. This should not be a tactical facade, but an entirely sincere posture.

A speaker who is working in build their reputation as a speaker wants well-received speeches. You want great video clips of people laughing at your jokes and clapping to show their enthusiasm. You want prominent attendees to say what a great speech you gave. You want the event manager to say you delivered everything they needed and hoped for and were easy to work with to boot. And finally, you want robust word of mouth. All of this is how new speaking opportunities will come to you.

It is very much against your interests to give a poorly received talk. No matter if they pay you a good fee. If the result is mediocre, they may still post clips online, but they’ll hurt you rather than help you. And forget the testimonials and the great word of mouth.

If what you offer isn’t really what they want, you should NOT want the engagement. You should turn them down, even if they offer an attractive fee, if you conclude that what you offer will disappoint their audience.

It this is your attitude, and the person with whom you are talking understands that this is your attitude, it can allow a very positive interaction to develop in which you both achieve your shared objective. You’ll ask questions of each other and together develop the insight to know if you would be a good match for their event and audience.

In the end, all of this should allow you to better understand the role of topic in your selection. Only if equipped with this insight will you be able to craft your comments on the topics you address in a way that will actually be helpful to you. Mostly this insight will help you resist talking too much about topics when they’ve already moved on to what else matters to them, and that in turn will help you avoid saying something that creates concerns where there were none before you talked past the sale.

Customization: Understand First, Promise Later

The people contacting you will be making a wide range of assumptions about the degree to which you would or could customize your talk for them.

Some will assume you offer one or several mostly canned talks, and so they will see all examples (videos, transcripts, PowerPoints) as representing what you would say to them. From this perspective, their job is to compare your fixed product against what they want to see if there is a match.

Others will make the opposite assumption, that you’ll create a mostly original talk shaped specifically to address their needs. From this perspective, their job is to compare what you would be able and willing to create for them with what they need. This implies a totally different vetting process.

The most experienced conference bookers will understand that you’ll decide the degree of customization on a case-by-case basis, considering the audience, the issues they’ve told you they’d like you to address, what you may have from past engagements that would be on-target here, and of course, whether the fee they have agreed to pay incorporates the time you would have to spend preparing unique material.

Unless they raise it, it may be best to let this issue slide, and least for the first discussion. You don’t want to promise a lot of customization independent of the fee determination process (as discussed elsewhere). A good understanding of the time and effort required for the customization needed to satisfy them should be an input in the process of narrowing an initial fee range quote down to a specific fee. Or if you use a different process, take care not to promise a lot of work before you’re comfortable with the fee that supports that work.

All of that said, it is of course always better to look carefully at what your audience most needs, wants, and would appreciate, and then to do whatever degree of customization is required to deliver an excellent result fulfilling the venue’s hopes when they engaged you. Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the fee supports the effort.

Suggesting Topic Description Text

You’ve asked, listened, asked some more, looked carefully at their website again, and thought it over. Because you are working with somebody who has no authority and cannot be trusted to convey what you tell them verbally, you decide to put what you propose to talk about in writing explicitly to be passed on to the actual decision maker.

Remember as you craft this description that it is not the same as, nor need it be as short as, a conference brochure blurb. Don’t go on too long, but you can provide a description of what you’d talk about that is topically somewhat specific and that also includes discussion of how you will insure that what you present is useful and interesting for their audience. Just don’t shoot from the hip on this. Your pitch depends on your reading of their interests being reasonably in the ballpark. Describe your topic from their audience’s point of view.

Special Speech Content Requests

Sometimes inquiring venues will have special requests for how particular subjects should be handled. These requests take many forms, and can range from the totally reasonable to the entirely unacceptable.

On the reasonable end, a good nonprofit program may ask you to say nice things about them, and you may be more than happy to oblige. When you speak to a specific business or business sector audience, however, such requests can be much more problematic and are often unacceptable. Beware of being boxed into implied endorsements, such as sitting on the stage when a direct commercial pitch is made.

Sometimes entities that hire you will be involved in conflicts – political, regulatory, legal or commercial – and would like to exploit your appearance for them, your credibility standing on their stage and behind their logo-adorned podium, to their advantage in these conflicts. Beware if they attempt to put words in your mouth, especially at the last minute about local issues.

Sometimes inquirers will tell you what they don’t want you to say or what tone they don’t want you to express. These requests to will again range along a continuum from reasonable and acceptable to totally unacceptable.

Perhaps a community college in a conservative community wouldn't want you to be too provocatively liberal, or offer extraneous political commentary (unrelated to the topic you’d be engaged to address) that might anger part of their community. Most speakers would reply that they’d expect to use good judgment, and that they wouldn’t want to detract from the main points of their talk getting through any more than the venue would.

On the other hand, if you are hired by a company to give a talk and then  asked to skip lightly over areas where that company has problems, most speakers in the environmental arena are going to bow out. Censorship of message to protect a client’s interests is unacceptable, unprofessional, unethical, and damn, just plain un-American.

Saying no thanks when the case is clear-cut isn’t too hard. Making the right choice in murky and ambiguous terrain can be difficult. The advice here is simply to refuse to be rushed or pressured into a decision you’ll regret. Take the time needed to get comfortable with your decision, either way.

Special Format Requests

Special format requests can be fine, but may sometimes carry risks. There are two main alternatives that get proposed from time to time. One is the “In Discussion With” format where an interviewer leads and facilitates your comments. Where the interviewer is provided by the event sponsor and the event sponsor has an ax to grind (whether political or commercial), the concern is that the interviewer may not stay strictly facilitative but instead try to guide the discussion in a direction beneficial to the sponsor. This is not OK, and speakers should be wary of this possibility.

In any case, if you agree to this type of event, it would be wise to check both the organization and the interviewer very carefully. You don’t want to discover that they have a hostile ax to grind after you’re already up on a stage with them.

The other alternative format that comes up is a two-person “Competing Views” program with a moderator. Only sometimes called a debate as such, it may be structured and packaged to look and feel like a debate while in fact having whatever back and forth structure the sponsor wants it to have, for whatever reason.

This has been a problem in the climate arena. A climate change speaker without any hard-edged verbal combat experience will find themselves facing a seasoned verbal brawler paid to be there by an organization subsidized by the fossil fuel industry. Some of these industry flacks are very skillful, and they can make a climate speaker, who is in fact correct on every point but who is inexperienced in dealing with this form of mendacity, look like an absolute fool.

But there can be an even deeper problem with these programs. On the most important climate issues, there really are no opposing views. There is in fact a scientific consensus. Any program whose structure is based on a failure to recognize and acknowledge this consensus promotes the idea that the issue is not settled, and that helps the fossil fuel companies and all others who what to delay action on climate. No matter how well you do in the faux debate, we loose on this point before the first word is spoken.

All of the above is not to say that formats contrasting and discussing competing views aren’t perfectly fine most of the time. If the people putting together the programs are acting in good faith, and if the competing views do seem to be real competing views (and not just pretending this on questions that informed and rational people regard as settled), then there are a multitude of programs in this format that can be (and are) a positive part of our larger public discussion of all kinds of issues.

Special Audiences

Some speakers will get invitations to events closed to the public. Speakers may be engaged for corporate board and senior management retreats as well as for working groups within corporations. You may be restricted in sharing your presentation externally, and you may even be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement committing to never saying or writing anything about the meeting at which you would be presenting (and attending at least in part).

Good advice here is not to think that because you value this as an opportunity to do some good, you should accept this satisfaction as your reward and not expect a handsome fee. In fact, truth be known, if this is a Fortune 500 company, its board members and senior executives will respect you less if you don’t quote a substantial fee. Their reasoning may go like this. They only want to hear from people of the highest caliber and reputation. Those people of course charge the highest fees. If you don’t charge those sorts of fees, you must not be one of those top tier people. If that’s the case, they probably won’t want to hear from you at all.

Your fee should reflect and embody the stature of a person whose opinion they would respect because of that stature. Yes, this is circular reasoning. But at least in this case, it helps you rather than hurts you.

And on issues, tell them what you really think. Of course be courteous, professional and temperate in tone, but don’t hedge on the critical substance of your remarks. Don’t kowtow to these people. They’ll smell it, and they’ll discount your otherwise wise council accordingly. If you do get a chance to present to this type of audience, tell them the truth as you see it. They are more likely to respect you, at the very least.

As much as speaking for elite audiences may not be comfortable for progressives, the fact remains that there are scores of such venues that may attract you because they represent an exceptional opportunity to exert a beneficial influence. Such audiences could include university presidents, media executives, pundits and senior reporters, senior elected officials (governors, state legislators, mayors and city councils), city managers, county managers, governmental officials, business and professional leaders, and so on and on and on.

Unlike private corporate presentations, some degree of fee discounting (not too much) may help if you are in the running for such an engagement. If you believe this is the case, only you can judge whether or how much to discount your fee in an attempt to secure the engagement (discounting in part because of the engagement’s social change value).

Finally, a word about disreputable venues or funding sources is in order. Inquiries may come from shady businesses, from businesses with grossly destructive practices, from businesses who are out front as active opponents of the changes we need, from war profiteers, from peddlers of alcohol or tobacco, or from a wide range of other sources that may raise concerns.

Offers come to speakers all the time from all over the world where the ultimate funding source is an undemocratic government. While that funding is often passed through faux nonprofits, those undemocratic governments are the source. Many speakers might say yes to an engagement in China, for example, where the government was the original funding source, but say no to an engagement for what they feel is an even more despotic government.

Given the large and seemingly growing number of unsavory governments in the world, if you are speaking internationally, where to draw the line in questions like this is a matter worth careful thought.

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