I was recently a guest speaker at a fundraiser for a charity and with respect to the group, it will be anonymous for this blog. It was a hugely successful event and I was personally thrilled to hear that their total money raised in two programs in one day, a breakfast and a lunch, was over $200,000.00 and it was almost double what they had raised in previous events. It was also the first time they agreed to a “professional speaker” as their focus on assuring 100% of funds raised going directly to the charity was profoundly important and, well, professional speakers cost money! So this year, the charity got a new sponsor who provided my services to the event for free and generously paid me, albeit a greatly reduced fee but a fee just the same. By the way, I am really not greedy, but I am a “professional” speaker and therefore, it is how I make my living. But the purpose of today’s blog isn’t to pat myself on the back, which since I have no arms would be tricky! I wanted to address a very tricky subject about a pet peeve of mine related to the speaking business.
Several years ago, the convention industry went through a shift and unless you make a living from it, you probably didn’t notice, but we sure did. In fact, it even reached the top tier in the United States as President Obama himself in many ways “caused” the shift. This is a very complicated story and I don’t have the space here to go into detail, but here is the abridged version. It seemed the Internal Revenue Service was outed for spending what the press deemed, “obscene dollars, taxpayer dollars!” on four conventions in Las Vegas. By the way, I am not going to address the wisdom of the IRS meeting planners either as I can understand why the optics of this could be questioned but this is a “bigger picture” story. Reacting to the scandal, Obama called into question the irresponsible use of taxpayers money to send employees to Vegas for meetings that could have been held internally, even using the services of “Skype or FaceTime style” distant learning to bring people together at a fraction of the cost. Wow!
My wife and business partner, Darlene, isn’t called “The Brains” of our company for nothing. She handles everything in the office except the speaking, and that includes tracking our bottom line. She was disturbed to observe a trend that started at the beginning of 2013 when there was a noticeable shift in both the volume of our engagements and the “sensitivity” to fees. Nobody actually said anything out loud but we weren’t alone. Many of my speaker colleagues, especially in the United States noticed a similar trend. Events didn’t disappear, although cancellation of conventions in Las Vegas in 2013 hit somewhere around 30%. The events that did go ahead saw drastic reductions in budgets across North America and though hotels and convention centers continued to book events, organizers began bringing in speakers who were either “intenal” from the companies and associations, or hiring professional presenters for greatly reduced fees. In one life’s ironies (at least to me) the lesser known at the time and obviously not any longer “TED” Talks became a player in this saga. Again for brevity, you can look up the history of TED Talks yourself but they are, generally speaking, 18 minute talks addressing “one” idea given by the huge majority of “non-professional” speakers at “live” events that are posted to the internet and have become super viral. People, maybe even you, love these talks and I am not intending to bash them, but I have a serious problem with something you may or may not know. TED speakers usually get no fee, just exposure. TED Talk attendees pay, somtimes $7,500 for a multi-day event and the organizers rake in the cash. And another irony…event planners facing severe budget cuts started hiring TED Talk speakers for greatly reduced fees, called them “professional” and their connection to the TED Talk virus made them “Famous” speakers, but not “Professional”…not even close.
Again, let us be very clear here. I am not trying to insult anybody who gets up in front of people and tells a story. In fact, in my business model, I am a pure “Keynoter” which means I don’t do training or coaching and in some circles, Keynoters are seen as “window dressing” as they don’t really “teach”, they just “talk” and get sometimes obscene fees, which also seems to offend! Can’t we all just get along? But I digress. The point is (finally), Obama missed the whole point!
It has been proven over and over again that the majority of employees, especially within larger organizations where they can feel anonymous and expendable, don’t want more money or more time off…they want respect! They want to feel important and vital and the perks they desire vary but I have been speaking to groups like these since 1988 and I lost count how many times I have heard this; “Thanks Alvin Law for putting things in perspective and reminding me I should be greatful for what I have, even if it isn’t perfect. I so needed to be here because you can’t put a price on meeting face to face with the only people on the planet who get what we do!”
My experience has also taught me, that although the social events matter and “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, the elements most “human beings” value at a convention or meeting is how their bosses represent how much these people mean to the operation “back at the office”. Believe it or not, the quality of the Keynoters speaks volumes to that perception and this is most definitely where “You Get What You Pay For”.
This isn’t an ad for “Hire Me!” This is a plea to you, whoever you are to make your feelings known to the “powers that be” that President Obama was wrong. Las Vegas was the “red herring” because many event planners I know say New York, Los Angeles, or even Washington, DC, are way more expensive than what you can pay in Vegas. Nobody asked the better question; imagine the joy of working for the Internal Revenue Service, one of the most “hated” entities in America. If I would have been speaking at their event, I would have focused on thanking them for their service to taxpayers and encouraged them to focus on the gift of the event, because their normal environment is profoundly challenging.
How are you “thanking” the people you work with, or manage? Are you expecting “more for less” and pushing your “human beings” to the edge where all they feel like is a robot? Are you a believer in taking your people to someplace nice they may not normally go as a thank you to them for their sevice, or do you use “the recessionary times” or “optics” as an excuse to not do anything? Are you hiring a “Pro” speaker who makes their living and reputation on what is delivered from the podium and in fact, become a vivid reflection of your organization’s own values, or are you doing the opposite by having “low budget events” or worse, none at all?
By the way, the feedback from the fundraiser was not just about the money raised. Organizers also saw a significant increase in people who want to volunteer for the charity and a similar increase in people committing to next year’s event and they can attribute this motivation to the energy created and the value added by hiring a professional speaker and also “upping” the quality of the event to reflect the importance of the cause. I honestly have a difficult time accepting credit for this kind of result because clearly, all involved in putting on the whole day are the true difference makers. But I was so flattered to be invited to do what I do. I’m a speaker…”A Professional Speaker!”