by Steve Adubato, PhD
Picking a speaker for a particular event can be complicated. Often, people go with the biggest name or an expert in a particular field. They go with the star athlete, the entertainer or, in the case of Kean University at its recent commencement, funny man Darrell Hammond, who delivered a speech to mixed reviews. Kean paid $25,000 for Hammond to poke fun at his own lack of academic credentials when he said that the William Morris talent agency "called to say they needed a speaker to show how not to do it."
I've interviewed Hammond in front of a live audience and, I admit, he can be funny, but he is also pretty quirky and communicates in a fashion that not every audience can relate to. He did a great Bill Clinton impression on "Saturday Night Live," but that in itself doesn't make for a great commencement speech, and that's the point. Matching up a speaker to an event and an audience takes more thought and strategy.
Here are some questions and key tips to consider the next time your organization has to bring in someone to speak:
- Check out a prospective speaker on video before making a final decision. Don't just rely on someone's glossy bio or beefed-up résumé. People with great credentials or who have won sports championships (or even well-known CEOs) are often terrible public presenters. They look great on paper, and may be terrific at what they do professionally, but actually connecting with an audience at an event is a very different communication art form. This takes different skills, which often have little to do with what has made these people winners in their respective fields.
- Get a sense of what your audience really wants and needs. Poll them. Ask them questions about what issues, topics and concerns they have. But remember, because you are likely to get a range of opinions, selecting a speaker should never be done by a committee, but rather by a small group or an executive in charge. Large committees or advisory groups don't do well making decisions like this, but it is still important to get group input.
- Connect the speaker to the particular type of event being held. Don't hire a comedian to be a commencement speaker who may wind up putting down the importance of academics and education. Think about that. The people graduating have just put in four years of hard work, culminating in this very special day in which they will receive a much-deserved diploma and with their families celebrating them. And then the commencement speaker is making a joke about education and saying it doesn't mean very much. Talk about a disconnect.
- Once you have decided on a speaker, event organizers must tell the speaker not only what topics or issues he or she should focus on, but also what subjects are off limits and why. Avoiding this critical conversation often results in awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing speeches with apologies having to be made after the fact.
- Finally, ask yourself this question: "Does the potential speaker truly care about our organization and our audience?" Some speakers may be competent and dynamic communicators. However, if they don't take the time to learn about who you are and what you care about, they are likely to "mail it in" and deliver a canned presentation. It won't make it a bad speech, but rather one that has no real connection to your event or your audience.
Remember, an audience doesn't care about what a speaker has to say until they know how much he or she really cares about them.