The Benefits of a Local Speaker

By: Jeff Waddle

Your Southeast event already features plenty of the locale's sights, smells, and tastes. The speakers you invite can add regional flavor to what you hear during your meetings as well.

There's no denying that the Southeast is one of the world's most distinctively charming regions, which makes it a great destination for association events. From Spanish moss and that unmistakable drawl to the history, music, and food, the Southeast is an enduring cultural phenomenon.

Given its immense appeal, associations meeting in the South naturally want to add a regional flair to their events whenever possible. But how do you create an authentic Southern experience that goes beyond typical theme parties and decorations? Fortunately, there is a host of outstanding speakers who can deliver a healthy dose of Southern charm that will help make your meetings more memorable. The key is finding the one that's right for your event.

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New Demands on In-Demand Speakers

Professional speakers have always had to keep their content relevant, but that's especially important in a tough economy. "Much depends on the audience and the state of the industry they work in," says Stacy Tetschner, CAE, executive vice president of the National Speakers Association, about what topics currently are in demand. "There are some additional topics that have been gaining popularity, such as using social media for marketing. The key for speakers is making sure their material is current, relevant, and in most cases customized to the needs of that particular audience," he says, adding that traditional business topics such as customer service, leadership, and sales and marketing remain in demand today.

Tetschner says some of the biggest changes involve how content is delivered. "Many speakers are now being asked to not only come in and deliver a program but also to sign on for a longer-term contract to ensure integration of the message and concept," he says. "These relationships mix a variety of delivery methods of this message including speaking, consulting, coaching, training, and facilitation. Audience interactivity also is very important to some groups."

 "Giving the audience a chance to ask questions relative to what they're doing is really important, and I'm seeing more and more of that," says Tara Liaschenko, a past president of the Tampa chapter of Meeting Professionals International. "The majority of speakers being chosen are because of the economy, and they are in some way relative to the financial impact of that industry. I'm also seeing a lot more panel discussions where industry experts, economists, and government officials can contribute different opinions and perspectives," she says.

Like Tetschner, Liaschenko believes the role of the speaker is evolving. "The speaker's role now just isn't onsite. It starts long before that, and it's a much more engaging and interactive process where attendees can throw out questions ahead of time they might want to see addressed and the speaker blogs to get attendees engaged, interested, and excited about attending. And once they speak live, there is communication after, like feedback and continuing dialogue to get questions answered," says Liaschenko.

A sure-fire strategy for creating an authentic Southern experience is to take advantage of people or attributes unique to the host city. Heather Middleton, director of public relations for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, suggests that groups consider combining team-building exercises with the city's country music heritage when meeting in Nashville. Two Nashville companies—Kidbilly Music and Song Sessions—offer programs that pair notable local songwriters with meeting groups in songwriting sessions. Songwriters (including some Grammy winners) work with smaller groups in breakout sessions to explain the creative process and come up with ideas. At the end, the songwriters take the best ideas from the breakout sessions and create and perform the group's original song.

Another way to add a decidedly Southern touch to a meeting in Memphis is to invite Mark Twain to says a few words, says Jackie Reed, communications manager for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ron Jewell, director of the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, performs a one-man Mark Twain that highlights the author's Southern roots and travels on the Mississippi River.

 "Of course most people know of [Twain's] love of the Mississippi River, so I can pull from that and all of the great river traditions here in Memphis," says Jewell of his performance. "I do try to tailor the presentation when I can to the particular group I'm performing for. So the more I can learn about who they are and what they're out to accomplish with their particular conference or meeting, then I'm able to research Twain to see what he might have said about the topic or something similar." Though Twain was born in Missouri, Jewell notes that Twain's family lived in Tennessee just months before the famous author was born.

Kelly Schulz, vice president of communications and public relations at the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, urges meeting planners to find out what prominent celebrities live in the city that's hosting their meeting, because they often love to speak to groups about their hometown. "Political power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin reside in New Orleans, and they are wonderful speakers," says Schulz. "They spoke about New Orleans at the PCMA [Professional Convention Management Association] convention in New Orleans in January 2009."            

Schulz adds that Bryan Batt, who plays Salvatore Romano on the hit TV series Mad Men, also lives in New Orleans and loves to talk to convention groups about the city. Another way to add a local touch to Big Easy events is to invite one of the city's Fleur de Lis Ambassadors to speak. The Ambassadors, who represent a cross-section of business, civic, and academic leaders, have a speaker's bureau that offers a range of topics that are unique to New Orleans.

Schulz also suggests that local musicians such as Irvin Mayfield of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and journalists like New Orleans magazine editor Errol Laborde can provide a sense of the city's essence unmatched by an out-of-town speaker. 

Tara Liaschenko, CMM, CEO of the Link Events Professionals, Inc., in St. Petersburg, Florida, says speakers who can add a unique perspective often can be found on the staff of many of the South's popular special-events venues. "I suggest you look past simply what that Southern venue offers to the great education and speaker resources they can provide that could be something your attendee wouldn't get anywhere else but there," says Liaschenko. "The people at Busch Gardens or one of the South's spectacular botanical gardens, for example, can offer a different level of insight and understanding of the habitat of that community."

The Southern Difference

"We talk slow; actually, we talk at a relaxed, melodic pace," says Bryan Townsend on what's different about professional speakers who hail from the South. Townsend is a professional speaker who ties the rich stories he has gleaned from 18 years of broadcasting NASCAR racing at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama into presentations on peak performance and other business topics. "The other difference I can think of is Southern manners," he says. "Our mamas used to wash our mouths out with soap if we used dirty words. We say 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am,' and we don't tell dirty jokes."

Phillip Van Hooser is another professional speaker from the South who believes the melodic cadence and distinctive accent is an asset. "We also are known for our tendency to use stories for illustration, education, and entertainment," says Van Hooser, who is the current president of the National Speakers Association.

 "It was hotter and we sat in the backyard telling stories and watching fireflies, and it just became a high priority to tell interesting stories," says Jeanne Robertson, a professional speaker who ties her Southern story-laden speech on how to develop a sense of humor into topics such as leadership and teambuilding. The former Miss North Carolina and former NSA president explains that NSA has had extensive discussions on why most humor-focused speakers hail from the South.

 "We've had panel discussions on why that is the case, and we think the rhythm of what you're telling is more appealing and pleasant than, say, the stand-up comedians in the New York or New Jersey area that use the more in-your-face style," she says. "Another reason the Southern [style] seems to work is that the illustrations they use are probably stories that happened during their childhood. For many people from other parts of the country, the illustrations they use are attacking somebody or some religion or that dee-bupp-bam! stand-up comedy routine type thing."

 "There is also more than a little mystique in the Southern heritage," says Ralph Hood, who grew up in coastal Georgia and became a motivational speaker and author of the humor books The Truth & Other Lies and Southern Raised in the Fifties. "Southern humorists add something different. It is a matter of word choice, accent, down-home logic, and it combines all the history and imagery of the South," he says.

To get the most from your Southern speakers, Hood suggests giving them a little extra time on the agenda to give the group a feel for the region. "In addition to my presentation, let me welcome the group to the South," he says. "Let me explain the language and tell them about grits, Spanish moss, and a bit of the history of the area."

Do Your Homework

Even the best Southern speakers will be a disappointment if they're mismatched with the group or event, so it's necessary to do some research to find the perfect fit. "When it comes to finding the right speaker, it's a two-way street," says Robertson. "The speaker doesn't want to be in the wrong place any more than the meeting planner wants the wrong speaker. There's really no excuse for having the wrong speaker at your event with today's technology, where you can get on the internet and see someone's work and style of speaking … [I]f that style doesn't fit with your audience, you should know that."

Robertson believes the best way to ensure a good match is to talk to the speaker. "Some companies go to a speaker's bureau, and they are one way you can find a speaker. But if you know who you like and who's out there, there's less chance for error, maybe, if you talk directly with the speaker and ask, 'Can you do this?'" she says.

 "Never hire a speaker you have not heard," says Townsend. "Via video is OK, but in person is better." To get the most from your investment, Townsend suggests giving your speaker a full briefing on your organization and the objectives of the conference. "Send the speaker everything you've got—agendas, newsletters, websites, along with any other information about the event and the people attending the event," he says. "When you are in the planning process, you cannot have too much information about the organization, the event, and the group."

Liaschenko agrees. "Clearly communicate expectations and provide as much information as possible on not only the demographics but the details of the industry," she says. "It's always great if speakers can tie their content back to the audience to give them some ownership of it and they can do that only if you provide them with the needed details."

Van Hooser advocates researching speakers on NSA's website (, where more than 3,000 professional speakers are cataloged by name, state of residence, topic, and other information. "Do a focused web search with keywords such as 'executive leadership speaker,' 'Southern humorist,' or 'inspirational keynote,'" he says. "Also, ask your friends and colleagues who attend professional meetings frequently who they have heard speak. If they are able to remember the person and his/her message, that is a pretty good sign that the speaker did something right while on the platform."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and editor of ASAE & The Center's Meetings & Expositions Section Council newsletter. Email: [email protected]