One part of my professional life that has always been fascinating has been giving talks before business and banking groups.
Speaking for a living is not easy. First, there are the plane rides, where happiness is an empty middle seat and a baby in the next row who doesn't cry.
For as a fellow speech-maker put it to me, "Every night is opening night, closing night, and the whole run." There is no second chance -- you have to win the audience right away.
Speech Must Go On
Yet, in many instances, the talk itself is the least important part of the convention or meeting. The value to the business people or bankers is in getting together before and after to converse informally, and many a valuable idea that more than pays the cost of the trip has been gleaned that way.
But the speech goes on, and woe be to the reputation of the speaker who misses an engagement.
I have had a few close calls, like the time I had to hitch a ride on a plane of bank checks going from Atlanta to Dallas, because my chartered plane from Hilton Head didn't reach me in time for a scheduled flight.
In that instance ,I was also laughingly later bawled out by Paul Volcker for paying the pilot $250 to let me sit on a bag of checks in his Learjet.
"That was my plane!" the former Federal Reserve chief exclaimed a year later, when I told him the story. "He had no right to let you go."
Usually a group has two types of speakers. The first type is picked because of fame, and the audience can go home and say, "When I was with ex-President Reagan," or "When Henry Kissinger was with us at the convention, he said..."
Frequently, this group includes TV newspeople who fill their responsibilities if they just stand up and smile (I heard a talk by a network TV anchor whose principal contribution to the meeting was in telling us that he had traveled so much that he could spell Kaopectate in seven languages.)
The Other Type
I include myself in the second group -- those who must both educate and entertain in the same talk if they ever want another booking. I find that I am more valuable if I spend most of my time explaining rather than predicting
This means giving an explanation of something like the Eurodollar and how it does not violate the concept of "money never leaves the country of origin, only the ownership does," instead of predicting interest rates for the next 30 days..
One of my greatest triumphs was when a banker told me I had saved him about $1 million through one of my talks.
He explained: "You had said that if the examiner tells you to raise more capital [it was a time when capital requirements were more negotiable than they are today] you should first explain why you don't need it, then scream and yell, and he will go away. I did and he did, and I saved a million."
Days of Wine and Stand-Up
But not all my talks offer such usefulness. I remember one for a now-defunct savings bank, where they asked me to speak at the 21 club in New York for their First Annual Economic
Seminar. When I arrived, I found it was only their top officers, their directors, and me
We had two hours or great food and wine, and then, just before I was to speak, the CEO said, "Sommelier, brim the cups." Then he said, "We will now have our First Annual Economic Outlook Address," and turning to me he whispered "Make it short and funny."
I did eight minutes, concluding after the jokes that the economy would go up unless it went down. Then we all went home with Steuben decanters, and I got a small fee, too. In sum, my function was to be protection against an IRS audit disallowing their Christmas party's deductibility.
I have had more honest host, though. One banker said to me privately, "Look, Paul, I don't care what you say to my customers, as long as they have a good time. That's what they came for, and that's what keeps their balances in my bank."
In such cases, I still throw in what I feel is useful economic information for my own self-respect, as I do not think of myself as just an entertainer.
But I wonder, in thinking about the speech circuit, why do so many people have to read speeches? They have been picked for their knowledge or for their experience. If they could have their basic talk handed out or summarized and then they spent their time in questions and discussion, we would all get far more out of these meetings.
The people who arrange bankers meetings must be recognizing this weakness in the presentations at traditional conventions, for we are seeing more and more meetings devoted to one topic of interest, and groups spending more time in educational break-out session or roundtables and less at formal addresses.
The Serious Approach
Still the number of meetings is falling, both because banks do not want to pay for several attendees with today's high hotel and air fares, and because the trade associations are merging to gain such economies as reduced duplication of Community Reinvestment Act experts, lobbyists, and yes, conventions.
So bankers meetings are different now, more serious, more informal, and less lavish.
And the speakers who are used today must provide a lot more of specific actionable ideas and suggestions than was the case in the past, when the formal part of the meeting was merely the price the attendees paid to get to the cocktail party and camaraderie.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.