On the care and handling of speakers for your event

I was recently asked by a fellow who was new to organizing events about the ins and outs of working with speakers. That “quick email” expanded out to something larger and larger and now this.

I imagine these are the main types of speakers.

  • Sharers: Are people who have an idea, a perspective, or a practice they are passionate to share. They are active in and contribute to their community of practitioners. They need help getting their message out, engaging audiences, and getting feedback. Most everyone self-identifies as a Sharer.
  • Personal-brand builders: Are people new to the talk circuit who want to get exposure and practice, to get known. They have ideas to offer and are ambitious. They will likely be the least expensive but need the most help. Promise them exposure, support, and an audience.
  • Idea Sellers: are more experienced speakers who have something to sell as part of their call to action (say, a book or event). They will be polished, professional, and slightly cheaper as they make money on the Thing Sold. Promise them an audience and opportunity.
  • The eminent: Are people who speak as requirements for their job. This can be academics or individuals working within large organizations. Their institutions may offer to support your event because they get positive brand associations, and the speakers may come inexpensively if so. Academics may be dry (or may have trouble resisting a deep dive into the smallest details) but the facts will be rock solid. Some will even be entertaining. Public company types will be polished but may need steering away from being a pure advertisement. Promise The Eminent marketing. Note that both Idea Sellers and The Eminent may also come cheaper if they are trying out a new idea (like a next book in progress or a new and untested presentation).
  • The famous: Are people who are very well known for something. Their name will pull in audiences. They are expensive, may burden you with requirements, and the quality and content of their presentations will vary widely, but they get butts in seats. Promise them attentiveness.

Levers

Once you understand the goals of your speakers, it’s easier to understand the levers you have to engaging them in your event.

Audience

All but The Famous will be interested in the makeup of your audience. How many are estimated? What are their interests or reason-for-affiliation? (For instance, “an industry group to discuss artificial intelligence.”) If you know them, the demographics and psychographics are a useful hint for how interested the audience should be in the presentation topic, &or how much customization it will take to make the content relevant to them.

Travel & Accommodations

If they’re coming from out of town, they will expect travel to be paid. Most will be ok in Economy class, but the more professional or famous they are, they might have a higher class as part of their minimum requirements. (Business travel as a lifestyle can be very draining, and Economy can be like sandpaper.) The Eminent or Idea Sellers will have loyalty programs so want to request a particular airline. Some may offer to pay the difference for another class. If you want to be high-service, offer to purchase the airline tickets for them. Experienced speakers will have been bitten by bad faith organizers who drug their feet reimbursing, and so prefer if you purchase travel for them, according to their requested airline and flights.

One strategy is to offer a flat fee and have them arrange their own travel, which encourages them to take the cheapest travel possible, but always feels to me like it’s just pushing off responsibility.

All will expect accommodations in a hotel. It can be inexpensive, but if it’s cheap it will reflect poorly on you. Ideally it should be near the venue. Personal brand builders might be asked to Air BnB but a whole apartment or flat rather than a room. The famous may need more luxurious accommodations, just ask them if they have preferences.

Nobody expects their own meals during the trip to be paid with one exception. If there is a speaker’s dinner or drinks, that should be paid for. Be sure and ask if this is OK. Some speakers will be introverted, some may need to work, be in contact with their families/local friends in the evenings, some may just need to get sleep. All that said, getting to know other speakers can be one of the highlights of events. Speakers’ dinners are where great conversations happen, friendships formed, and yes, some networking happens. If you want to arrange it, ask first, explaining who will be there and casually what you expect interactions to be: Conversation, Q&A with attendees, hob-nobbing with sponsors are all different things. Be sure and ask after food requirements and allergies. For The Eminent and Famous, pick an upscale or high-quality place conducive to socializing.

Childcare

One thing that you can offer to speakers who are primary caregivers to young children is to offer childcare as part of accommodations. If you would like your speaker to attend the conference, this will be all day childcare, and preferably at the conference venue, so stopping by to check on the child does not interfere with attending. If the childcare is needed just for the duration of rehearsal, the talk, and Q&A, this can be a shorter time, and may not be needed on the conference venue. But it’s something to ask about and discuss.

Price

Personal brand builders will often go for free if they’re just starting out, just to build their speaking resume. Some Idea Sellers and The Eminent may, too, just confess that you have no budget and see if they can work with that.

If you offer a little bit of money call it an honorarium. I would ask their fee first and then confess the budget woes and ask if they would accept an honorarium.

You can circumvent objections for Idea Sellers by offering to purchase a number of the Things They are Selling to give/raffle to attendees. If you’re selling tickets to the event you can even include it in the ticket price and hopefully use that to entice audiences.

All that said, speakers are sacrificing time and effort to travel, be there, prepare materials, and rehearse, so meeting their fee is often the best thing to do. (And the most likely strategy for getting a yes.) If the fee is out of budget, try to find a local business that will sponsor the event to cover costs, or you could try and sell tickets to the event to cover costs.

If you’re talking to an author, don’t forget to ask if their publisher will sponsor the event with money, book give aways, or marketing.

Payment

Pay as quickly after the event as you can. If it’s going to be longer than 30-days, set that expectation when arranging the event. If it comes as a surprise, it feels like you’re just dodging your bills. An electronic deposit to a bank account is the fastest and least hassle, but follow-up with an email to draw their attention to it.

Gifts

Small tokens of appreciation are not needed, but always endearing. They don’t need to be expensive, but something local like art, food, or non-gimmicky technology is best. It should be something they can use, but also something they might pass on to their family/sweetheart as a gift for having to be away. With that in mind, avoid just putting a logo on schwag, as that just feels like advertising, rather than a token of thanks.

Marketing

Of course you’ll be doing a lot of marketing for the event on your own. Help the speaker market through their channels by writing several tweets for them, but know they will almost certainly modify the wording to be in their own voice.

Idea Sellers will likely need some accommodation at the event for the things they’re selling: A table for books or book signings, for instance, as well as time set aside afterward for these transactions to take place.

The famous may need help managing fans, escape routes, etc.

Presentations

Nowadays most everyone travels with their own laptop or device and letting them use that minimizes font/playback surprises but leaves you to manage connecting their device to the venue’s AV. Find out what the setup is ASAP and convey that to them. Ask if they’d be willing to send a presentation ahead in case of technology failures. Note that not all presentations can be sent ahead like this (IP concerns, demos, and large video files may discourage it.)

Contract

Many smaller speaking engagements can be made with a friendly handshake and email agreement. But the more famous and eminent will have many demands on their time, so you’ll want an agreement in place saying what everybody agrees to, including everything mentioned here, so you don’t wind up getting cancelled on. Leave enough time in your schedule for a little back-and-forth on the contract, especially when dealing with more seasoned presenters.

Many conferences that pay the high costs of flying speakers from overseas ask for exclusivity, meaning the speakers agree not to speak at competing events nearby (who might drain some of the paying audience or unfairly benefit from the already-paid travel costs). Don’t be draconian about this. The more popular your speakers, the more requests they’ll get and want to accommodate. Consider working with the speaker on not-for-profit events (perhaps asking to be listed as a sponsor for it) or to split costs with other for-profit but non-competing events.

Recording and IP

If you intend on recording, mention this up front and put it in the contract. Clear it with them first, including how you intend to use the recording. If you intend to make any money off of the recording, you have to say so. Savvy presenters will expect to be compensated for that. Some presenters will consider that posting a video of their talk online would lower demand for future events, so be prepared for a no.

Schedule and logistics information

Once your speaker accepts, be as clear as possible about the schedule. Send emails detailing when and where they are expected for setup, who they should contact, and when and where they will present. Include how long they have to present and how much Q&A you would like to see. If there are other presenters, send them the whole day’s schedule so they know if they can run a little long. Send clear photos of the venue empty and when in use. Send a calendar reminder if you really want to be high-service.

As a personal favor to me, assign someone at the event to be timekeeper. Nothing irks me more than a speaker running long and thereby taking time from other speakers. If a speaker does run long, give them a clear warning, and if they run long after that, cut them off, offering to post the remainder of their talk to a blog, but that you can’t short-change other speakers.

Q&A

If the event has Q&A, prepare a question or two of your own in advance. Audiences often need a few minutes of reflection to build up questions. You can ask the presenter if they have seed questions on hand, but be prepared to make up your own.

Alternate structures

If the fee or logistics are prohibitive, you can always think through alternatives.

  • One is to ask them to present remotely. That has its own tech hassles, but saves travel costs.
  • Another alternate is to ask if they’ll record a presentation for you. That can be its own production hassle but again saves on travel and time zone woes.
  • Also you can ask permission to show attendees an earlier talk, and then have the presenter attend a live Skype Q&A.

I consulted with a few other speakers that I know personally to round out my personal opinions on the above topics. There’s probably even more to say from an organizer’s or attendee’s perspective, but this should be a good start. Hopefully this helps equip you to head out and into the cat herding world of event organizing.

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