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Selecting and Working with Speakers

For many meetings, the speakers are the heart of the matter. The extent to which they convey the envisioned message might even, in some cases, be the single biggest determinant in whether the meeting is judged a success or failure. Planners who are involved in the entire process of finding, hiring and working with speakers have more factors to consider than a novice might suppose. Here's a step-by step guide.


  • Speakers bureaus - If you call a speakers bureau, call one that you know or one that has been recommended.
  • Professional associations - Become involved in a professional association such as Meeting Professionals International, the American Society of Association Executives, the National Speakers Association or the Professional Convention Management Association. Even if you don't attend their professional conferences, their education/conference departments are great resources.
  • Professional conferences - Most professional speakers use these as opportunities to showcase themselves. You can hear them speak, meet them and get to know them.
  • Colleagues and periodicals - Peers will give you the most honest feedback. Also find potential speakers mentioned in trade journals, business publications and newspaper articles.
  • Educational institutions - Depending on your topical needs, you may want to call a specific department at a university, such as the economics school. Professors have great expertise and may be relatively inexpensive.


  • How quickly does the speaker respond to your questions?
  • How willing does the speaker appear to accommodate your needs?
  • Gather references on the speaker.
  • In general, how easy does the speaker seem to be to work with? It's best to assess this subjectively through personal conversation.
  • Ask the speaker the following questions:
    • How long have you been speaking?
    • What are your credentials and background?
    • Will you be speaking any place where we may see you live?
    • Do you have any professional videotape, audiotape or written promotional materials?
    • Have you spoken for other companies or associations in the same industry?
    • Will you customize your material to my group? To what degree?
    • What kind of pre-program research will you do (e.g., ask for an annual report, talk to staff or management, find out about the industry)?
    • Will you bring your own handouts?
    • Will you be accessible to the audience, either before or after the presentation?

If you use a speakers bureau, be prepared to answer "the five Ws" (or if you're not using a speakers bureau, at least know the answers for yourself):

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the budget?
  • When is the meeting?
  • Where is the meeting?
  • Why are you having the meeting?

You also may be asked:

  • Is the first time this meeting is being held?
  • What speakers have you hired in the past?

Be realistic in your budget and limitations. If you have free rein and can spend as much as it takes to get a name speaker, then a celebrity may be the answer. Otherwise, don't dismiss a potential winner just because he is not a household name.

It is almost impossible for a presentation to look anything but mechanical and canned if the speaker hasn't had the opportunity to understand the audience. At a minimum, make sure to tell your speaker about:

  • Audience size, age range, ratio of males to females.
  • Topic and length of presentation.
  • Session format including time allotted for audience questions.
  • Names of those sharing the platform, if any, and their topics.
  • Ancillary media events (pre and post-meeting interviews).
  • Dress code (business attire, casual, black tie).
  • Rehearsal hours, if planned.
  • Speaker lounge or ready-room location, hours.
  • Whether multiple ranks will attend, or the entire audience comes from one level in the company.
  • Current issues/challenges in the company or division.
  • Subjects which are off limits for whatever reasons.
  • Names of high-profile people who will attend.

Consider carefully whether you wish for anyone to be included by name in the speaker's remarks. Sometimes it helps to personalize the presentation; sometimes it's better left out. The speaker may:

  • Ask you and some attendees to fill out a questionnaire.
  • Want to talk to some of the attendees.
  • Want you to send material about your company-e.g., annual reports, office memos, company newsletters, etc.


  • If your speaker is to speak after a meal, make certain the table service will be finished or will be unobtrusive when the speaker begins.
  • The room should be set at a comfortable temperature, the podium well-lit, and the sound system in perfect operation.
  • Keep any noise-generating meetings out of adjacent rooms.
  • Keep the meeting on schedule, especially for that last speaker before everyone runs to the airport.
  • Plan your introduction carefully. Make sure not to mispronounce your speaker's name or misspell it in any literature. If you condense the bio provided, make sure that you emphasize the important points. If the speaker gives you a specific intro, read it as is; this might be a set-up for the presentation.
  • Involve the speaker in the development of conference promotional materials. Most speakers welcome the opportunity to help you promote their presentations to potential attendees. Use their unique knowledge to develop a program description that helps ensure that both attendee and speaker expectations will be met.
  • Make sure the speaker receives copies of all the promotional material, as well as any media invitations you have extended.
  • Work with the speaker to create memorable handouts. Surveys show that conference attendees rate handouts as an essential part of the learning experience.
  • Make sure the fee you pay to the speaker includes preparation of the handouts.
  • The conference organizer may need to reproduce a large number of handouts required for the program. If so, make sure you have established deadlines that will work for both of you.
  • Treat your speakers as part of your team. Keep them informed as the program develops. Provide them with a speaker kit outlining when materials are due-particularly as it relates to promotional deadlines. (Note: many speakers will provide you with their own kits, asking that you respond. Do so promptly.)
  • Let speakers know the location of the speaker's lounge as well as (it should go without saying) the meeting room. Let them know when the speaker's lounge will be available prior to the meeting.


  • Most speakers are willing to negotiate. Here are some of the give-backs-that is, additional in-kind benefits you may extend to the speaker-that you and he can talk about to warrant a reduction in fee:
    • Videotape master.
    • List of attendees.
    • Testimonial letter.
    • Referrals.
    • Extra night(s) accommodations.
    • Choice of time slot/date.
    • Multiple performance contract.
    • Extra publicity.
    • Spouse airfare/meals.
    • Mailing list.
    • Article in your organization's newsletter.
    • Two or three ads in newsletter at no charge.
  • Ask if the speaker offers any discounts for:
    • Certain geographical areas.
    • Resorts.
    • Time of year.
    • Non-profit organizations.
    • Multiple engagements in one city.
  • Can the speaker fill more than one slot? Hiring another speaker means additional expenses for transportation, hotel and food.

The following are standard items that should be in every contract:

  • Company name, address, contact name.
  • Speaker's name, phone number, cell-phone number, emergency phone number.
  • Place of engagement: Location, address, phone number, room where speech will be presented.
  • Period of engagement:
    • Day/date of speech.
    • Length of speech - e.g., approximately 1 hour.
    • Time frame - e.g., approximately 1-5 p.m.
    • Expected attendance.
  • Topic title.
  • On-site contact(s): Name, phone/fax numbers, e-mail address, emergency phone number.
  • Fee plus any additions such as airfare, hotel accommodations, material reproduction costs, etc.
  • Technical requirements: audiovisual needs, reproduction of any handouts, etc.
  • Payment schedule: When deposit/final payment is due. Also, to whom check is payable.
  • The fine print. This is to protect the speaker or bureau from liability. If you are hiring celebrity entertainment, it can be very specific down to the type of drinks the entertainer wants in his dressing room. Make sure you read this over carefully. It can mean additional dollars that you weren't counting on spending.
  • Additional riders. These usually encompass lighting, staging, special food/drink, etc., and they always mean more money. Before you make your final decision, consider the extra cost. Will it break the budget?
  • Signature and dates. A contract is not complete until it includes the speaker's/agent's signature and date as well as your signature and date.


  • Travel
    • Establish who makes the travel arrangements for the speaker. Most speakers like to do their own and bill you separately.
    • Let the speaker know who (name of travel agent) is making arrangements. Let him avail himself of the same deal that may be available to your attendees, including, say, corporate discounts or group fares.
    • Speakers will try to get the client the best airfare deal possible but must have the flexibility to fly full coach, if necessary. Also, they most likely will be able to upgrade to first class with no additional expense to you.
    • Have the speaker's travel itinerary so you can have someone waiting for him at the airport upon arrival and bring him back.
  • Hotel accommodations
    • Have late arrival as an option.
    • The room should be on the master account.
  • Payment
    Speakers expect to be paid on the day of performance. Alert your accounting department to have a check cut. If you are working with a bureau, it might ask for the check in advance so the check can clear and the bureau can pay the speaker in a timely fashion.
  • Recording agreements
    Most celebrity speakers will not allow recording of their speeches. If they do, an additional fee could be required.
  • Audiovisual budget
    Is your AV budget in conflict with speaker requirements? If your budget is particularly tight, let the speaker know up front, so you can work together on achieving the right balance. For example:
    • Ask if a wired microphone may be substituted for a wireless one.
    • Ask the speaker if his presentation requires an elaborate, expensive lighting or sound system.


  • Backup Plan A
    Make sure you have one. Professional speakers are on the road a lot, and you can't blame them for wanting to limit the amount of down time they spend at any conference. However, you never want your speaker taking the last flight on the night before the meeting, especially if he is scheduled to speak first on the agenda.
  • Backup Plan B
    • What else could go wrong? It's anything you can think of, from demonstrators and pickets at the front of your hotel or meeting venue, to inclement weather delaying the speaker's arrival, and even laryngitis.
    • What is your emergency plan? What steps will your speaker take to help find a suitable replacement?
  • Strive for excellence
    • Provide the best attendee environment possible.
    • Classroom and theater-style are not the only setup possibilities. Be open to suggestions that have worked for this speaker before.
    • Involve the conference planner to discuss ways in which the room setup can enhance the program that has been developed.