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What to consider when selecting speakers for a conference

The various factors to consider when arranging suitable speakers for a conference. Find out more in this step from Learning Lounge and FutureLearn.

The video above has no audio. It’s a visual aid, lets now think about who you want to speak at your conference.

If you are selecting specific speakers what do they have to offer?

Speakers may be selected for many reasons:

  • well-known professional speaker
  • expert on the topic
  • to draw people to the conference
  • relevant to the conference objectives
  • known within the field
  • a recommendation from a colleague
  • publication of a research paper
  • to set the tone of the conference (humor, serious or academic)
  • availability
  • cost
  • to ensure the audience and speakers represent a diverse set of views, backgrounds, and experiences
  • appropriate for the lecture, seminar, or workshop sessions.

Ask yourself some questions

When it’s your role to choose the speakers for the conference, remember that choosing the “right” presenters can mean the difference between basking in the glory of a memorable event, and being criticized over the poor choice of an inappropriate speaker!

When choosing industry presenters you need to consider the information and the message you wish to convey.

Are the potential speakers too highly clinical and industry-specific?

The speaker needs academic knowledge, specific background, or education to understand the nuances of your industry’s history, politics, and corporate culture, but should not be too “high-brow” for those attending.

Is there a variety of topics?

All topics discussed must be relevant to your theme and industry. Attendees are most likely coming from similar fields and need to understand what is covered, but avoid repetition!

Are there some themes and messages that are broad and universal?

Leadership, team building, attitude and behavior around dealing with change, interpersonal communications, conflict resolution, and stress management are always popular topics.

A quality guest speaker will research and customize their subject of expertise to specifically address your industry’s needs.

Will the audience perceive the message to be more valuable and inspirational if delivered by an outsider?

When internal representatives deliver some messages, audiences may suspect hidden agendas, or wonder if the internal speaker has been swayed by senior management to present a particular point of view. In such cases, a guest speaker is perceived as more objective. “Well if she says so…then it must be true!”

Why are these attendees coming together?

Your meeting’s themes and objectives will help you narrow down your guest speaker search.

What are our objectives?

Do you need someone to get you started with enthusiasm? Are you sharing exciting news or a great industry breakthrough?

What do we want these people to walk away with?

To be inspired? To be motivated? To be optimistic? Choose a speaker that will fulfill whichever requirement it is that is most important. A guest speaker works especially well to open or close your conference.

Are there different types of presentations proposed?

Just having lecture after lecture can be very boring. You need to mix it up.

  • Lectures: informative sessions presenting practical or theoretical ideas or methods relevant to the work. Subject matter generally flows in one direction.
  • Workshops: – the teaching of methods, techniques, or other skills or related activities.
  • Threads or strands: – a series of sessions that all relate to one topic. These may run as concurrent break-out sessions/streams from the larger conference group.
  • Interactive: hands-on sessions, participants engage in discussions, activities, simulations, role plays, etc.
  • Masterclass: – a class given by an expert in the field.
  • Panel discussions: a group of experts from a field are presented with questions or discussion topics (in advance or via Q & A from the audience) and explore their viewpoints from different perspectives. One individual chairs the discussion.
  • Plenary sessions: these are for everyone attending and cover important information for all.

More about guest speakers

Speakers or presenters come in a wide and varied range of shapes and sizes. There may be someone you particularly want to speak at your conference as a motivational speaker. So much so that the entire conference could all be built around their availability.

There may be multiple sessions over multiple days, and you will need to call for papers/proposals/expressions of interest that fulfill the theme of the event.

Then, upon receipt of applications, you will need to choose and sort speakers and even find others. It may be that you need one special guest who will deliver the keynote speech. Someone may be required to open the event. It could be a local politician or dignitary; it may be the chair of the organization. Is there a welcome function or a dinner where you may need other speakers or entertainment?

Do you have a budget to pay for a speaker? In researching the market to get a realistic sense of what “things” cost when setting your budget you may have researched speaker fees by gathering information on two or three presenters. Fees can vary widely and if they do make sure you find out exactly what the quoted fee includes, e.g. travel and accommodation expenses, printing costs, etc.

Will the speaker customize their presentation for your group, and if so, is there an additional fee for this?

Exploring possibilities

Word of mouth is often a valuable method of exploring possibilities. Review the speaker’s website to get a better idea of their areas of interest, subject matter, credentials, other clients, and testimonials. Look for evidence of a diverse group of satisfied, previous clients.

  • Have they spoken in your industry before?
  • Have they been published?
  • Can you read a sampling of what they stand for, in print?

Ask for a chance to hear a recording of one of their presentations or view the speaker’s work on YouTube.

Does the speaker work with a contract and specific terms, e.g. a clear list of what their fee does and does not include, the percentage of retainer fee to hold the date, and the terms of the balance due? Agreements work well for both parties because they clearly define all expectations and deliverables.

In order to confirm your decision, you must always talk directly with the speaker. On the phone is fine, but it must be the speaker you talk with, not just their manager or assistant. At least some of your decision may be based on your impressions that this person is the “right” speaker for your event. Speaking to them directly will better allow you to make this important decision.

Invitations/call for papers from potential speakers

Whether you are issuing direct invitations or putting out a call for papers (that could also be called an abstract or synopsis), the content of your invitation or advertisement should contain:

  • the conference’s goals and objectives
  • the expected outcome of the presentation
  • the time available
  • a query about any special requirements, such as access needs
  • which costs will be reimbursed, including airfares, meals, accommodation, functions
  • technology requirements
  • cancellation policy (penalties and payment policies) if they cannot come
  • cancellation due to low delegate numbers
  • what the speaker will receive in return (acknowledgment, exposure, enjoyment)
  • deadlines
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Event Management for Conferences: the Basics

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