What matters in event planning and management? Perhaps the most important part of any event is the speakers. They can make or break your event, both in terms of attracting participants, and in what people will say about it afterwards. What, then, can an event organiser or manager do to ensure that they recruit the right speakers, and that their speakers provide good value for the participants?
- Start your thinking early
The minimum recommended time for recruiting your speakers is at least 3 months before the start of live registration for the event. Why? Because people often decide whether to attend an event based on the quality of the speakers and sessions. It is therefore important to have your programme complete as far as possible—that is, with the maximum number of speakers identified—prior to sending the invitation for delegates to register.
- Your first step is to set the objectives for the event
Any good facilitator will start by asking about the objectives for the event. This is because the objectives drive everything else: type of event, programme, sessions, speakers and so on. If you are not clear about what you want to achieve from the event, you will end up not achieving anything.
- Get the right people on board early on to help organise and manage the event
Before you can think about speakers, you need to have a formal event committee established. This committee will decide on the event type or style (for example, full-day or multi-day conference, breakfast meeting) and will build the framework programme. This is the outline of the event, and thinking will include consideration of whether to have keynotes, plenaries, discussion sessions and so on, and also the use of techniques like World Café or matchmaking. It is therefore essential to have the right people on the programme committee: decision-makers, and also people with experience of event planning and facilitating.
- The programme drives the speaker choice, not the other way round
Once your programme committee has developed an outline programme, and identified the themes and topics to be addressed, such as best practice, strategic, or tactical approaches, you can start to think about speakers. It is helpful to consider the number of speakers you want or need to invite, and the balance between internal and external as a starting point.
- The keynote VIP speaker is, as you might expect, key to attracting the right participants
If the conference programme is vital to attracting participants, the keynote speaker is perhaps the most important element. If people do not want to hear the keynote speaker, they will question whether the rest of the event will be worthwhile. It is therefore essential to identify at least one VIP keynote speaker that people will want to hear. Getting the right person will also help you to attract other high-quality speakers.
- Organise sessions separately, and delegate responsibility to session leaders
For a multi-session event, allocate responsibility for each session to a session leader from an early stage. The session leaders can then help to write a short introduction to each session, and identify suitable speakers for their session, including back-ups. They can also be involved in selecting the best way to invite each speaker. For example, it is worth considering both who should give the invite and by what method, and choices should be based on views about the best way to get a positive answer.
- If possible, hold some sort of call competition for speakers, so that you can assess them
One option for ensuring that you have the best speakers is to invite potential speakers to submit brief proposals or speech abstracts, and review them all. This will show you who is prepared to engage with your event objectives, and also who is most likely to deliver an interesting presentation. The programme committee should be heavily involved in the review and selection process, which should be linked back to the event objectives. You will, of course, need to inform the selected and non-selected speakers.
- Be prepared to provide some guidance to speakers about what you expect or recommend
The curator of TED talks, Chris Anderson, notes that very few people are naturally good speakers or presenters. If you want a really good presentation at your event, it may be worth providing some guidance notes. Anderson recommends suggesting focusing on a single idea, questions to provoke curiosity, and use of simple language. He also has a checklist of things speakers should avoid, such as long explanations of what the session is about.