The quality of your speakers will make or break your event. If your speakers run on time, present compelling content in an easily understood way, and always leave time for Q&A, your attendee experience will be enhanced. Your event will be successful, and you can probably count on greater attendance next year, thanks to good word of mouth and repeat attendees. On the other hand, if your speakers seem self-interested, unprepared, and sloppy about time, you can probably expect the opposite.
The good news is, you’re not completely at the mercy of your speakers’ own pre-event energy and discipline. Yes, it helps to enlist speakers with a proven track record. But even with new speakers, the thoroughness and diligence of your speaker preparation efforts can make all the difference. Here’s what we’ve learned about doing speaker prep well.
The first rule of effective speaker preparation is don’t leave anything to chance. Think through all the questions your speakers are likely to have, no matter how small. Think about when these questions are most likely to arise. Then, plan a speaker communications strategy that allows you to answer speakers’ questions right as they’re thinking to ask.
For the events we produce here, we’ve developed a standard portfolio of speaker communications (letters and emails) that are shipped periodically during the months leading up to our events. Our goal is to eliminate confusion and uncertainty throughout the speaker-prep process. All signs are that our strategy of over-communication is working effectively.
In terms of what to over-communicate, the details are different for every event (and remember, you should take the time to think them through carefully). But there are certain aspects of speaker prep that are common to all events. Whatever else you do, don’t settle for anything less than complete speaker clarity re: session format & timing, presentations, travel, and day-of logistics.
Session format & timing
Don’t assume your speakers understand what’s expected of them. Early in your speaker communication process, you should be explicit about the structural requirements of each speaker’s session. You want to keep your event moving briskly and on-time, and you want your attendees to feel that your topics have been well-covered and that their questions have been answered fully. Critical information to convey includes:
- Date, time and length of scheduled session
- Session format (single speaker or shared, presentation or panel discussion, Q&A or not, etc.)
- Session setup timing and logistics
Of special note here, regarding running your events on time: speakers often run longer than they think they will. For that reason, we recommend asking your speakers to plan to speak for 75% of their session window. If your session is an hour long, ask the speaker to prepare to speak for 45 minutes, or even a little less if you plan to include Q&A in the session.
We’ve also found that speaker timing improves with practice. Our speaker communication includes a message on the benefits of rehearsing a presentation. You can’t force speakers to rehearse, but a little encouragement is easy to provide, and it may help your event run on time.
Many (most?) events ask speakers to prepare a PowerPoint (or similar) presentation in addition to their prepared remarks. This part of the process is fraught with potential errors. If nothing else, the fact that your speakers won’t all be using the same software and the same operating system can create problems… problems that could make sessions start late and pull your whole event off-track.
To minimize errors, be explicit and detailed in covering presentation requirements with your speakers. It will minimize errors, and it will save you time in the lead-up, by cutting down on the calls you have to field from speakers with technical questions. At a minimum, you should always provide detailed information about:
Available equipment and physical layout. What will the physical layout of the speaker’s area look like? Will there be a podium available? A microphone? Will it be a clip-on or a handheld microphone? How many screens will be visible to the audience? To the speaker? How will the speaker advance her slides? How should she dress? How will the audience be arrayed?
Providing the answers to questions like these will be helpful to your speakers. Even if there’s nothing for speakers to do with the information, it will help them visualize the scenario they’re entering. Being able to visualize makes for a better presentation, and ultimately, a better event.
File type(s) accepted. Will you have the ability to run PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or some combination of these? Which version(s) of them? How about audio-visual content? Should speakers embed A/V content in their presentations, or should it be provided as separate files? If you prefer separate files, what file formats are acceptable?
Aspect ratio. Will you be projecting at 16:9 (widescreen) or 4:3 (traditional)? If you don’t know the answer to this question yourself, it’s something to affirm early. You don’t want to be surprised on site by projection equipment that displays differently than you expected. Confirm that it’s the same for every screen that will be used at your event. In any case, speakers need to know the aspect ratio in advance so they can prepare their presentation files correctly.
Available templates. Are you going to ask that your speakers all use the same presentation template? If so, design your template and get it posted for download early. A fact of life with standard event templates is that you can’t force every speaker to use them, and many speakers just plain won’t. But if you get it up early, you’ll be sure that every speaker who wants to use, can use it.
Presentation sharing. It’s generally accepted that presentation files will be shared with event attendees after the event. Still, you should be explicit in letting speakers know if their content will be shared. It’s the polite thing to do, and it could have an impact on the way they think about their preparation.
Always be clear about what travel expenses, if any, you’ll be picking up for your speakers. Never assume this is something that’s just understood. Misunderstandings about travel expenses will hurt your reputation with a group of people who are, by definition, influential in your space. Whether you’re covering lodging, air travel, or both, be detailed about exactly what is and isn’t covered. If applicable, provide instructions for taking advantage of any group discounts you’ve secured. Speakers should also know whether or not they receive complimentary event registration as part of their participation.
Don’t Leave Them Stranded
Logistics on the day-of might be the part of speaker prep that’s most fraught with danger. Don’t end your speaker prep on a bad note by having speakers arrive at your event with no idea about where to go and what to do.
Let speakers know where to “report” for their sessions. Some events create a “speaker’s lounge” for this purpose. Something as simple as an A/V room works, too. Just make it a private space that’s easy to find and access.
Give each speaker a specific arrival time. Figure out how much time it takes to a get a speaker mic’d up and a presentation loaded. Then, double it. This is the amount of time you need to ask your speakers to arrive before their sessions. For best results, figure this out in advance, and provide each speaker with a specific time for arrival at your meeting point.
Lastly, do you need your speakers to do anything specific when their sessions are complete, or are they on their own? Like everything else in speaker preparation, it will pay off – in goodwill if nothing else – to be detailed and explicit about this as well.