I’ve had some conversations recently with colleagues looking for speakers for conferences, professional development (PD) events or workshops. They’ve said that they don’t really know where to start looking and find themselves in that classic quandary… “We need someone good… Really, really good… And we have a limited budget!” Where to start?
In 2010 I was inducted into the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS) and I realized that there’s a big gap, a chasm almost, between the world of corporate meeting planners and the non-profit volunteer conference organizing committees. I talk to dozens of professional speakers who are aching to speak at more non-profit and educational events… and volunteer organizers who just don’t know where to find great speakers. There must be a way to get both groups connected!
Here are some tips that may help…
Decide on your budget
Whether you’re working with an entire committee or you’re one person charged with the responsibility of finding an amazing speaker, you’ll want to figure out how much you have to spend. Your budget will generally include two parts:
- Speaking fee
- Travel and accommodation
Some speakers have an “all in” fee that includes travel, meals and accommodation. Keynote speeches for non-profit events start at about $500 and go up to $10,000. The fee is often a combination of what the organization can afford and the speaker’s rates. $5000 for a keynote speaking fee is about average, but there is a great deal of variance.
Prospective clients sometimes ask me if I will speak for free. The answer is yes, but there are some rules.
Have a clear idea of what kind of speaker you want
Every event wants someone “good”, but what does that mean to you? Do you want your speaker to entertain, educate or both? Usually, it’s a good idea to get someone who is knowledgeable or an advocate of your subject area. Don’t get in a mechanics expert for a group of literacy practitioners. Make sure your speaker has either worked in the field or is a champion of it.
Beware of the “I need to work” types who will claim to be a supporter of your cause just because they need a gig. A quick Google search can help you figure out who’s really in your corner.
Use your networks to find good speakers
Ask your colleagues, teachers and others for recommendations. Keynoters often get work due to referrals and word of mouth. Don’t be afraid to ask people around you who comes to mind when they think of an engaging presenter. Use professional listservs, Twitter and other social media to get recommendations, too.
Put out a call for keynotes or plenary speakers
Conferences put out calls for presenters, but don’t often do the same for keynotes or plenaries because they fear that the quality of those who might apply would be lower than if they conducted the search themselves. That’s kind of like saying that a university only accepts students they seek out and they don’t accept applications. Putting out a call for keynotes is a great way to find high quality speakers who are building a reputation – particularly if your budget is very limited. Do an RFP (Request for Proposals) and be clear in your call what fee range you’re looking for, then speakers who are working in that range are likely to apply.
Check out your local professional speaking organization
Really, professional speakers are not as expensive as you may think! There is a stereotype about professional speakers that they have a certain approach (a la Tony Robbins, for example). While it’s true that there are many motivational or inspirational professional speakers, there are also hundreds who specialize in speaking to non-profit and educational audiences.
Professional speaking organizations are usually national organizations. Members must meet a strict set of professional criteria (such as a minimum number of paid speaking engagements per year, letters of reference, etc.) before being inducted into a major national organization. These big organizations are often divided further into state or provincial chapters.
Look for evidence of past success
Good speakers have a track record of success.
In the United States, it is pretty much de rigueur that speakers will have a demo video in the form of a CD, a DVD or a YouTube video. In Canada this may be true for corporate speakers, but has yet to fully catch on for non-profit and philanthropic speakers.
At the very least, a speaker should have testimonials and a list of past clients. Ask for recommendations. Check for a calendar of past or upcoming events. With or without a video, a good indicator of success is a full speaking schedule.
Travel and Accommodation
If there’s one thing that is non-negotiable, it’s travel and accommodation. Your speaker may have traveled all day to get to your event. A hot shower, a clean room and a good meal are a relief after a long day of travel.
Having a greeter at the airport is a nice touch that many non-profit conference organizers overlook.
If you’re trying to save on costs, here’s a tip: Hotel food is often high in calories and not very interesting. Many speakers will appreciate a home cooked meal at the home of a conference organizer. This gives your speaker a chance to get to know you and enjoy some social time.
Allow speaker product sales
I’m baffled by conferences that require speakers to rent a booth in order to sell their products. I suspect that thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars a year are lost at non-profit events because the conference has a policy against product sales. Unless the speaker travels with an assistant, they likely won’t have the time to set up a booth and sell product.
An experienced speaker will likely be busy reviewing their notes or doing other preparations before the presentation – as they should. Once a speaker factors in the cost of a booth, plus the cost of an assistant to set up that booth and sell the product, most, if not all of the revenue they would have made is gone. So, speakers abide by conference policies and leave their books, workbooks, CDs and DVDs at home.
A better option: Set up a table at the back of the room where the speaker is giving his or her presentation. Have a conference volunteer work at that table in exchange for a percentage of the gross sales (20% to 30% of total sales is common). If a speaker sells $500 in books and splits the revenue 70/30 with the conference, then the conference makes $150. The speaker takes away $350, from which he or she will need to pay the costs of production (book printing), packaging and shipping. In the end, it works out to a pretty fair split.
Develop a relationship with your speaker
Don’t think of this as one-time gig. This is your opportunity to develop an on-going relationship with someone. Your speaker may help to promote your event by posting about it on Twitter, Facebook or other social media. They may mention you on their blog or find other ways to drive traffic to your website and positive attention to your organization. Non-profit speakers usually have a deep emotional attachment to their field. They want to get to know you and those you serve. If you develop a relationship, that same person may join you again for future events. Figure out how you can help each other succeed and I guarantee you that you’ll get quality speakers that your audiences will love.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.