Best practices in vetting speakers

We’ve all attended programs in the past where the audience feels a significant disconnect with the speaker. I’m not talking about those outlier individuals in every audience who – for one reason or another – just can’t relate. Probably because of my interests and experiences, I’ve been that outlier before. I generally don’t respond well to what I can only describe as cheesy humor or the gratuitous use of props.

No, what I’m talking about in this case is that speaker who’s striking a disconcerting chord with a majority of audience members. Following is only a partial list of reasons the speaker could be severely striking out:

  • Speaker isn’t a content expert – the “meat” of the program is essentially invalid (or outdated) before the program even begins (the program is D.O.A. or dead on arrival).
  • Speaker isn’t familiar with audience demographics – otherwise relevant content is rendered invalid when audience members can’t relate to the speaker’s message or experiences.
  • Speaker isn’t accessible – either perceived or in reality, this individual is unapproachable and, essentially, unsympathetic to the needs of the audience (they may just be in it for the money).
  • Speaker isn’t a skilled presenter – the delivery is uninspired, disorganized and/or confusing.
  • Speaker isn’t a skilled teacher – the speaker fails to play to the strengths of the adult learner and, therefore, the presentation is either boring or disengaging.
  • Speaker isn’t a skilled orator – the pace of the program is either too fast or too slow.
  • Speaker lacks intuition – the speaker fails to recognize during the course of the presentation signs of disconnect, discontent or fatigue.
  • Speaker lacks flexibility – the speaker is unable to respond “on the fly” to the dynamic and changing needs of the audience.
  • Speaker lacks charisma – the speaker is unable to inspire audience buy-in and any subsequent calls to action.
  • Speaker only presents canned programs – enough said.

So, what does this all mean? First of all, don’t underestimate the time, talent and resources necessary to select outstanding speakers for your next program. Second, I’d like to thank and congratulate all of the talented speakers out there who make professionals like me look good day in and day out. You have a difficult job, indeed. Beyond that, it serves as a good reminder that best practices do exist for vetting speakers. A partial list follows:

  • Research your speaker. Track down Web sites, YouTube videos and other collateral that provides some idea of not only the type of content you can expect from a prospective speaker, but also the speaker’s anticipated delivery style. It also helps determine the speaker’s experience presenting to audiences of similar size and scope as yours.
  • Seek client testimonials. Speakers generally have a list of past clients you can contact to discuss the pros and cons of former speaking engagements. Additionally, work your own personal and professional networks to gain additional insight and perspective about the speaker in question.
  • Meet with your speaker. Ask to meet with a prospective speaker before negotiating and signing a contract. Much insight can be gleaned from this interaction, including the speaker’s passion, knowledge and fit (either for your constituents or for a particular program format).
  • Hear your speaker in action. If your speaker will be presenting locally, ask for you and a colleague (maybe even the conference chairperson) to sit in on the session. Observe the speaker’s presentation style and connection with the audience. After the program ends, pay particular attention to the chatter as participants exit the room and the number of people who approach the speaker for follow-up. If books are available for sale, this can also be a tell-tale sign.
  • Demand customization. Absolutely require that your speaker customize a presentation that fits the needs of your audience and the objectives of the program. Any and all personal touches will make the program that much more meaningful, relatable and enjoyable for your audience.

So, my question to you is this: What other strategies do you employ to vet prospective speakers? What one recommendation have you found most helpful in vetting speakers that helps ensure exceptional learning experiences for your constituents?

2 Responses to “Best practices in vetting speakers”

  1. November 11, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Great observations and suggestions, Aaron. I think client testimonials and viewing the speaker in action are the best. When you have mediocre speakers who know a lot, you can use a vibrant moderator to lead the speaker through the session. The speaker provides the knowledge and the moderator provides the charisma and the group management.

  2. November 11, 2011 at 2:48 pm


    I love your thoughts on program moderators. I agree 100 percent that a dynamic moderator who can effectively support the success of one or more speakers without being distracting or obtrusive to the flow of a program can be a winning combination. My best experience with this model was at ASAE’s Invitational Forum on Leadership and Management in Toronto, Canada earlier this year. Of course the speakers were all extraordinary content experts; however, forum provocateur Gregory Balestrero, president and CEO of the Project Management Institute, did a great job making the material more accessible for association professionals of varying experience levels. I greatly appreciated his contributions to the program and I do believe that my learning was enhanced through his role and contributions to the conference format.

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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