I do a lot of talks, and I’ve worked with event organizers ranging from awesome to, uh, not so great. I’ve found that how the organizer handles me, both before and during the event, has a definite effect on my performance. And so the purpose of this post is really simple — it’s to help you, the organizer, make it possible for your speaker to do a great job at your event.
In your invitation, say why you’re inviting the person and what you hope they’ll talk about. Tell them how they’d fit into the event — e.g., would they be keynoting, in plenary, a workshop, opening or closing. Are you flexible on the format. How long would the talk be. What’s the expected audience size. What’s the date and location. Do you pay, and if so how much. How do you handle travel.
(If you’re inviting me, you send all this to the Lavin Agency.)
The planning stage
Once your speaker’s accepted, have a call or exchange some mails. Tell your speaker how many people will be at the event and what they’re like demographically, what kind of work they do, what they know or don’t know about the speaker’s topic. Are they at the event to work/learn, or is it more of a junket or social experience. Why will they be in the room and how will they feel about it.
The most useful things organizers have ever told me: “everybody is very angry about [x recent thing], and it will be an undercurrent to all the questions”; “really this is their holiday: they will just want to enjoy themselves” and “we are very interested in this topic but we are Finnish so nobody will ask questions.” The better your speaker understands the audience, the better a job they will do.
Then, send one email with all the logistical information. It needs to include the date and time and location of the talk including the full street address; the talk duration including split between presentation and Q and A; formatting practicalities (e.g., aspect ratio, acceptable formats), and contact information including cell numbers for anyone the speaker might need to reach during the event. Ideally it’ll also describe the room and AV setup (e.g., what kind of microphone, will there be a confidence monitor, size of screen, how the seating will be configured). It’s awesome if you can attach a photo of the room. Personally I’m always really interested in screen size and room brightness, because a big screen in a dark room lets me emphasize visuals, but the opposite does not.
The mail should tell your speaker what time to arrive, where to go and who to ask for. If you’re arranging travel, it should include those details too, even if the speaker already has them.
Essentially, you want this mail to contain all the practical information that the speaker might need, then or later. The more structured the better, so it can be parsed by applications like TripIt and Google Now.
Then, in the weeks leading up to the talk, send your speaker a couple of reminder mails. It’s easy for talks to slide off people’s radar, and more than once I’ve appreciated prompts that the day is getting closer :/
Day of the talk
Empathize with your speaker! He or she has spent dozens or maybe hundreds of hours getting ready for your event. They may have travelled a long distance. They may be jet-lagged or not-yet-caffeinated or distracted by something happening at home. They may be nervous. Your job on the day of the event is to help them get into the right performative headspace.
To that end, make sure there’s somebody assigned to greet your speaker and get them settled. That person should be present, knowledgeable and friendly. If they don’t know the speaker’s work, it’s polite to vaguely pretend otherwise. I once watched a speaker’s confidence visibly degrade when a stressed-out stage manager asked him, for the fifth time in five minutes, how to spell his name.
Ideally you want to let the speaker do a quick rehearsal onstage, at least an hour beforehand. This is the opportunity to sort out any glitches such as missing adaptors, dead batteries or broken deck formatting. It also gives your speaker a chance to get used to the stage, which can be helpful because stages are often squeaky or creaky or bouncy or otherwise weird. Once I spoke from one where the audience and I were separated by 27 feet of yawning open orchestra pit, and I spent the entire talk reminding myself not to fall in. Better to discover and adapt to that stuff beforehand.
This is also a point at which your speaker might ask for some adjustments. I do this a lot. I’ll ask for chairs to be moved around, tables to be switched from classroom to tiered style, or changes to the lighting. If you can adapt to the speaker’s preferences, try to — they’re not trying to hassle you, they’re trying to make the audience experience as good as possible.
Give the speaker a green room or other quiet place for at least an hour before the talk. Make sure they have water and have eaten. A live feed of the event is great.
Some organizers seem to feel like it’s part of their job to entertain the speaker, but it really isn’t. Most speakers I know don’t want to chitchat: they want to rehearse mentally, or warm up, or just work quietly. It’s totally fine to use this time to run the introduction past them if you haven’t already, and to tell them if anything important has changed about the set-up or timing. Otherwise, try to ensure they’re left alone.
Make sure there’s water onstage. A glass or open bottle is good; hard-to-open bottles are bad, and the worst are those super-flimsy ones that crackle when you touch them and then spill all over the place :/ If there’s no lectern it’s a good practice to have a small table at the side of the stage for water and miscellanea like the speaker’s phone or notes.
It’s nice to send a quick mail thanking your speaker and telling them about how the talk was received — basically, whatever you heard in the halls afterwards. Most organizers do a good job with this.
None of this is intended to increase organizer stress! Most speakers are super-flexible, and will be fine in imperfect conditions. I did not fall into the orchestra pit! Everything will be okay :)