Dear Association X (insert your association name here):
I have been a member of your association for several years. I am writing this open letter to you about your annual conference and event speakers, and how they map to my professional development needs.
For the past several years, I have attended your annual meetings and listened to your speakers. I have walked into your general sessions and listened attentively to your choice of keynote speakers. I have sat there and wondered why you chose that speaker and what you were trying to convey, especially if it was the opening general session or luncheon speaker.
And, I’m still perplexed.
I don’t understand why you have paid five- and six-digit fees to secure marquee names like Nancy Brinker, Jeff Corwin, Bill Cosby, Nancy Grace, Jay Leno, Collin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Barbara Walters or any other famous person. We can turn on the TV or click on a website and watch these people any time. Unless they have something specific to say to my job, my industry and my work, I don’t want to hear them. And your insistence to use them only repels me from attending these sessions.
So why do you keep hiring speakers for your general sessions that are not relevant to my professional life? Do you actually think that a big name famous person helps convince my boss that the company should pay for my attendance to your event? Do you really believe the bull from that the speaker bureau representative that the marquee name will put butts in chairs?
So does that marquee name cause me to want to pay for your registration fee? NO! Actually, it causes me to question whether you really know me, my wants and needs. It makes me wonder if you understand your members and our work at all.
OK, I agree that some sports figures will put butts in chairs. And some politicians will too. So when you put a big name like Sarah Palin or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on your agenda for a general session, you will attract an audience. And you will also divide your audience because your speaker cannot speak to the industry without taking political sides. So you attract half of your membership and distance the other half. Is that worth it?
Yes, I understand that you’ve negotiated a great discounted rate with the speaker’s agency. And yes, I understand that your intentions are to motivate and inspire me. And yes, I get that the speaker may have a worthy cause such as the environment.
But seriously, what does their “universal message for the masses” have to do with my professional and personal life? Will it help me do my job better? Is there relevant practical information provided in their speech? Is it memorable? Are their takeaways I can apply immediately?
Or is their message another moving moment of cotton-candy fluff? Is it a message that tugs on my heart strings, get’s my emotions going and I promptly forget as I walk out of the room?
And when you pick four or five professional speakers that talk about “universal messages” and don’t customize anything for your audience, I feel like you’ve made a deal with the speaker bureau to showcase speakers so others will hire them. If I wanted to go to a speaker’s showcase, I would. If I wanted to attend a day of “Motivational Messages,” I would.
And why do you allow speaker selection by committee or board members? Why do you crowdsource the speakers? Why do you continue to take speaker proposals and only select speakers from those proposals?
Do you pick the conference location and venue by committee? Do you pick your AV team and food and beverage by committee?
Of course you don’t! You allow the experts, those skilled in hotel contracts and negotiations to secure your venue. You depend upon your meetings professional to work with the local venue’s chefs or catering managers to choose the right food and beverage for your audience. You hire an AV company that has expertise, great equipment and strong opinions on how to make your event shine.
So why do you insist on allowing the content, the meat, the main product of your conference to be chosen by committee and board members? Oh yeah, it’s political and those people think they know best. But does that serve us, your members?
Don’t you think you should allow experts in education, speaking and training to choose your content and meat? Don’t you think you should allow those that are skilled in finding speakers that understand the neuroscience of presentations help guide your content? Don’t you want people who have experience with adult education helping design your general sessions?
Sure you do.
So, stop it. Stop the madness now. Stop choosing marquee names unless they have something specific for our industry. Only bring us a big name if they are willing to customize their canned speech for the conference’s theme and the industry. Stop fooling yourself that a motivational message from a speaker of a feel-good cause is the right thing to do. It isn’t! It only works if the audience profession is related to that issue.
Of course you should still offer a call for speaker proposals. Sure you should still take suggestions from your speaker’s bureau rep. Absolutely, you should allow your annual conference committee to have input and score speaker proposals. And yes, you should crowdsource topics–not speakers–topics. And you should leave the final content and speaker decisions to a team of experts, not the Board, the committee or even the Association executive.
Just remember, as the association, it’s your job to get out in front of the industry and lead us. It’s your job to show us what’s new and next, not what’s now and yesteryear. It’s your job to lead me, your member to new ideas and better ways of business. It’s your job to bring us relevant, timely, current information. It’s your job to secure experts at molding the conference content.
If you don’t, I’ll stop going to your conference. And, I’m not the only one that will stop. Many of my association friends will too. We’ll say you’ve become status quo and not connected with your members.
We’ll use the “I” word. We’ll say you’ve become irrelevant.
And as my association friend Jeff De Cagna says, “What could be a clearer indication of your irrelevance than the announcement (and subsequent debate) of your own relevance?”
Your dues-paying member.