An Open Letter To Association Board Members, Committees, Executives

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.

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  1. Shannon Otto says:

    Fantastic post, Jeff. I don’t have anything to add; I just wanted to say “Amen!”

  2. I would also suggest not to ignore self organized communities. They carry a great deal of value, events and speakers with them – usually at no cost.

    Competition now happens over value. Popstars belong to the 90’s. Our stars are created right here, right now – reputation is not what it used to be.

    Just some thoughts to a beautifully written post.


  3. Deirdre Reid says:

    This is so spot-on. It’s hard to get away from the prestige factor — look who’s coming this year! Some keynotes bring a point of view that an industry or profession needs to hear, but is it the same old canned speech they’ve given to every other trade association? I’ll be sharing this one, Jeff, thanks.

  4. Traci Browne says:

    Thank you Jeff, although if this get’s through to associations you will take away my sleep in mornings. Motivational speaker at breakfast tomorrow…yup, sleep in and extra hour. Magician at lunch…good time to catch up on my e-mails.

    Being a rather snarky person it’s also my filter mechanism. I like to separate those who loved the irrelevant speaker from those who thought it was a waste of time and then try to get to know the latter group better.

  5. Ellen says:

    Jeff — You’ve hit the nail on the conference head!

    Underlying the issue is a continued blurring between “meetings” and “educational events.” Starting a meeting with a stirring, motivational speaker can make sense, as in “Now that we’re all feeling inspired, let’s roll up our sleeves and make a difference.”

    But educationally, there’s no content. Motivational speakers rarely provide any knew information to the audience (I did hear great Mount Everest stories from Jamie Clark a few years back and “learned” about the importance of avoiding native food and packing enough toilet paper for the full Everest climb — not that it’s any knowledge I’ll ever have the opportunity to apply).

    Conferences are still structured for the pre-digital age — that long-gone time when people could only get together at such events.

    So it’s necessary that we challenge the conventional.

    Because the one thing I didn’t read in your “dues-paying member”‘s letter is anything about the cost of such speakers.

    Re-investing all that money into providing the sort of interactive break-out sessions that enable true hands-on training would make a huge difference, especially to those attendees who are being held more accountable than ever to justifying why they need to attend.


  6. Well, I have to admit I was really looking forward to hearing Malcolm Gladwell at PCMA–even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be specific to meetings, the way he thinks sparks me to think differently about other things. File it under “you never know where your inspiration will come from.” I was just reading an article in Wired about how Twitter isn’t counterproductive at work because some random bit of information may be just what you need to jog you out of a rut and into a new direction. Happens to me all the time, especially at conferences. Could be something from a keynoter or a chance hallway conversation.

    So I think there can be value from speakers who may not be directly relevant to the conference’s topic. If we open our minds, we can learn probably more from other professions/mindsets than we would if we stayed purely within the echo chamber. What would be very useful, though, is to have a session after the session for those who wanted to apply what that speaker was talking about to the profession. Too often we walk away just entertained or provoked, but don’t take that next step to see how it could apply to what we do.

    Though I also think there’s nothing wrong with just taking a break to have some fun. While I can’t say I learned anything from it, just thinking about Jason Alexander at PCMA a couple of years ago still cracks me up, and that’s worth something (and yes, he did customize his schtick to meeting planning).

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Shannon, @Deirdre, @Julius, @Traci – Thanks for adding your comments and thoughts, even the “Amens!” Traci, you made me laugh out loud because so many of us do choose which sessions to skip or sleep-in based on the relevancy of a speaker.

      @Ellen – Great point about the blurring of “meetings” and “education events” as well as motivation and content. I also like your comment about reinvesting those speaker dollars into interactive break-out sessions.

      @Sue – I’m right there with you on that one! I think Malcolm Gladwell did have information of use for my professional life and amazingly, I still remember what he had to say. He talked about how successful leaders become over-confident in their decisions and that becomes their downfall. Humility is a trait we all need to embrace more.

      The fact that I remember it is a sign of a good speaker and with content that pertains to my professional and personal life. I think PCMA could have eaisly just hit a homerun if they would have taken five minutes and related Gladwell’s message back to the meetings and hospitality industry. Even further, if they would have allowed 10 minutes for each table to discuss the take away from Gladwel, it would have stuck with many more.

      I also agree that there is a place for a motivation speaker or comic relief. Laughter is good for us and if a speaker chooses to use a comedy routine and customizes it for the industry, I think it’s ok. I’m just tired of going to keynote presentations that have cost the association and it’s membership $25,000-$150,000 in fees and I walk out going, “What was that all about?” The challenge is that the comedy and motiviational messages don’t help sell the conference to the boss.

  7. […] Jeff Hurt, over at Midcourse Corrections, has a great post about opening and keynote speakers, and it made me think about conferences in general… […]

  8. Jeff… first off… AAAAAA-Mennnnn πŸ™‚

    Just as Mike Rowan said on the MiForum, the only thing that upsets me about this post is that I didn’t write it first! Although coming from someone like you I feel it has more meaning and impact!

    Here’s my take on it. As someone who speaks at association and non-association conferences and other meetings, nothing perplexes me more than the fact that almost every single time, I am asked to do it “pro bono” (side note: I no longer accept pro bono unless there is REAL value in it for me… exposure doesn’t count).

    Now here’s what I dont get. Aside from the obvious fact that my programs are intellectual property I work very hard on developing and my bank could care less about my “exposure” value when it’s time to pay my mortgage, is, why is it that, as you said, these organizations are willing to pay SO much money for irrelevant “universal messages” but aren’t willing to pay a dime to the speakers who come and provide the heart of the program which attendees pay good money to take part in.

    I don’t know one person who decides to go to a conference because the keynote is some celebrity. They attend because of the chances to take part in educational seminars that can help expand their professional development. So why not pay those who provide the quality content that planners and suppliers dish out registration money for?

    It’s time to reassess where the real value and draw is for these big conferences and start valuing those that provide that draw.


  9. Justin Locke says:

    well jeff if i may be so bold,

    if someone is doing something unproductive, I always need ask “why?”

    one reason to bring in a big (if irrelevant) name is risk reduction. I saw this every day in the symphonic world. if you run an event and you bring in a big name, it’s hard to find fault with that, at least on the distant managerial year from now performance review surface. If, on the other hand, you do something different, and bring someone no one has ever heard of, and they are dull, or are great but don’t sell tickets, uh oh. who would risk that ?

    And then there’s perceived value– if they cost $50,000, they MUST be good.

    And i love my speaker bureaus but let’s be honest, the bigger the name, the bigger the fee, and so the bigger the commission.

    non-communication from management is a big problem these days. it’s a form of stage fright. better to send a big name out on stage and just believe it works than put yourself out where members can tell you what they think of your choices.

    if you really want to be “on the edge” in any performance situation, you have to be willing to take risk, and tho i know i may sound cynical in saying so, in large established organizations there is rarely any individual incentive to do that. it’s called the law of inertia, not the guideline of inertia.

    And then where to find decent speakers? there are thousands of speakers out there, and every single one says they’re great. The noise is overwhelming.

    picking speakers is lot like being a DJ or programming a symphony concert. the role of gatekeeper is a tough one. divining what people will like is hard. can’t miss with chocolate and vanilla. at least the complaints will be the lowest.

    that said, yeah, i agree with you 100% πŸ™‚ go get ’em. jl

  10. As a non-celebrity, content and skill-building-focused, adult learning-oriented “speaker” (learning facilitator?) I am pleased to read your post, Jeff. From the comments and the fact that your post was linked to (terrible grammar!) from a meetings professionals’ forum to which I belong, there is a clear indication that many more people share your point of view. I will pass this “letter” on to some of my NSA (not the security administration) colleagues as your perspective is encouraging to those of us who struggle with getting business BECAUSE we are sans celebrity status and more practiced at partnering with clients and focusing on educational, real-world-application value.

  11. I, too, have heard compelling speakers like Nancy Brinker and Catherine Cryer, only to wonder what the point was. They are fascinating and inspiring, but completely unrelated to the industry. Thank you for making such great points in such a creative style!

  12. Dave Lutz says:

    Wow, it looks like we struck a nerve with this post! I guess my question is, doesn’t anyone include their thoughts in their evaluations or voice their opinion? I’m kind of like Traci Browne. If I see something on the agenda that doesn’t appeal to me, I try to schedule time to meet with someone or work the hallways…but then again, I usually make decisions on attending conferences more based on who else is going to be there, than the content. So on a survey, I show up as a n/a. Maybe we all need to pay more attention to the n/a’s and ask why didn’t they attend?

    At PCMA, like Sue and Jeff I really loved Gladwell. He’s so damn smart and is an incredible story teller! That’s my opinion. I’ve heard from some people that they didn’t get moved by him. I’m thinking that if Gladwell would have done a better job of customizing his presentation to the meeting industry, he would have knocked the ball out of the park.

    Don’t you want to leave a legacy of having more people applying your thoughts and ideas? Someone like Gladwell can do a lot for taking a tactical thinker to a strategic one. That will happen more through customization.

    Keep the comments coming. We’re on to something.

  13. Wendy says:

    You are so right on target with this message – thank you!

    The best “big name” to speak at an industry conference is a big name in that industry! As said, if there is a general message that can be shared that is relevant to the industry then fine. But the best speaker is one whose message I remember years later… or at least quotes I can remember that long.

    Hope your message makes it into the right hands to make a difference – or that it sparks a grassroots movement that makes the associations sit up and take notice.

    Thanks for a worth-reading blog – I’d attend your session!

  14. It sounds like at least some of us do think there’s still room at the podium for non-industry speakers (celebs or not), as long as they either are willing to customize their message to the audience, or the conference organizers set aside some time to facilitate a discussion of how to take that speaker’s message and apply it to that particular audience.

    Eli, here’s hoping that someday we will be willing and able to pay non-celeb speakers what they’re worth (which is not, BTW, “exposure”). I think most would agree that these people are the ones who bring the meat and potatoes, info-wise, to any meeting. Why they aren’t deemed worth paying I can’t figure out, other than organizers have been getting away with not paying for so long that they expect free stuff. Kind of like, well, the Internet, isn’t it?

    Though not directly related to speakers (it’s more aimed toward soc med), I’d be curious to see how people put this discussion together with this LA Times column about how we’re turning back toward experts and key opinion leaders and away from peers as learning sources:

  15. Stephanie Selesnick says:

    Right on Jeff!
    Another one of those “why’s” are those so called, “Power Panels” with important members of the industry who are never going to answer the tough questions or address the “elephant” in the room. Yes, we want to see the leaders of our industry talk about where they think we are headed – but HONESTLY. Some groups (SISO) do it well. Others do not.

    If we wanted to hear the party line, we’d read the press releases, not go to the session.

  16. Wes Bleed says:

    As a speaker who competes against the celebrities, I have to applaud big name speakers who have a generic message but can still target their message to a specific audience. Speakers should teach, entertain and motivate; at least two out of three. We’ve all seen the so-called industry expert who’s dry as sand.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      ‘@Eli Thanks for commenting and adding to the discussion!

      @Justin You always provide some interesting perspectives and insight. Thank you for doing that.

      @Sylvia & @Carrie Appreciate you stopping by and adding your input. Sylvia – I like that tearm, “learning facilitator.”

      @Wendy Appreciate your point of view.

      @Sue I agree that there is still room at the podium for non-industry related speakers and think our attendees need that fresh insight. I just want those speakers to help apply their content to our industry. The best learning takes place when the presenters do the obvious and help us listeners make those connections.

      @Stephanie. Amen! Amen! Amen to getting rid of “Power Panels” that are powerless to provide us with thoughtful insight. I’m right there with you on that one.

      @Wes – Thank you for pointing out that some industry speakers are as dry as sand. I totatlly agree that the professional speaker that can target their message for the conference audience is the one to consider!

  17. […] Jeff Hurt got a lot of discussion going this week with his Open Letter to Association Board Members, Committees, Executives. He’s tired of associations paying big money for celebrity speakers when they don’t […]

  18. Maddie Grant says:

    Still LMAO’ing at Traci Browne’s comment three days later. Awesome!

    I think there’s also a difference between having a big thinker (someone mentioned Malcolm Gladwell) who has meaningful and thought-provoking things to say, even if they are not specifically industry-relevant, but are selected based on a fit with the overall theme of a conference – and having some famous person (like Oprah) just because they are famous.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      BINGO! You win! I 100% agree.

      And the killer app is when the big thinker like Gladwell or Dan Pink provide meaningful, thought-provoking content and then can tie it back to the industry attendees. If that speaker won’t, it’s as easy as having a industry panel recap what was taught and applying it to the industry. Or better yet, follow up with a breakout session that allows attendees to discuss, digest and devour the content. Then they can help each other apply it to their personal and professional lives.

      If more conference organizers would just tweak the schedule and follow those general session thought leader’s with discussion groups, everyone would win. Then the thick heads in the room that didn’t get it or didn’t like it, would suddenly have to engage with it. Oops, did I type that? Most be channeling someone else. Bueller? Bueller?

  19. Midcourse Corrections » An Open Letter To Association Board Members, Committees, Executives…

    Dear Association X: Why do you keep hiring big-name speakers who are not relevant to the conference theme, our industry, or my professional life?…

  20. […] that has happened in the last week, and specifically discussing a couple of posts by Jeff Hurt (An Open Letter To Association Board Members, Committees, Executives and Two Reasons Why Crowdsourcing Your Conference Content Won’t Work) that sparked huge […]

  21. […] Members, Committees, Executives March 3, 2010 by NSA Wisconsin Bill Geist points us to a great article by Jeff Hurt, a true thought leader in the meetings industry. The article, written as an open letter to […]

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