It Is Time To Hold Conference Speakers More Accountable


It’s time to hold speakers accountable for attendee learning, not just completed evaluation smile sheets!

It’s time to encourage conference speakers to consciously improve.

And if we want our conference speakers to improve, we need to provide them with information that shows where they need to improve and how to improve.

What Product Does A Conference Sell?

Too often, conference organizers and hosts DO NOT focus on improving the primary product they are selling to potential registrants: education and networking.

Instead they focus on improving and streamlining the logistics like registration, room sets, conference marketing campaigns and speaker processes.

But are those the products that they are really selling when they sell a conference experience? NO! People do not return to a conference because registration was efficient or the marketing was interesting. They decide to return based on their experience. And their primary experience revolves around education and networking. Sure logistics play into that experience but it’s now what we sell.

If the top two reasons that people attend conferences are networking and learning, doesn’t it make sense that it’s time for conference organizers to work on improving attendee networking and learning opportunities?

It Is Time!

It’s time for conference organizers and hosts to invest in improving attendee networking and learning opportunities.

It’s time to move from being speaker centric to learner centric seeing attendees as learners.

It’s time to encourage conference speakers to consciously improve.

It’s time for conference organizers to provide activities, programs and resources that help speakers get better.

It’s time to provide better feedback and evaluation after each individual session so speakers know what needs to improve.

It’s time for conference organizers to select speakers that deliver learning opportunities and not just lectures!

It’s time to realize that conferences are for the paying attendee, not for speakers.

It’s time to not fear being held captive by securing free speakers. Many speakers do want to improve and just need direction.

And it’s time to move away from the member-speaker entitlement syndrome to a focus on attendee learning. Remember learning is change. Learning requires thinking, reflection, connecting and consideration of application. It does not require a member-speaker

What Conference Organizers Can Provide To Improve Presentations

So how can conference organizers help their speakers become better presenters? They can share:

Remember, it’s time to hold speakers, both professional and volunteers, accountable for attendee learning, not just completed speaker smile sheets!

How can conference organizers hold speakers accountable, especially if they are free presenters? What do conference organizers need to create a speaker quality improvement plan?

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  1. Heidi Thorne says:

    As a speaker, one might think that I’d get defensive at these suggestions. Rather, I agree that events need to get away from just providing “entertainment” to fill the seats and the time between when attendees arrive and leave.

    Every one of the “It Is Time” comments could foster an entire discussion! However, I’d like to focus on the free speaker and member-speaker entitlement issues. These days I rarely do free engagements, save for a rare “donation” to a civic or nonprofit effort. It is time for event organizers to consider it “learning.” One would hardly expect a school to ask teachers to teach for free. So why is this such a pervasive problem in the events world?

    While member-speakers can be very competent and do understand the industry, it doesn’t provide that outside perspective that can liven things up.

    One other speaker problem is the sponsor-speaker. I’ve been approached by groups who wanted me on their agenda, but then turned around and asked me to pay a few grand to do so. Not the way to get an excellent educational event. However, I do think that sponsors covering the costs of great speakers, with speakers chosen by the association or event (not the sponsor), is a good way to help defray the costs of a true learning event.

    Thanks, Jeff, for opening the dialog!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation. I really liked your point that we wouldn’t ask teachers to teach for free. There is a cost to learning and we need to recognize that. I also appreciate you bringing up “Pay to Play” speakers which can really ruin a conference experience!

  2. Jeff-
    I would add one other:

    It’s time for conference organizers to SELECT their speakers (and panelists) to meet their meeting objectives rather than to “fill a slot”, to provide payback for a quid pro quo, or that they didn’t know what else to do with a high-profile executive/member.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, yes, yes! Great addition and thanks for adding it!

  3. Peggy Duncan says:

    Absolutely, Jeff, speakers should be held accountable! Yes Heidi! I turned down more business in 2013 than I ever have because of this trending notion that it’s OK to budget for everything except the main reason people paid to come…the educators. I posted a topic on LinkedIn about this, and it’s a top conversation.

    I deliver value that attendees are still benefiting from years later, and I do it to make a living. I spend countless hours staying current so I can deliver training they can use immediately. I couldn’t continue to do this if planners are encouraged to engage us for free in exchange for “exposure” to more people who want us for free.

  4. Great points, Jeff. As a speaker, let me also chime in:
    Let’s get away from thinking about “extras” as things to improve the value equation for our conference organizer clients, and instead thinking about which extras help improve the learning environment for the attendees: active participation in association LinkedIn groups, reference sheets that are not just disguised marketing pieces, private access to a post-event resource site, pre-and-post webinars, etc, etc. And thank you, meeting organizers, that there is actually some LEARNING value to these pieces – and that “free” speakers can’t afford to underwrite the creation of these tools.

  5. Kathy Condon says:

    Smiled when I read this for I actually can provide both to an Event Planner. Networking in person is now even more important since most of our time is spent online–communicating with people we have never actually met. My topic “Face-to-Face Networking in the Digital Age” actually helps with both accounts…when placed at the beginning of a conference, attendees can practice the tips they learned in my presentation during the entire conference. It is a rare subject that can be taught then used immediately and start seeing results.

  6. Amen to the end of member-speaker entitlement!! Learner needs are rarely considered when speakers are selected by political appointment.

    Let’s go one step further: instead of encouraging speakers to improve, should organization hire speakers based on their ability to create those learning experiences? I think so.

    But the biggest obstacle here is the willingness to pay for that talent. Until we truly understand what “free” speakers can provide and the difference between them and the pro’s who’ve mastered adult learning, lack of learning will be an issue.

  7. Susan RoAne says:

    Holding speakers accountable for learning outcomes makes sense only if that applies across the board. It’s my experience that conference chairs hire costly BIG NAME main stage speakers as the “draws” without a single thought to take away value or learning outcomes (Other than being able to say, “I heard so and so.)”
    To focus the learning outcomes mantra on free speakers makes me think conference organizers ought to rethink the distribution of funds and fees.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with you that meeting planners get what they paid for. Great addition to the discussion.

      Thanks for reading and reaching out. I really liked your addition to the discussion of “…instead thinking about which extras help improve the learning environment for the attendees.” Beautiful point!

      Can I first say I am a fan and evangelist of yours?!?!?! I’ve read your enews for years so it was great to see you reading VCC and adding your insights. We great appreciate it.

      I wanted to scream this quote from you from the mountaintops: “Let’s go one step further: instead of encouraging speakers to improve, should organization hire speakers based on their ability to create those learning experiences? I think so.” You’re speaking our language. And we are seeing a movement for some organizations to do so!

      We greatly appreciate your willingness to continue this discussion with your thoughts. Yes, we’ve seen many conferences politically hire big name speakers thinking it puts butts in chairs. VCC & Tagoras continued their speaker research this past year and the trend to hire big name speakers for keynotes is decreasing. There is a trend to hire speakers that have conversations with the audience and help a profession or industry grow. The research is loud and clear that a marquee name speaker does not cause someone to register so organizations are starting to look for more effective presentations than the halo effect of a big name.

  8. Love this conversation and have to add a corollary to the “you get what you pay for” aspect of free speakers… It is absolutely bizarre to me that any conference planner, no matter how small the event, would include a speaker on their agenda based solely on a written proposal, published research, or a CV. I am SHOCKED at how many RFPs I see that do not require a DVD submission of a previous presentation, a link to an online video clip, or even a reference from a previous conference planner! It makes sense for invited speakers that have been scouted or recommended by a committee member who has seen them speak, but I cannot understand under other circumstances why any conference planner would even consider a speaker without actually having seen/heard them present! I no longer attend the “educational” sessions at my own profession’s conferences because I have been disappointed so many times… no matter how interesting the topic, a poor presenter loses my interest within minutes (seconds?). The last time I was a conference chair was back in the olden days, but even then I required speaker candidates to submit an audio tape. In 2014 there is no reason to have a subpar event. If people are paying to attend, they deserve to get something for their dollar besides a seat in a boring lecture. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!

  9. I find a need for more initiative on the part of planners: to make organizational web sites available so that speakers can research and familiarize themselves with the organization, coherent orientation to the organization, and access to a representative cross section of the prospective audience.
    Of course, something other than the abysmal straight row setup up or participants seated at rounds beyond 5 feet across at which they cannot hear or even meet others at the table. [An evaluation of the meeting that includes seating.]
    Meeting planners can also familiarize themselves with additional value they can offer when the budget is low – advertising, membership registration or net cost registration to future events, advertising in organization/association journals/magazines or a link on the web site, introduction by a ranking member of the organization, early spot on the program and good geographical position for the meeting room, book sales allowed and even promoted.
    Attendees (a term of passivity – those attended to)
    need to come with more than “expectations” often unvoiced, but rather with “intentions” as to what they are willing to put into the educational exercise.
    Speaker prep should move beyond content to processes that do more than invite Q & A, rather providing demonstrations, case studies, participation –> engagement–> immersion. My collaboration workshop is so involving that participants have remarked, “This is the best workshop I’ve ever been in, even while it was going on.” Speaker involvement can include assisting presenters from within the organization to improve their approach, provide smoother flow between topics, make it more of a team approach.

  10. Just one more thing… hire speaker who can provide new and intriguing perspective, engaging metaphors, insight into the industry – even new utilization of products or approach to services – and essentially who can go wide, if necessary, and deep. If the speaker is not a quick study – providing the hiring party with some new angle – there probably isn’t going to be much new in the presentation/exchange.

  11. […] It Is Time To Hold Conference Speakers More Accountable […]

  12. ‘@Jeff — thanks for the kind words. Good to know my blog is getting read out there. You provide much needed dialogue in these areas and I’m happy to contribute.

    @Paul, I agree with you about unique angle. Too many “free” speakers just rehash old information without much interaction.

    You also raise a good point about prepping the audience for interaction. That’s why I include something like “Vickie will include her formula on XXX in this interactive session; attendees will have the opportunity to apply these ideas on their branding.” in my session descriptions. My goal is that every attendee leave with some idea or next step specific to them.

  13. Jeff: I agree completely with these responsibilities for conference faculty, and we’re beginning the process of making changes along these lines in our organization. But it’s important to remember that these are all skills that our faculty need to be taught – they don’t come to us naturally knowing these things. It’s not enough to set expectations and then hold our faculty to them without providing them the tools to meet our expectations. That’s going to be our first step: to start a faculty development program to train our planners and presenters.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion. Yes, yes, yes if we are going to hold industry speakers, especially volunteers, accountable, we need to invest in them to help them become better speakers. I’m in agreement with you for sure.

  14. During a press conference at 2014 PCMA Convening Leaders, the question was posed: “If education is so important to your association and if, as you keep pointing out, it’s important for you to keep improving the education you offer, do you have any plans to start paying your speakers? It’s become a hotly debated topic in industry chat rooms.”

    Debra Sexton’s response: “I didn’t realize that was an issue.” And after some stalling for time to collect thoughts, she said that she didn’t think anyone could complain about how they trained their speakers and that they had no plans to compensate their speakers because the good ones would be hired to work elsewhere.

    In the hallways, however, I heard from many, many people that they let their feet do the walking and left many of the concurrent sessions.

    I’m wondering if the people here agree with Sexton that PCMA and large associations shouldn’t be paying their concurrent speakers. Or if you think they need to rethink their policy.

  15. Kristi:

    What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on that wall. Debra’s comments show just how much resistance there is to paying speakers. I think this will be a big change that will only happen when attendees revolt. And even then, many of the larger associations will try to teach the volunteers than invest in the talent professional speakers bring. Short term thinking at best.

  16. I was on the committee for the ASAE Management Conference some years ago. They tried to establish a policy that each speaker would be allowed on site without a registration fee, only for the day on which they presented. This might make sense if the speaker was an ASAE member, for they would be losing a lot of fees. However, for those not members, I responded, “That’s just cheap.” to which the committee momentarily backed off. However, now years later, the practice of “talk and gone” seems well in place, or the requirement that a speaker be a full registrant to begin with. Organizations requiring this could offer a “net cost” registration fee as a minimal concession so that speakers do not have to fund the organization in order to speak.

  17. We Always do ‘our homework’ before we call a speaker, so we know what we expect from the speaker. THis is a process that takes time with our client: brainstorming, reading, knowing what the goal of the conference is a this specific lecture/workshop ánd the ‘look and feel’ of delegates. What do they want to hear, learn in this session. This makes is for the speaker also much more interesting! He or she is more motivated because he/she feels that we put effort in his/her subject! This is a good start towards a special and inspiring session of the speaker. We see it as our role to help a speaker to give his best, by coaching and discussing the session until it is the best in his/her abilities!

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