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Guide on the Side - The Care and Feeding of Speakers

By Marie Wallace, Published on October 1, 1999

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.


Speakers do for organizations what pollinators do for plants--germinate, stimulate and cross-fertilize ideas. Without speakers, there would be no professional conferences, continuing education or entertaining programs.

Operating unseen behind each speaker is a caretaker or "a guide on the side" handling the production details that make for a speaker's success. What do you need to know about the care and feeding of speakers to be an effective caretaker? What can you expect of this person if you are a speaker?

It is mostly common sense and courtesy. No matter how renown or expert, speakers are still human beings. This means that they are unable to read minds. They need to be briefed on their audience, the physical layout and the objectives of the program. Every speech entails an element of risk. (The unexpected happens. Guide 20) Speakers are comforted to know someone is managing the safety net.

Working with a speaker is in three phases: before, during and after. Each step is a collaborative effort between the speaker and the caretaker.

Before - The Set-up Phase

After identifying a potential speaker with relevant expertise and experience, (see previous column on finding a speaker) find out whether the person is available on the prescribed date and agreeable to speaking on the topic.  Discuss the remuneration (honorarium or expenses) arrangements you are authorized to make. The invitation is actually a short persuasive speech and is usually by made by phone but if you know the speaker, arrange to do it in person.

Assuming the person is available and interested, follow up immediately with a confirmation letter covering the details discussed and what the speaker needs to know:

  • Date, day and time
  • Place and directions
  • Name of the group and its purpose
  • Occasion (retreat, subject specific conference, annual meeting)
  • Subject and title, if agreed upon at this point or when it needs to be finalized
  • Type of speech (keynoter, discussion, panel, panel moderator, debate, roast)
  • Audience demographics (professions, career levels, age range, gender, background)
  • Group's interest in the subject and level of knowledge about it
  • Learning outcome of the speech (inform, persuade or entertain)
  • Size of anticipated audience
  • Length of time expected to speak
  • Room and seating arrangement options
  • Equipment the speaker requested
  • Honorarium or expense arrangements, procedures, forms and timeline
  • Who the program moderator is, you or some one else
  • Whether program materials, outline or handouts are expected
  • Any deadlines for submitting program materials or requesting equipment
  • Other speakers on the program or panel, their sub-topics and the speaking order
  • If part of a larger conference, whether the invitation includes a registration to the full program
  • Whether a meal is included (if so, menu options)
  • Whether staff, spouse, family or significant others are invited
  • Will proceedings be published and in which format(s) (print, video, audio, Web)
  • Copyright releases required
  • Travel arrangements required (pick up at the airport, meet at train station)

Send a copy of the printed program, announcement or newsletter describing the program and/or the speaker when they become available. Make reminder calls regarding any interim deadlines. Since arrangements are often made many months in advance, it is important to keep in contact on a regular basis.

Make a final reminder call several days before the program. Confirm directions, equipment arrangements and who to look for at the meeting place or registration desk. Make a plan for keeping in touch for any last minute problems. You may be in a hotel for a three-day conference and on the second day the speaker needs to reach you, how will they do it? Although speakers take their commitments seriously there can always be an unexpected death in the family, a serious illness, or accident.  Plan for a back-up caretaker as well in the event you are derailed.

Remuneration - Fee or Free?

Deal with this at the outset so there are no awkward misunderstandings later. What is your organization's budget and/or policy? What kind of arrangements are you authorized to make? Novice caretakers often feel awkward discussing fees or honoraria, seeing the invitation as a form of begging. "We think you are great but we can't pay you." Keep in mind that except for professional speakers, who make a living speaking, presenters have a number of reasons to accept speaking engagements other than money: opportunity to challenge established ideas, publicize an innovation, make new contacts, establish credentials or gain experience.

Program Chairs in non-profit settings at the regional level usually have limited funds for speaker expenses so they use local talent, confining expenses to parking and a meal. Program planners working with national continuing education programs or for profit organizations, find themselves working with more experienced speakers who expect a fee or honorarium. If the individual is in high demand and someone in the organization knows the speaker personally, ask that person to pitch the invitation. Sometimes fees are negotiable depending on what is in it for the speaker.

During - The Performance Phase

Arrange for the speaker to test out any equipment to be used. If others are using the room before, make sure someone sees to it that they exit the facility as scheduled. Give the speaker a copy of the program and audience handouts. Review the procedure for Q & A. Indicate where the speaker will sit before speaking and who will be handling the introduction. (As part of the Set-up phase, the caretaker will have acquired sufficient biographical background for a brief and enthusiastic introduction which connects the audience, the subject and the speaker.)

Designate a trouble shooter for any problems that may arise during the speaker's presentation--everything from need more chairs to equipment failure to loud music from a rock and roll group rehearsing next door. Larger conferences have a team of caretakers linked with walkie talkies to coordinate details and emergencies.

Speakers need structure to begin and end on time. Ask the speaker what time signals are preferred. Select a method that does not involve interrupting the speaker. Unobtrusively keeping the program on schedule is a mark of an experienced caretaker.

Assign one person to "meet and greet" the speaker (this may be you or someone else) to connect the speaker with key people in the program--President, program chair, other speakers. Orient the speaker to procedures, layout, the room and restrooms.

If there is more than one speaker, have all the speakers in the program module to meet, perhaps share a meal, to iron out time and subject coverage questions. Nothing dispirits a speaker more than to hear the speaker before wander into his/her territory.

After - The Wrap-up Phase

Escort or transition the speaker to the departure point or next session of the program. Make arrangements for required transportation. If the person is staying for the remainder of the program and there are meals involved, be sure they are invited to a table with others. This may be delegated if the caretaker has continuing responsibilities.

Send a letter of appreciation promptly after the event. Include reimbursement of expenses and honoraria. You may want to include a summary of the evaluations for the speaker and forward e-mails and voice mails that are especially enthusiastic.

While most organizations provide for evaluations from the audience, few have feedback trajectories from the speaker to evaluate the arrangements from the speaker's perspective. Did the caretaker do what was expected? Does the speaker want to work with the organization again? Caretakers (and organizations) need feedback to improve their performance. The proper care and feeding of speakers is also important public relations. Careless, untrained or arrogant caretakers give an organization a bad image, make speakers reluctant to accept future invitations and rob audiences of peak experiences.