Demystifying the Speaker Selection Process

An Event Planner Shares Her Inside-the-Industry Tips for Getting that Gig

by Marie Herman

As an event planner, I am responsible for setting up approximately 25-30 or more speakers per year for the various organizations I represent. Here are some insider tips to help you improve your chances of being selected and getting selected again.

Minding Your RFPs and Qs

Be sure to read the request for proposal carefully to ensure that you understand what the event planner is seeking, who the audience is, what the goal of the meeting is, and any other pertinent details that will help you to craft an intelligent and appealing cover letter. And yes - you should be taking the time to write a cover letter e-mail when you respond to the request for proposal. This is your opportunity to shine a spotlight on how you are an ideal choice.

The cover letter allows you to ask questions for those details that will help you to demonstrate your compatibility. Of course you want your questions to be logical and intelligent, but there is nothing wrong with asking for more information about an event in an effort to ensure that your presentation would be an appropriate match. Example of questions that make sense (if not addressed in the request for proposal) would be:

  • What is the makeup of the audience (gender, titles, ages, etc.)?
  • Will the attendees be from a variety of industries or primarily one?
  • What is the average number of years' experience of the audience?
  • What is your goal in holding this event?

Bridging the Relevancy Gap

The single most effective step you can take as a speaker is to bridge the gap between your perhaps-unrelated background and the event planner's audience. Do not make the event planner work to fill in the gaps and imagine ways to force a square peg into a round hole if there is not an immediate fit. I guarantee you there is another speaker lined up right behind you who has already done the work in advance to make the event planner's life easier. Guess who will get chosen?

How can you bridge that gap? Start by acknowledging if your background doesn't "appear" to be a match, but then explain why your unique background gives you a special advantage in understanding the needs of the audience, providing them with a perspective that will help them walk away better for the experience. Show how your background actually allows you to add value to the presentation. Then make sure that what you consider value matches what the event planner and their audience considers value. For example, offering a complete hardback set of the 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica to every attendee, (valued at $1250), is probably not going to be "valued" by a large percentage of the audience.

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Polishing Your Web Presence

Ensure that every communication the event planner is likely to encounter related to you is professional, clear, and complete. Check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. If proofreading is not your skill, utilize someone who has that talent. Confirm that all links on your website work properly, and test the website in different browsers and screen resolutions to be sure that the event planner will see the site the way you designed it. Allow for the possibility that the event planner may be behind a corporate firewall that will prevent them from seeing videos. Take full advantage of every media available to you. E-mail cover memos, a SpeakerMatch profile, your website, marketing materials, etc. Also Google your name to see what is being said about you.

Ask people to critique your website and marketing materials and be brutally frank with their thoughts. It does you and your business no favors if they gloss over the website's shortcomings because they are afraid of hurting your feelings. Better that momentary discomfort than a lost sale because of a poor quality site.

Have an easy-to-locate page that details all your programs with short enthusiastic descriptions. If your programs are niche focused (for instance sales, healthcare, education, etc.), but you are willing to customize them for other niches, be sure to indicate that on the Web page and in communications with the event planner.

A catchy title is a must. And be willing to create a custom catchy title with the organization, too. It should give a sense of what your presentation is about and should ideally include a little humor or wit. It also needs to stand alone as an appealing element of the program.

Preparing for an Encore Presentation

There are a number of steps you can take during and after your first presentation to increase your chances of being considered as a return speaker.

Pay attention to deadlines and be easy to work with. If the event planner asks that you complete a form spelling out audiovisual needs and other details, return that form on time. Have your handouts submitted in advance so they can be copied for all attendees without causing the staff to have to scramble at the last minute because you were still "tweaking."

Provide working contact information, such as a cell phone number, so the event organizers can contact you on the day of the event, if necessary. Arrive early and test your equipment in advance. Even if you provide your presentation ahead of time so it can be preloaded on a laptop, bring along a copy on a jump drive as a backup.

Learn industry buzzwords, jargon, and hot buttons. If they refer to themselves as chapters and you call them clubs, you may offend the audience. If you mispronounce the acronym of their organization, you immediately show that you didn't care enough to ask a member how it is pronounced or referenced. If you make a recommendation that is patently ridiculous for the audience, you lose credibility.

When customizing programs, ask if you could speak to audience members in advance of the presentation. Survey these individuals to get a sense of what they do, what they expect from your presentation, what tips they are hoping to receive, what is unique about their job/organization, and what common problems they and their co-workers face. By taking the time to get this insider feedback in advance, you increase your chances of connecting with the audience. Try to select individuals from a broad cross section of the organization (different industries, ages, roles, etc.) so you don't get too narrow of a focus.

Saying What You Said You Would Say

Talk about what you said you were going to talk about. One of the worst feelings in the world event planners can experience is the realization that the speaker they hired is speaking about something completely different than what was described in their program. Whether the presentation became a 60-minute long sales pitch, was a canned presentation when a custom presentation was promised, or some other miscommunication occurred, this is one of the areas where audiences will complain loudly about a speaker. If you want to be brought back in the future, ensure that you cover what you said you would cover.

Event planners talk to each other. They often share speaker names and ask for referrals. It's wise to keep in touch with all event planners. Ask if you can add them to your LinkedIn contact list or e-mail list. This will help to keep you in their mind when future speaking opportunities arise. Also be sure to ask them if they know of any other events coming up where you might be appropriate as a speaker. If they enjoyed working with you and received positive feedback on your presentation, they may make an introduction.

It's a Timing Thing

Recognize that sometimes timing is everything. No matter how wonderful a speaker was, I am not inclined to bring them back two years in a row for the same event (although there are exceptions). As an event planner, I want to keep my events fresh and new. However, I am happy to refer them to other units within my organization or up the chain to division/district/regional/international events. An exception to my rule could be if you have a program that is substantially different from the first program you presented but would still have strong appeal for my audience.

Ask questions about when recurring events are planned. A large annual conference with 2,000 attendees will likely start setting up speakers 8-12 months ahead of time. An organization with regular monthly meetings might meet during the summer so they can plan their programs for the coming year. If you waited until September to contact that group, you would possibly be considered as a last minute speaker replacement. It's always good to mention on your marketing materials if you could be available that way, but more likely you would be added to the file for consideration the following summer. On the other hand, many groups that have smaller monthly meetings tend to only work a few months ahead when planning their meetings.

Bottom line, event planners are always looking for new speakers and topics that will appeal to their audiences, especially if they are responsible for recurring events. If you met their needs and pleased their audience, they will be happy to spread the word about you.

In addition to being a successful speaker in her own right, Marie Herman CIWD, ATM-S, MCAS has over 20 years of experience in event and meeting planning. She can be reached at