Speaker Lessons

I have had the opportunity to work on both sides of the speaking realm as both a regular speaker and event organizer. Over the years, there have been a number of interesting incidents which lead me to write this post. For the most part, I believe the majority of aspiring speakers behave professionally, but there are definitely those who don’t fit the bill. I thought I would share a few stories and some takeaways. This is certainly not a full list, just something that hit me as a valuable post for those who plan to be a speaker at different events. I have excluded any names from the stories to protect the guilty and avoid making someone look bad.

Once there was a keynote speaker that provided an abstract that sounded great. The abstract talked about how things had been in the past, what we have done to make things better and the bright future ahead. All was well with the world until the speaker started talking. The keynote content was one of the most boring and disliked sessions in the history of the event. Attendees were blasting the speaker and his illustrious keynote on Twitter as the blather continued to spew. I was in the back hallway crouched down by the floor with my head in my hands wishing for time to speed up so he could be finished and get off the stage.


  • Your abstract is not just a quirky little paragraph to make people think you are witty and come see your session. It is a tool for attendees to determine what content makes sense for them and if the content doesn’t match the abstract you have missed the point. Make sure your abstracts are clear in what the intent of the session is and who should be there as well.
  • Know your audience, if you are going to present content that is focused on a specific audience be sure to indicate that in your abstract. Additionally, look at the event to get a feel for whether the attendees will be interested.

I was once contacted by a speaker the week of the conference letting me know that a family health emergency had come up and they could not attend. Obviously, I was understanding and cancelled their sessions with my hopes that all would work out well. Then one of the conference staff members mentioned that the speaker just posted on a popular social networking site how great their vacation with their family was going. After a quick look, the speaker was indeed having a wonderful time with their family, which is great for them. I don’t care that the speaker was on vacation and would have understood if he had been honest. Why did the speaker feel the need to lie? Who cares, the fact is that they didn’t have the courage to be honest.

Planning a Technical Event – To Pay or Not to Pay

The question of whether to charge people to attend an event is something I get all the time.  It is tough question because I have run both free and pay events and they both have their risks and rewards.  Every situation is different, so you should consider your situation carefully and make an informed decision.  I have a couple points which I share when asked the question.

This is about the community, we don’t want to make people pay to attend.

You are absolutely right, it is about the community.  A sponsor(s) may be willing to cover all the costs.  A company may offer their facilities.    Attendees can brown bag their lunches.  If you can bring together an event at no cost to you then you can definitely deliver it for free to attendees.  There are a number of free events that operate successfully this way.  The best thing about a free event is if people are not happy, they can get a full refund.  Expectations may be high, but the “free” says it all, it only cost them time. 

If we can put on an event for free, why would we consider charging at all? 

Good question, so events that are free suffer from two core issues. They don’t necessarily dictate success or failure, but they can affect the reach and operation of your event. 

Perceived Value
  Look at the sample advertisements below.imageWhen you call about the free puppies what do you think your expectations will be versus calling about the $250 puppies?  You will probably expect the puppies that cost $250 to be pure bred and registered with the local/national kennel club.  Your expectation of the free puppies will be far less and you might even harbor some reservations about whether you would want one. 

Apply the same logic to your event and you can see that there is a chance of limiting your audience.  This is not a global truth, but it should be considered.  When you add a price tag to the event, people will evaluate it differently.  I am not saying charge $1500 a person, that type of event is about making money not the community (for the most part).  Think of a nominal charge that you think people would be willing to pay.  I try price events based on the cost of a good technical book.  Most good books range from $30 – $70 so if you can give someone the value of a book at your event, that should be your price point or a little less.  By charging a nominal fee, you could increase the number of people you reach.  If your event isn’t costing you anything, use the money to print up t-shirts, buy everyone lunch or give the money back when they show up. 

No Investment means No Commitment
    The biggest impact to free events is the dreaded drop off rate. My experience is that most free events see between 35% and 70% of registered attendees not show up to the event.  Consider the following scenario.

You organize an event and get sponsors to pay for t-shirts and lunch.  You have 600 people register to attend.  You order enough food and shirts for everyone plus some extra, just in case.  The day of the event arrives, but you only have 400 people show up. 

In reality, a free event with 400 out of 600 people is great.  So you now have over 200 meals that will not be eaten and 200 shirts that will not be worn.  You could have used the money that was wasted and bought prizes or something else for those who did attend.  What do you do?  Donate the food to a shelter is one idea. 

The easiest way to motivate people to attend an event is to make them demonstrate their interest in attending.  By requiring someone to pay a nominal fee, you will give them a reason to show up.  Think about it, if you skip an appointment to the doctor, they most likely charge you for not showing up.  Do you skip regularly?  If they didn’t charge you, there would be not reason for you to care if you skip or not.  The same applies to an event. 

The drop off rate I have experienced since adding a cost to attend has been at the highest 4%.  No joke, we see 96% of those who register for the event actually attend the event.  They have a vested interest in attending so they are more committed to show up.

Risks and Rewards
    Remember, I am not saying that free events are bad, just demonstrating some things to think about.  If you don’t see them as a concern, please keep your event free.  When you add money to the equation there are definite differences. You have to be concerned with how to collect payment, managing the money and more.  There are definitely rewards to adding a price tag, people are more committed to attend and will perceive your event as more valuable.  There are risks associated with it as well, since people have put money in their expectations rise and will react differently if they don’t leave satisfied.  You will need to focus on the details so your event delivers or exceeds attendee expectations. 

I am always interested in hearing others opinions on this topic.