Contracting Conference Speakers
By my rough estimation I’ve organised over 500 learning events. Those events have ranged from half day seminars to three day conferences. So perhaps, on average, let’s say half a dozen speakers at each event. That makes roughly 3000 speakers. And how many did I ask to sign a contract or any kind of agreement before they spoke? The answer to that question is much more precise: 0. Contracting conference speakers just wasn’t something I did.
I know I am not alone I think it’s common that organisers don’t get round to formalising agreements with speakers. In fact, I haven’t come across ANY formal speaker contracts in the score or more organisations in which I’ve completed event consultancy.
I am really keen to see how many eventprofs regularly ask ALL of their speakers to sign an agreement. Laying out what we expect from our speakers and what they can expect from us seems a pretty logical thing for the event organiser to do. It would give us that little bit more control of the most important parts of our learning events: the content. So there is much to gain!
Formalising the “contract” between speakers and event organiser
Writing a more formal agreement seems to make perfect sense, so why haven’t most of us gone through this simple process? Here’s my thoughts on why I’ve never done it before. I’d be keen to hear if other event organisers have any to add:
1. Who would write the agreement
“0” isn’t actually true because for some speakers I did sign a contract, but it was a contract that was normally written by the speaker bureau and covered their standard terms and conditions. It’s worth pointing out that I can’t remember adding or removing anything in the agreement. So agreements do exist, but they are normally written by or for the speaker. So I probably thought that was enough, we have something formal. I was no doubt busy with other things, and was delighted that someone else had written something, anything….
2. I didn’t want to put up any hurdles to signing up a speaker
In most of the organisations in which I contracted speakers, we were normally just delighted to get a qualified and confident speaker to speak. Asking them to sign a contract / agreement, would have likely put in place a hurdle that may have stymied their engagement. And if that happened, I would have been back to square one searching for a speaker to fill the slot on the programme.
3. We didn’t pay speakers
We kind of felt that, in many cases, a speaker was doing us a favour by coming to speak. Sure, they got the normal profile “boost” by speaking at our events, but we were kind of relying on them, rather than the other way round. So asking them to sign something, basically formalising a kind of “favour”, just didn’t seem right. For the few speakers we paid I just set out the logistical details in an email, you know the kind of: “we have paid you to speak for 30mins on X topic at X event on X date” But you can’t call this really contracting conference speakers even for ones we paid.
4. This just didn’t seem like a priority
With so many other things to do when running an event, I can’t imagine that I really considered formalising an agreement to be much of a priority. It was very much a case of: contact speaker and confirm subject and then move on. The idea of amending an agreement, sending it, chasing it, filing it etc. just wouldn’t have seemed worthwhile. And what would I have actually done if they hadn’t fulfilled the agreement!
5. The agreement wouldn’t have had much substance anyway
Back in the hurried days of producing scores of events each year, I never really had the time to dedicate to properly structuring a narrative for our learning events. So I wouldn’t have really had much to put in the agreement in terms of what specifically I wanted to be delivered. Also, I wouldn’t have felt able to include things we wanted them to do besides speak as I wouldn’t have felt comfortable (stretching the favour) by asking them to promote the event to their network, provide a blog etc. Therefore the agreement wouldn’t have had any more content that a brief email.
So thinking back to why I never properly contracted conference speakers, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t really have the time, and they didn’t really have a place in my event management process. Perhaps for many event planners this is still the case.
Contracting Conference Speakers is now a priority and here is why
However, as our learning events change, so must we. Our relationship with speakers has to improved: we have to take more control of the content at our events. Writing a more formal contract with our speakers is a great place to start. So with that in mind, let’s look at those five reasons above and address them from a different perspective.
1. Who would write the agreement
If I write the contract the control is with me (the event organiser) rather than the agent or the speaker. This is a crucial point. When you are project managing it’s a great idea to have as much control as possible. Writing the agreement gives you the power to outline what YOU want, not what you have to do for the speaker. You are putting your audience first, and this should lead to a better experience for your attendees.
2. I want to put up a hurdle to signing up a speaker
If a speaker doesn’t want to sign an agreement it is the clearest sign that they are not committed to your event. This of course remains a hurdle, but this time, it’s been put up deliberately. No one wants a speaker who will agree and then drop out. Or worse, will just turn up and deliver either a boring or an irrelevant presentation! Asking them to commit to your event will help you remove the dead wood. You will have only committed speakers.
3. What are you offering in return (either payment or other value)
I’ve written extensively on the reasons why event organisers should consider paying speakers or offering significant value in exchange for their time. When you give something it is much, much easier to ask for something in return. The agreement is much stronger if something tangible is given. So if you are going to have an agreement think about what you are going to do for your speakers.
4. Doing all you can to ensure the best possible content is your TOP priority
Rather than looking at this as unnecessary bureaucracy, the modern event planner should consider it as an absolutely essential way to support the delivery of great content.
5. The agreement has real substance
The agreement should cover the following:
- the basic logistical details, “X will be present a 30 min session on X subject, on X date at X time.”
- the outline of the event, including theme of the conference and the key learning points of the conference and how their session should support the conference narrative
- an agreement on the title of the session and not just the subject to be covered (title and subject are very different)
- an overview of what type of session they should provide (so e.g. not powerpoint, must include 5mins of interaction etc)
- a list of what you will offer the speaker
- a list of what you want the speaker to do for you on top of the session they will provide
- a schedule with key dates (so agreeing to provide a draft, or attend a speaker training course etc.)
- details on what should happen if the agreement isn’t fulfilled
So rather than looking at the contract as a burden, embrace it as an opportunity to formalise your agreement which will streamline your event management process AND improve the content delivered at your event.