A conference lives and dies by its speakers.
Speakers sell the tickets. Speakers are what define the quality of the event experience. Everything else can go wrong but if your speakers are great, people will forget about the little complaints and just remember the content.
Speakers are your event. So you need a really good lineup if you’re going to be successful.
My experience with conferences is varied. I got my start in this world running community for LeWeb where I learned a great deal from Loic LeMeur and the amazing LeWeb team. Now I run CMX Summit, the largest conference for the community industry.
At CMX we’ve had, or confirmed CEO’s and community experts from from NASA, Burning Man, the FBI, Airbnb, Behance, Reddit, Tattly, Buzzfeed, TED, Apple…the list goes on and that’s just from three conferences. I’m biased, but I think we’ve gathered a pretty solid group so far.
Through my experience curating speakers, I wanted to share 7 lessons I’ve picked up along the way.
1. Start with why
When we started reaching out to speakers for the first event, CMX was little more than an idea. We didn’t have a website, nothing in place for the actual event and no one knew who we were.
So how did we get high profile, busy speakers to fly out for a full day to speak at an event that didn’t exist yet? As Simon Sinek recommends, we started with “why”.
I simply wrote up a one pager explaining who I was and why we’re building CMX. I would tell the speakers honestly that this is the first ever event and we don’t know exactly what will happen, but that we truly believed in the movement of community centric business and were determined to bring this event to life.
That was enough to get our first few speakers in, which was enough for us to start selling tickets.
2. Aim ridiculously high for the first speakers
Start by trying to get the biggest names in first. If you can get just one of them in, everyone else will be more likely to say yes.
If I dream of having them at CMX then I’ll take a shot at getting in touch with them.
You have a better chance of reaching them than you think. Most of them are actually pretty easy to get in touch with. Craig Newmark responded in minutes (though he had another commitment). Jimmy Wales took a few emails before his agent got in touch with me.
I got in touch with Robin Dreeke, our first keynote speaker, simply by tweeting at him and asked if I could email him about a conference we’re organizing. He’s the Head of Behavioral Analysis for the FBI and usually hosts huge, expensive workshops for business executives. But when I got on the phone with him he told me he read my PDF soda online and he wanted to do the conference. Just like that, he was in.
The big names don’t care about who else you have on the lineup. They care about the “why”. Try different avenues to get in touch and don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars.
If they don’t respond the first time…
3. Be politely persistent
Speakers are busy. They miss a lot of emails. And they have a lot of other commitments. Most of them are traveling a lot and probably speaking somewhere else on the same day as your conference.
Always follow up.
Keep letting them know about your next event. Follow up on the emails if you don’t hear back 2 or 3 times. Keep at it. Most of them will take it as a compliment that you’re so dedicated to getting them there.
Worse case scenario, you get a “no” but now that you’ve made contact, that can be the start of a relationship for the future.
4. Plan to hear “no” often
The real secret behind getting great speakers is that behind each speaker we confirm, there are likely 10 others who said no.
They say no because:
- Scheduling conflicts
- They’re busy with their real job
- They want a speaker fee that we can’t pay
- They just don’t want to (and usually make up an excuse)
The last one is rare. Usually, even when people say no, they’re interested and it’s a foot in the door for a future event.
Just remember that hearing no is part of the process.
5. Think about the story
A great speaker lineup is a story.
At CMX we focus on bringing a spread of unique speakers and perspectives to the stage. We don’t want it to be just CEO’s or just tech. We want the weird, the crazy, the outlandish. That’s our special sauce. This year in San Francisco we have NASA and Burning Man represented. Regardless of how different our speakers are, they’re all part of a larger story of building communities. That’s why they’re at CMX.
If it feels like a bunch of random people haphazardly thrown together into an event without a cohesive story, it won’t have the same effect and it won’t sell.
6. Make it easy for speakers to confirm and announce quickly
Don’t make it a huge process for speakers to confirm that they’re in. You don’t need all their details up front. All you need is a “yes”.
Once you get a yes, announce them quickly. Things change and there’s always a chance that a speaker will want to back out but if they’ve already been publicly announced, they’re much less likely to bail.
7. Ask speakers for recommendations
Some of our best speakers have come from recommendations from previous speakers. For example Lauren Anderson spoke at our first event and then connected me with Tina Roth Eisenberg, one of our keynotes in NYC.
After you confirm a speaker, ask them for recommendations for other speakers. Great speakers know great speakers because they often meet at other conferences.
And make it easy for them to make introductions. Have your conference blurb ready with the why and who’s already committed to speak to create social validation.
8. Balance the gender distribution in your lineup
Unfortunately, this just needs to be said in the tech world. There are too many events that are 90% dudes on stage. There are amazing, smart, talented female speakers out there. Find them. And don’t think that if they haven’t spoken before that they aren’t great speakers or aren’t interested. Some of the best speakers we’ve had at CMX are people who don’t usually speak. Make it happen.