AMA: How to source great speakers with Erica McGillivray


(Erica) #25

Doing professional, educational conferences, I’m highly biased toward speakers who are actual practitioners of the work they are talking about on stage.

(Early in my career, I had a boss present on my work – as the conference wanted his title – and then during Q&A, he had to defer the questions to me. It made me question this idea of title being a driver.)

Before I start programming, I always look at the needs of my conference, the company values, and my own personal values in how I want my work represented. Then I look at the overall number of speaking slots I have and figure out percentages or number of speakers I need. Diversity and inclusion on stage is incredibly important to me, and something no one asked for (except my current role), but I do anyway.

I will break down a couple conferences I’ve programmed, so you can see my programming tally in action:

CMX Summit – focus community professionals, 22 speakers, 2 emcees

Hot topics (1 speaker required for each, narrowed from a list of 44 good topics):

  • Crisis management
  • Crypto
  • Data / Measurement / Metrics
  • Ethnolography & loneliness
  • Future of Community Technology
  • Industry overview
  • ROI

Types of slots:

  • 2 emcees
  • 4 keynotes
  • 4 light workshops/interactive sessions
  • 14 20-minute sessions


  • 50% men*
  • 50% women*
  • 30% or more people of color
  • 10% or more LGBTQAI people
  • 33% or less speakers who previously spoke at conference

*Gender is not binary, so numbers may not be specific.

Inclusion numbers are based on population census stats for the United States. There is a lot here about how to not tokenize people, which happy to talk more on. These don’t cover every possible demographic, which is something I want to improve upon for each conference.

MozCon – focus on SEOs and other online marketers, 26 speakers, 3 emcees, all keynote-style presentations


  • 8 SEO
  • 6 Content
  • 2 Social
  • 1 Local SEO
  • 5 Other topics


  • 50% men*
  • 50% women*
  • 30% or more people of color
  • 10% or more LGBTQAI people

Other requirements:

  • Maximum of 4 employees
  • Maximum of 7 returning from previous year speakers
  • Minimum of 7 speakers not in US-SEO speaking circuit
  • Maximum of 4 international speakers (not based in the US or Canada)
  • Minimum of 20% advanced/technical talks
  • Maximum 4 speakers chosen from open pitches

(Belinda Booker) #26

Thanks so much for your thorough (and honest!) answer, Erica. That’s really interesting insight into your process.

(Sabeha Mohamed) #27

is there a database/insiders list of speakers in particular cities?

would love your insight into where do you go to find speakers

the type of events we run are content led events + sales events for all kinds of event organisers (conferences, classes, workshops)

(Andrew Mc Carron) #28

Hello Erica,

We do a lot of panels (A LOT) so that means sourcing a lot of moderators. How do you coach your moderators to make sure the discussion flows and a story is told?


(Richard Millington) #29

Do you tend to find the audience is more interested in the speaker or the topic?

i.e. are people more likely to sign up for events with speakers they really like or topics that matter most to them?

(Allison Pinney Collis) #30

Its a combination. I have delegates who only register to meet or hear from a specific speaker. Equally, the subject, especially if an ‘hot’ subject will draw the audience.

The biggest challenge is managing a speaker who has pulling power but poor delivery on the day. :S

(Erica) #31

Hi Sabeha,

There are lists and databases of speakers out there, depending on your industry or who you are looking for. People love putting together who’s who in different industries lists. You can check out competing conferences (though never just copy + paste). There are also speakers’ bureaus who have rosters of folx (though beware as some of them are not sanctioned by the speakers and may waste your money).

There are also people out there who do this kind of work for hire. Sandi MacPherson of 50/50 Pledge works with organizers to get more women on stage. I’ve done this type of work freelance.

However, you will likely need to do your own independent research. My biggest suggestion is to find where the community or communities in your industry are and get involved, even if just lurking. You will quickly find out who actually knows their stuff and who’s already a popular speaker. Take lots of notes and organize that information. I like to use Airtable for my speaker databases – as it’s a database for those of us who don’t know how to program and far easier to sort and specify than spreadsheets.

It sounds like you are working with lots of different clients, which is a different sort of challenge compared to working in-house. You may need to have part of your work being around the client letting you know things like communities for their industries, providing in-house resources who know the industry well to make suggestions, or other research in order to propel you in the right direction.

(Claire Dibben) #32

Hi Erica,

I run a small digital marketing conference and have realised that I may need to pay for a “headline” speaker to come and talk at the end of the day so that we can sell more tickets.

Is it unethical to pay for one speaker and not pay for others? How do I make sure I am transparent about this? Or, do I even need to be?!


(Richard Millington) #33

I’ve been on all three sides of this. I’ve paid one speaker without paying others, I’ve been paid when others haven’t, and I haven’t been paid when others have.

I’m sure @Erica will have a better answer, but my take has usually been paying for value. Not all speakers offer equal value. Some can bring a big audience with them, others have a unique depth of expertise. They might be worth more to you.

I doubt music acts performing at a festival all get paid the same, the same feels true here.

(however, aside, I think very few big name speakers sell many extra tickets on their name alone. But if they help push the event to their audience database, that’s often a win).

(Erica) #34

Hi Andy!

Yes, coaching moderators is a must. For all my speakers, I provide them extensive documentation on the show. Everything from ‘here’s the address of the venue’ to details about stage layout. For moderators, it’s key to get them all on the same page with your show standards, and the work you expect them to put in beforehand.

Successful panels make or break with pre-show prep work. Besides general event expectations, moderators should meet well beforehand to chat with panelists or the interviewee to get to know them. Some personal rapport will get them over the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time and help the panel get deeper on topic. Moderators also should provide a generalized outline of chat flow and some basic kick off questions for the panelists/interviewees to allow them to have a few good answers prepped.

Everyone wants to sound and look good on stage. If you have a moderator who doesn’t want to put in this work or hesitates, I find that taking that angle of “we’ve seen best success” or “we want your panel to be useful to the audience in XYZ ways” or “we want you to look good” is helpful for pushing them in the right direction.

This may seem obvious, but make sure you are introducing moderators to panelists directly. Not just handing a moderator some email addresses and names.

(Melissa Saunders) #35

great question Claire! I would keep payment any details between you and each individual speaker and just be up front with each one so they know what they’re signing up for, what’s expected, what they can expect etc.

(Erica) #36

There are basically three types of speakers:

  1. A celebrity – this person will excited an individual attendee about going, e.g. William Shatner appearing at a content marketing conference
  2. An in-industry celebrity – this person will excited both an individual attendee and a boss about going, and these can be hard to figure out, e.g. Eric Schmidt (executive chairman of Google) at a digital marketing or tech conference. But even here, this speaker might fit #1 as bosses aren’t necessarily subject matter experts in what their employees do.
  3. An industry peer – this person may not excite the attendee, but they will be able to deliver knowledge a boss who wants to know what you will actually learn.

The biggest ask from potential attendees for the types of professional conferences I run is the agenda with details about speakers and their sessions. That’s what their bosses want to see. Some of them even require complete agendas, and will tell me a 85% of the way there agenda isn’t good enough for their bosses.

In order for attendees to make the case to attend if a company pays, they need to prove the value of what they will take away from the event. I believe the agenda matters a tad bit more in this equation. Yes, a celebrity may make them push harder to attend – Hubspot’s Inbound is a great example of an event that leverages celebrity power this way and sometimes they are relevant and sometimes not – but you aren’t going to go back to the office and be like “I learned so much from when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played on stage.”

(Erica) #37

Truth. I had a speaker who had in-industry celebrity pull, and then gave a poor performance where they mostly swore as they were upset due to their favorite sports team losing that day and having a terrible travel experience due to a disaster-related airport closure.

(Erica) #38

You only have to be as transparent as you want to be about it. I’ve certainly paid some speakers and didn’t pay other speakers (though was able to cover all speakers’ full flights/train/mpg and hotel). The speakers who typically asked for extra money were either 1) legit celebrities (in-industry or entertainment ones), 2) solo entrepreneurs who make part of their actual living off speaking, or 3) speakers who are out of your industry and don’t see value in attending.

Speakers do talk to each other, so do not short change peer groups, or be discriminatory in how you pay speakers or see them in peer relations. (Gender and racial wage gaps are real.) The more your stage is desirable, the less in-industry speakers will ask for honorariums.

I have played the transparency card pretty heavily with the conference I’m running right now, due the show’s tiny budget and that I work at a bootstrapped startup with 4 employees. I wrote an entire public blog post about it, and most of it still remains true for 2018’s show. (Though the projected attendance was too high when I did this post, and our show is 400, not 600 attendee projection in those numbers.)

I just had a call today with a speaker’s rep who gave me her fee of $20,000, which is ~9% of my budget, and going to be not doable. It sucks, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Rich’s comment reminded me that when it comes to musical performers and other entertainers, you will typically 100% always have to pay them. (Maybe a couple exceptions if you are best buddies or a charity they care about.) For example, PAX – the giant video game convention empire – does not pay celebrities on their panels (even ones who charge other conventions), but they always pay musical acts.

(Richard Millington) #39

Slightly off-topic, but I’d love to get your thoughts on financial risk.

The kind of events I’ve done in the past have always had a really high up-front risk factor. We make so many financial commitments upfront and hope to make it back in ticket sales.

Do you mostly use projections from previous events for future events? And what kind of investments would you make that might pay off in extra attendees but might not?

(Lila Elliott) #40

Hi Erica,

Thanks for participating in this AMA. I’ve actually got two questions for you:

  1. I’m wondering if you have any strategies or advise for selecting speakers in a field where you are not a subject matter expert.

  2. What are your thoughts on selecting keynotes for a software users group conference? Right now or team is debating the merits “inspirational/engaging life story” types of speakers versus “thought leaders/industry experts.” We have two slots for keynotes for our conference. Should we opt for one of each?

(Erica) #41

Events are a huge financial risk! They are tricky to do well and not spend a good amount of money (or excessive amounts of time, requiring staffing). Especially conferences. It also doesn’t help that, at least in Western cultures, we’re last minute about making commitments and (if not paying a lot) quick to be like “I have this big project this week so maybe I should work instead, or maybe I want to watch Netflix instead of going to an evening event.”

For conferences where attendees travel, 2-4 weeks from the show are when a huge number of tickets sell. It’s incredibly frustrating when you must spend money upfront to say book a venue and need to have a better idea of how many actual attendees are coming.

Ticket projections are a math upon themselves. The best way most of us are able to do it is looking at trends from past conferences. For CMX Summit, I created a ticket sales velocity chart, and it was pretty incredible to see the patterns of how tickets sold being almost identical year-to-year, even with some ticket growth and having an event West Coast US vs East Coast US.

For investments, pre-show for people who don’t know you: speakers are the big pull. Sponsors can be too, if there are companies your attendees want to connect with.

However, a lot of hype is word-of-mouth which means you have to have at least one event happening before it happens. For investments there, a/v is perhaps the biggest you can do, and it’s not cheap to do it correctly. But other details like having your event well organized, thinking about flow of attendees, accessibility, welcoming attendees, design, professional help, good food, etc. Because it’s so expensive, we often short-change the details and they discourage people from coming back, especially if your ticket is expensive. Don’t expect me to come back to your show if your vegetarian lunch option is hummus on a pita with a slice of American cheese and I paid $700 for my ticket (true story). Last year, I had an attendee reach out very concerned because a friend of hers went to our show the year before and that venue was so cold the friend chose not to return to our conference, or engage with us enough to know that we moved the show not just venues, but cities.

You do want to invest smartly. A couple weeks ago, I broke down why from a financial POV Universal FanCon – a pop culture convention that was kickstarted – failed and canceled their event a week before the show. It was a mess, but they were never set up right with their finances, attendance size, investments, and expectations. Sadly, since I wrote that, they’ve chosen to blame their community for not enough ticket sales, when actually wanting to sell 4,000 tickets for a first year pop culture convention, over promising Kickstarter backers, and overspending set them up for fail.

(Melissa Saunders) #43

Wow! Many thanks Erica…invaluable advice and lots to work with here.

(Melissa Saunders) #44

Many thanks to @Erica for this fantastic AMA. It’s been brilliant having you on here. Thanks for answering our questions so fully and for all the great advice. I, for one, have learnt loads! :grinning:

Also thanks to everyone who has posted questions and joined in the discussion.

Best wishes

The EventTribe Team

(Erica) #45

Hi Lila,

Sorry about the delay on this, but wanted to get your questions answered.

  1. Even if you are an SME, there’s going to be talks that you have to trust that the speaker knows what they are talking about. There’s been some technical talks at my conferences where I might’ve been a SME, but the technical aspects were way over my head. My recommendation is to partner with an SME, or at least get guidance on the communities and other places to start your speaker research. Also, never discount a YouTube search! :wink:

  2. Do you have any feedback or research on this from past conferences? It varies widely from industry to industry and even conference in the same industry to other conference. My feeling is for software user group, they are going to want a mix of “how to use this software” with case studies and some inspiration-style talks related to it in order to round-out the event. You can use the two talks as an overall test to see how they resonate (combined with your own feeling about how the speaker performed).