AMA: How to source great speakers with Erica McGillivray

This week CMX’s Erica McGillivray is taking the EventTribe ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) hot seat to answer your questions and provide some top tips on sourcing great speakers for your event.

The right speakers can make or break your event. If you want to be sure of getting the right voices to inspire your audience don’t miss our next Ask Me Anything (AMA) session with Erica McGillivray from CMX.

Erica has been organising major conferences for the last eight years, including the annual CMX Summit for community building professionals. She has a wealth of experience finding, booking and working with speakers.

Erica will be available to answer all your speaker-related questions from Tuesday, May 15 to Friday, May 18.
Simply post your question on this thread and Erica will be logging on each day to provide answers. You can ask her about:

  • How to secure great speakers, whatever your budget
  • Where to source diverse speakers with a unique story to tell
  • How to contract, manage and reward speakers

Hi Erica, how do you work with speakers to develop their speeches/presentations? I.e how prescriptive are you about what you want them to talk about? Do you hear the talk beforehand and sign off on it or give them free rein? Many thanks


Hi Erica, do most speakers charge a fixed fee or is there generally room for negotiation? What should we factor in when asking them for a quote?


Hi Erica,

When looking for speakers, I often find that there’s a large pool I could pick from. The trouble I find is knowing whether or not the speakers are “good”. I’ve had people speak before, read their pitch, thought it sounded interesting but their personality and delivery SUCKS. How do you solve this?


Hi Erica,

I have 2 questions!

How do you move from having speakers for free to speak at your events to paying to speak at your events?
We’ve found that a speaking slot is the most popular part of sponsoring the event, but how do you ensure you are getting the best speaker and the right amount of sponsorship in the package?


I usually stalk them on youtube before hand…if they don’t have a presence on youtube then I don’t accept them!



My question would be, what do we not know about finding great speakers that we should?

What are the questions that most people don’t think to ask? What do most people only learn through brutal experience?

p.s. any questions from our @Insiders here?

  1. Do you haggle the fee with potential speakers or is it a big no-no?
    Whenever I’ve been asked to do a speaking gig, I’ve had a few say to me “We can’t pay you that, we’ll pay you that”.

  2. How can speakers know how to set their fee?


Hey everyone,

Super excited to answer your questions over the next couple days. I love talking with other event organizers to see what you all are doing and snag some new ideas myself. I’ve run a wide variety of events over the years with both tiny and huge teams, and for businesses and nonprofits.

Thanks to everyone who’s already submitted questions and got this conversation going!

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Hi Belinda!

I’m very hands on with my speakers. My first year running a professional conference, I did not have any structure in place and pretty much let speakers do whatever. When my boss and the executive stakeholder looked at speakers scores, they were pretty disappointed because they knew it wasn’t that these speakers weren’t good speakers or they weren’t the right fit, but the presentations weren’t where they needed to be. I knew this too.

I developed a speaker process for my conferences. The basic outline is: 1) a topic call where we hash over the show process, show flow, audience demographics, and decide on topic direction; 2) topic title and description due date; 3) content / outline review (~1.5 months pre-show); 4) final deck deadline (at least 2 weeks pre-show); and 5) speaker stage tour (night before conference kicks off).

No deck goes on stage without my approval beforehand, and my a/v team knows this and work with me here. At all stages, I give speakers feedback – good and bad – and give them advice tailored to their speaking experience and the stages. Being able to focus on parts of talk creation, helps break apart it into manageable pieces and focus on making presentations better without being overwhelmed by the whole.

I have a bit of an A-type personality, and some speakers find me to be incredibly helpful and others find me excessively annoying and have complained up the ladder. Those were all things I had to work through, and I was able to point to speaker scores and overall show satisfaction going up to help ease executive stakeholder worries. It helped when speakers realized that they may find me a pain-in-the-butt, but they liked being told they just gave the best talk of their career by their peers and mentors in the audience.


Hi Melissa,

There is always room for negotiations in all things conference running. :slight_smile:

The first thing you need to figure out is how much you are going to spend on speakers and how many speakers are you planning on needing to fill up your desired programming. For what to pay a speaker, or if to pay them, there are tons of factors including desirability of your conference, your budget, your mission, and more. You should never enter a negotiation without knowing your high and your low for that speaker.

The conference I currently work on CMX Summit, we flat out cannot afford most speaker fees. This sucks because there’s been speakers I’ve talked to that I really wanted them to speak. We do offer every speaker travel reimbursement, do a charity donation in their name, and a handful of other perks. It’s a balance, but one thing I want to do with my speakers – since we cannot afford fees – is to reward them transparently and equally. (I’ve heard horror stories about conferences telling one speaker they can’t pay for their fee or travel, and then offering – no joke – their sibling a good fee + travel, and speakers talk!)

Before you pay any speaker fee, you really need to figure out what you’re getting out of it. I once paid $25,000 for a speaker who at the end of the day I couldn’t justify the cost given their performance and some riders they had on their contract. When another conference organizer reached out to me to ask about this speaker, they quickly realized this speaker would also not be worth it for them given what they were trying to do with their conference.


Hi Claire!

Like Amy, I also stalk speakers on YouTube. :smiley:

I tend to try to balance my conferences with different levels of experiences and put the right speakers in the right spots. For example, you want someone dynamic to give your morning opening talk, not someone who will put your audience back to sleep. But you could have more laid back speaker come after them.

In my response to Belinda, I outlined my speaker process. This has greatly helped hone newer speakers with less experience give better performances, but they do have to be “hungry” and want to improve. Sometimes, you also have to say “not this year, but maybe next or in 2-3 years” and check in where they are. (Keep track of potential speakers and speakers you’ve looked at!) There are some speakers I worked with several times on smaller projects, who wanted assistance in honing their performances, but weren’t ready for the big stage quite yet. It also helps if you yourself have had some experience on the stage and spend time being a student of what makes a great talk, in addition to knowing your conference audience very well.


You have to have a desirable event in order to make that move; otherwise, your quality isn’t going to be great. You can 1) have built a really great, industry-leading event over the years; 2) be able to provide solid leads to anyone on your stage; 3) have a very rad speaker that everyone falls over themselves to meet and speak on the same stage as (and who you probably paid for and paid for their travel); or 4) be able to provide some other amazing value.

This is not something I’ve done with my own stages, preferring to maintain total editorial control and having educational-focused events where selling is banned from the stage. But I do have sponsors who ask all the time about this. Sometimes I do want them to speak on the stage – even if I’ve divorced these two functions – and I have specific requirements about who I want to hear from in their company.

Recently, a big brand kept assuming their potential sponsorship of my event included a speaking gigs (even though they knew it didn’t), and we came back to them with exactly who we wanted to hear from, if they wanted to be on our stage. We’ll see what happens. :slight_smile:

My suggestion is to build in requirements of those sponsored speakers, and be very straightforward of your expectations and your audience expectations.


Thanks Erica. Great to have you with us!

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Many thanks Erica. Much food for thought there and some great tips!

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Hi Erica, aside from having appropriate subject knowledge, being articulate and affordable, what else do you look for in potential speakers?

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Finding great speakers is hard work. When I’ve clocked myself on finding 1) a speaker outside my networks who 2) talks on relevant topics and 3) can give a good talk – it takes 6 hours.

Keep a database of potential speakers. All the people you’ve thought of, all the people your coworkers have suggested, all those who’ve pitched themselves, etc. And what you think about those people and how to connect with them.

(I took over an event, only to find that on speaker lists, the former organizer neglected to add a column for email addresses, and there were former speakers I didn’t know how to get into contact with to invite back!)

Dunbar’s number says we can only know 150 people, and you’ll need to know more people than that. The only way you’ll keep track of potential talent and try to get out of your own biases (or your head) is to keep track of everything from the start.


Hi Dewi!

  1. Haggle away. Most speakers will have their limits, and sometimes they say no, but paying speakers (or not paying them) is a balance of your budget, your event status, and your company values. In a perfect world, all my speakers would be paid because I value their hard work, but that’s not the reality. It’s really different how you can compensate a speaker – whether honorariums or covering travel or other perks – when you have a $220,000 budget vs a $1.3 million budget.

  2. You have to talk to other speakers in the space and be honest about where you are at in your own speaking journey. No one starts at the top. You also may not charge certain conferences as they are industry leaders or it’s well worth it to speak on their stage for free. You may also adjust your fee for nonprofits or causes dear to your heart.

You may also include riders like covering travel, even covering first class travel or extra tickets, if you want to bring along another person. I had one speaker who wanted an extra hotel room that adjoined to his as to this conference he always brought his family, including wife, 2 kids, and the nanny. I know a speaker who lives in the Middle East and travels to Europe a lot, and part of their rider is first class travel if the flight is longer than so many hours.

If you had a book, you could require that they buy so many copies of it to give to attendees. Or you could have a diversity rider and require that the conference program a certain percentage of people from underrepresented groups. I do a charity donation for each speaker in their name, and many of my speakers love this.