I’ve been in two minds about whether to publish this post. You see, this one is about what makes a good experience for a speaker. Not what makes a good talk, but the view from the other side of the mike: what makes a good host. It may offend some people, but here goes, because I know a number of other speakers who share my views. I should point out I’ve had far more good experiences than bad (including my most recent talk for the excellent Bearsted and District Local History Society), but some of the bad ones were really bad so they tend to stick in the mind and be ‘learning opportunities’, so to speak.
I’m not going to discuss the fees and expenses issue, because that’s been covered brilliantly elsewhere. No, instead, I’m going to write about the ‘soft’ side of being an event host. This is something all groups and festivals should aspire to – because if you have a happy speaker, then you’ll get a better lecture, and end up with a more satisfied audience too.
So, what makes a good, or great, lecture host? Here are my four top tips:
The Host is Well-Organized
First contact is made by email, in a clear and precise way – the perfect organiser will title their email ‘Proposed Talk for Blogshire History Society on 1 May 2014’ or similar, so that you can find it again easily when there’s a thread of correspondence. Emails entitled ‘Talk’ or ‘Hello’ are not helpful. All the information about the talk and the booking is confined to a few exchanges, rather than filtering through in dribs and drabs. I realise this is a generational thing, but telephone or letter contact should be avoided as it is very time-consuming and inefficient for busy speakers.
The host is already at the meeting point to greet the speaker at the pre-arranged time rather than letting speakers wander around at a deserted venue. They have left plenty of time before the doors open to set up.
They have a big enough projection screen for the size of the audience.
If they have large audiences (say, over 75 people) or members with hearing loss, then they make sure the venue has a sound system – they don’t expect the speaker to bellow for an hour.
They know how the technical stuff works at the venue in some detail, and have someone on hand to fix any last minute problems. This is perhaps the most important thing of all. Speakers cannot be expected to wrangle a group’s unfamiliar IT kit on behalf of the group – apart from anything else, it is stressful and distracting for the speaker at a time when their focus needs to be elsewhere. The best-organised groups ask for presentations in advance so they can be loaded up ready for the event, saving glitches on the night.
Discussions about billing for fees and expenses, or where the speaker is spending the night, should not be made in front of an earwigging audience. This will all have been arranged beforehand, and if there needs to be a mention on the night, then it is best done in a discreet corner.
The Host Understands the Speaker’s Perspective
While the history society or book festival is naturally focused on providing entertainment for their audience, there needs to be at least one person – say, the events secretary – whose job it is to ensure that the speaker’s needs are met. The best hosts know that what is a social event for the audience is always work for the speaker. It’s mentally exhausting, it’s physically tiring and speakers need a bit of support.
The perfect events secretary understands that the most important thing is to get that IT, sound and lighting set up and tested, rather than worrying about the type of biscuit the speaker wants afterwards. That speakers do not necessarily wish to run through their slides and check technical stuff in front of a full house and doors should remain shut until all is ready, if requested. That before a talk speakers need to focus on the job ahead rather than being jumped on by a ‘local character’ who will buttonhole them right up to the time of speaking (the speaker’s ‘champion’ will gently distract this person, allowing the speaker some mental headspace while preparing – the same goes for afterwards as well).
This lovely person will also prevent the clinking of coffee cups or wine glasses and the rustle of crisps being laid out at the back of the room during the talk. Please, sort out the food and drink beforehand, or do it in another room. It’s so distracting for the speaker.
After a talk the champion will immediately offer a drink to the speaker – juice or wine especially welcome – if there is book-signing or other activity going on. Above all, the host understands that for the entire time the speaker is with them, the speaker feels ‘on show’, even when socialising – and that includes at any drinks before or meal afterwards.
The Host is Calm (CALM! STAY CALM!!!)
The best organisers are those who remain calm – this means leaving plenty of time to deal with the unexpected. Though speakers may seem calm on the outside, it does nothing for their pre-match concentration to have members of the committee flapping about in a panic (or, losing their temper on one memorable occasion for me) when the key to the chair store can’t be found or the corkscrew’s gone missing. Good hosts offer a private, comfortable corner for the speaker to relax before the talk, especially if there is going to be a delay for some reason. Otherwise your speaker will resort to sitting in a toilet cubicle to get away from the chaos, as I have done, more than once.
The Host is Professional
If societies want a slick, professional talk from the speaker; then in return the speaker would like a slick, professional introduction from the group’s host. One that has been prepared carefully in advance, checked with the speaker (and including anything the speaker particularly wants mentioned). One delivered smoothly and confidently, without embarrassment on the part of the host, and without off-colour jokes or comments on personal appearance (yes, I’ve had some!). Oh, and one that gets the speaker’s name right, please…
The running order of the event should be clear to the speaker beforehand. If there are to be other speakers, a raffle-draw, an interval or some other activity beside the talk itself then good hosts do not spring this on the speaker five minutes before the start (or worse, not tell them at all). We, the speakers, need to know your choreography ahead of time please. We don’t mind, so long as we know. And good hosts don’t expect a speaker to be able to make a one hour talk into two hours (or 30 minutes) at the last moment either.
Good hosts do not interrupt the speaker once they have begun to talk (yes – unbelievably, I’ve had this happen).
Finally, good hosts have agreed with the speaker who will deal with the question and answer session. If they know their audience is shy about asking questions at first, then they have a few up their sleeve to get the ball rolling. They then thank the speaker elegantly – and finish, crisply and clearly.
So, there we go – how to be the perfect event host. Speakers will love you forever after if you adopt these rules. Anything else other speakers would add?
If you liked this, you might also like Talking Books 1: My Patented Talk-Giving Pack.