Avoiding guest speaker disaster

October 13, 2010

I started my career in public relations at a child protection agency. One of my first challenges was putting together the annual report and preparing for the annual general meeting. The AGM was a traditionally humdrum affair and I thought I’d make my mark by getting an out-of-the-ordinary guest speaker. I suggested to my executive director that we get a client to speak at the AGM—someone who had turned things around and made a better life for herself and her children. A brilliant idea had I made sure it was executed properly.

I put out a call to various front line workers for suggestions and got a few. One client had a particularly compelling story. She had several years of involvement with child welfare authorities with her children coming in and out of care due to her alcohol abuse and neglect. She had many ups and downs but through a lot of hard work and intensive support, she reunited with her kids and all had been going well for the past couple of years.

I spoke with the client and she had many positive things to say about her present social worker and the support she was receiving from the agency. I told her I thought her story would be great and she agreed to do it. I let her know she’d have about 15 minutes to speak. I spoke with her briefly one more time before the AGM to make sure she was coming and to see if she needed any help with her speech. She declined, saying she was feeling prepared. I left it at that.

The day of the AGM, the client stepped onto the stage and began to tell her story. About a minute into it, my heart began to sink. My chosen speaker was trashing the agency. She spoke of systemic issues that led to the apprehension of her children rather than the preservation of her family. In a somewhat rambling style, she talked of insensitive and, in her view, incompetent social workers she had encountered over the years. Her comments did include praise for the support she ended up receiving, but overall, her message was that a lot of her family’s heartache could have been avoided if the child welfare system had responded to her situation with initial support instead of its punitive approach.

The audience, which included a good percentage of staff, gave weak and bewildered applause at the end of the speech as my executive director awkwardly thanked her for her comments. I wanted to die. The next day, at an unrelated meeting in one of  our field offices, a couple of social workers lambasted me for the choice of speaker, saying that they had come to expect being vilified by clients but not at their agency’s own AGM. Ouch.

Today, I avoid the above scenario by taking the following steps when engaging a speaker:

  1. Know your speaker – whether it’s a professional speaker or someone who uses your nonprofit’s services, speak to people who know the person well or who have heard the speaker at other events. Make sure the person is the right fit for your purposes.
  2. Let the speaker know what you’re expecting – Never leave it up to the speaker to figure out what you want. Make it clear who the audience is, why you want him/her to speak and what you’re expecting in the way of comments.
  3. Help out the non-professional speaker – If you are asking someone to speak who has never spoken in public before or has limited experience, guide him/her through the process. Offer to meet, help to draft the comments or refine what the speaker has pulled together.
  4. Know what your speaker is going to say – Even if it’s a professional speaker, make it clear that you need to know what he/she plans to say to ensure that it fits with the rest of the program and doesn’t overlap with what someone else is saying. Experienced speakers expect this and will often ask you these very questions.

You can never prepare too much for a public event and that includes making sure your key speakers don’t surprise you when they open their mouths. Avoid embarrassment and potential disaster by taking the above steps.

Have you ever been caught off guard by a guest speaker at an event? What steps do you take to ensure the experience is positive?

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