There is nothing more destructive to trying to put on a good event than difficult speakers. Short of your venue exploding the day before your event, anyways. We’ve all experienced it. From the big name keynote with a two page list of demands to the panel speaker that’s completely disorganized, handling difficult personalities comes with event management territory.

Having a good strategy in place to manage your event speakers is critical. Here are some best practices that I’ve used in events around the world over the years to prevent working with difficult speakers, ensuring they have a good experience, or in the worst cases minimizing their damage.

1. Always take personality into account when selecting speakers:

If you’re building your event from the ground up and have the capability to screen for this as one of your aspects during the selection process, get clear on how people are to work with. If your chosen speaker is a known diva, does their expertise or the value of their brand outweigh the headaches that they are likely to cause your team? In some instances, you’ll choose to work with them anyways – but can be transparent with your staff about potential challenges and plan for them proactively.

2. Use speaker contracts that have clear deliverables and exit clauses:

Don’t skimp on speaker contracts. Simple models can be found online or by mining documentation for past events. At a minimum, the speaking agreement should outline the speaker’s commitment in terms of topic, event location, duration of talk, compensation, and expense reimbursement. Outline any special requests that they’ve made which you’re able to accommodate, and be sure to have a clear cancellation policy. Build in the chance to cancel at any time, offering a kill fee if necessary. Beyond that, consider developing a scope of work that clearly acknowledges any “out of the ordinary” aspects, and includes mandatory deadlines (e.g. attending a prep call with the panel moderator, sending presentations or bios by X deadline, etc.). Always require a signed contract back or an email acknowledgement at the minimum.

3. Focus on the small details:

Every time I’ve had a speaker meltdown, it’s over the little things. Remember to look at it from the other person’s point of view: often they’re extremely busy, under pressure from demanding jobs, and away from their work, home and family to attend your event. Simple things such as the car failing to meet them at the airport or a projector not working in a session understandably feels bigger under those circumstances. Commit the energy needed to make sure that logistics run smoothly, be in regular contact to troubleshoot problems, and take note of special requests. Getting the logistics right is often all it takes to avoid a speaker meltdown.

4. Have a staff member on standby to deal with issues:

This strategy works on two levels. Many issues can be avoided simply by having someone available to help solve problems. Designating a team member as the point person for your speakers and circulating their mobile number gives speakers someone to call with there is a question or problem. Empower that person to problem solve in a proactive way. Having an appropriately senior staff member who can speak directly to a speaker behaving badly is also important. At one event I managed, a speaker was demanding that young staff members fetch coffee, etc. I stepped in and we had a quick conversation that this was not appropriate, and the behavior stopped.

5. Don’t be afraid to pull the plug:

Sometimes, despite your best efforts it’s impossible to make the situation work with a difficult speaker. It’s important to do the following. Document all issues in a straightforward, factual way. Attempt to address the issues by having a senior staffperson talk with the speaker and refer to the contract if needed. When things aren’t working, simply cut your losses and let the speaker go. The ability to do this will be somewhat conditional on your ability to line up another speaker, but if it looks like things aren’t going to work out – get that process started sooner rather than later.

Have you ever dealt with a difficult speaker? Let us know in the comments below what issues you’ve faced and how you’ve handled them.


Liz Alton's experience in event planning runs from renting out entire South
American towns to planning intimate gatherings for heads of state.She's
particularly interested in the intersection of new technology and event
planning to make events successful, efficient, and fun. Liz is now a blogger, copywriter, and social media strategist based in Boston.
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