How to Find the Best Speakers for Your Conference

By Anna Cifelli

It takes months of planning to pull off a successful annual conference. You need to book a venue, reserve room blocks, organize networking events as well as order food and beverages. And, of course, you will need to book knowledgeable and engaging speakers to draw attendees to your event. The burning question remains: how will you find the speakers and how far in advance should you secure their attendance?

At CMA Association Management, we have organized hundreds of conferences for clients across a multitude of industries and the world. We recommend that you begin the speaker search about six months in advance in order to research, locate and reserve the speakers who will best appeal to your audience. Speaker selection can make or break your conference attendance. You want members leaving the annual meeting energized, not griping about how terrible this year’s speakers were. We’re here to help, and here are our tips on finding the best speakers:

It’s all about learning. Remember that a major reason your association members have signed up for the event is because they want to learn. Their managers signed off on the conference expecting employees to gain industry knowledge to apply to their jobs which, in turn, will lead to increased sales and service.

Evaluate your industry. Is new technology disrupting the industry or is it expected to do so soon? Are experienced professionals struggling to relate to an influx of millennials in your industry? Does your industry involve a significant amount of travel and might security concerns be heightened? Every industry will be different, but each faces its own issues and concerns. Learn what those concerns are and address them head on.

Look at other industry events & talk to your board. Who has been speaking at other industry events in the past year and what topics did they address? If those topics are of interest to you, write down the speaker’s information. Talk to your board of directors or executive committee. These are executives within your industry, so ask them for suggestions. They may have seen an outstanding speaker or have heard from colleagues about someone who would be a great asset. Add those names to the list. Don’t worry about money (i.e. how much the speaker may charge); you are only compiling names at this point. If you need five speakers, aim to compile a list of 10, and if you need 10, aim to compile a list of 20.

Consider the budget. Some associations will have a budget for speaker fees, while others do not. If you have a minimum of $10,000 to spend and want a high-profile speaker, that’s great. There are speaker bureaus who represent some of the better-known speakers and will be happy to work out the details with you. However, many associations do not have that kind of money to spend on speakers. Know what you can and cannot pay for. For example, you will generally be expected to pay for a speaker’s flight, hotel and food costs at the conference, but do you plan to pay any additional stipend? It’s best to know at the outset what you can afford to spend.

What to do if you can’t pay speaking fees. Don’t worry if you can’t afford speaker fees, you will just need to be a little more creative. Don’t forget to mention your organization’s nonprofit status when you contact speakers, because many of them offer a discounted nonprofit rate. Also, look to governing bodies within your industry, as they may have staff members whose job it is to interact with professionals in the industry and may not charge a speaking fee. Consider speakers who may be mid-level in their careers and not yet able to command large speaking fees. Speaking at industry events can boost someone’s resume, so remember that you are offering a valuable opportunity to the right person.

Ensure your topics are diverse.  Not all of your members may be interested in the same topics, so make sure your speaker topics are diverse so that the conference appeals to a wide variety of people. If you believe there is a topic worth covering at your event that isn’t on your list, spend some time talking to your colleagues or searching the internet to find a speaker who can address what may be missing in your agenda.

Once you have come up with your list of potential speakers, start calling and emailing the people on your list. Don’t worry if your first choice doesn’t work out, that’s why you created a list with more names than speaking slots. Approach the task of contacting speakers with enthusiasm and your excitement will be infectious. Once you have secured verbal commitments, follow up with a written contract.

Finding the right speakers for your conference can be a daunting task, but breaking the process down into smaller pieces will make it more manageable. In the end, you will have a set of speakers who will not only bring their own enthusiasm to your event, but instill that excitement into your members, who will return to the field energized and passionate…and looking forward to next year!

Hard work does pay off.

Anna Cifelli is an account executive overseeing association client operations, governance and events. To leverage CMA’s expertise in finding the most impactful speakers for your industry events, contact us at 800-852-4269 or email us at

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