I recently spoke with a friend who shared some hilariously awful stories of his guest speaking experiences at Christian events. This reminded me of some of the more interesting experiences I’ve had (including being asked to speak, and then asked to register), which in turn caused me to reflect what it means to look after guest speakers well.
I have spoken at schools, churches and conferences. I also serve with a Christian organisation that invites numerous guest speakers each year to teach at large-scale conferences. All this is to say I have experience on both sides of the ‘guest speaker’ fence, and I have both a personal and professional interest to see speakers well looked after!
I’ve compiled a list of 10 tips – based on my own experiences and observations, but also from asking speakers with significantly more guest speaking experience – that describes what’s what’s helpful and what’s not when it comes to looking after your guest speakers.
If I were to summarise these tips in 3 words it would be this:
Love your neighbour.
But let’s look at how this plays out in detail.
1. Be clear about what you are asking them to do
When inviting a guest speaker to speak, it’s helpful for them to know exactly what it is you are asking them to do. For example:
“We would like you to preach 3 times on the theme of “Living in the Last Days” with 2 Peter 3 as your text. Each sermon is to be no more than 40-minutes. We would like you to preach in the morning session on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and participate in a 30-minute Question and Answer session on Saturday afternoon.”
This clear invitation enables the speaker to make an informed decision about both their availability and suitability to participate.
2. Avoid mission creep
Closely related to point #1, as much as possible it’s best to avoid making requests on top of the original invitation. One speaker I interviewed was invited to preach 4 times at a conference, but when he arrived for the weekend was asked to speak at an additional 4 events (church service, outreach event, etc.)! Every spare moment not speaking was spent preparing for these additional speaking engagements and not surprisingly, he was exhausted!
Of course, the speaker can say no to these requests, but it’s better not to put them in the awkward position of having to do so in the first place.
3. Confirm a detailed itinerary as early as possible
It’s loving to plan ahead and give as much information as possible, as early as possible. Apart from the big picture items (flights, session times, etc.), the itinerary can also include important details including:
- Who will meet them at the airport.
- What times they are required, and where.
- What they should wear at each engagement.
- Where they should park.
- Where they should go when they arrive.
- Who they should contact if they get lost.
- When slides, handouts, etc. are required.
These details are simply the result of considering the question: “If I were invited to speak at this event, what would I like to know?”.
4. Provide a flat bed (i.e. Business or Premium Economy ticket) for long haul flights
For long distance flights across the dateline that are likely to cause jet lag or just weariness, a flat bed is of great benefit. This may sound like a luxury and it certainly adds to your costs, but it’s as much in your interest as it is in the speaker’s.
Remember – they're not coming for a holiday, they're coming to serve. And the less tired and fuzzy they feel when they arrive, and the less time it takes them to get back on their feet, the faster and better they will be able to serve you! You can put then on a 12-hour economy flight, but don’t expect them to be firing on all cylinders for at least 3 days after they arrive!
5. Ask questions
Loving your neighbour involves not making assumptions about what is best for your neighbour, but genuinely seeking to understand their needs. When your neighbour is a guest speaker, you might like to ask them questions such as:
- Do you have any allergies?
- Would you prefer to eat before or after you speak?
- Are you happy for people to come and speak with you afterwards?
- How do you like to rest?
- Would you like to use any slides or handouts?
Some speakers might also like to bring a +1 – usually their spouse, or an assistant. This is often not because they want a fun trip away, but for the purposes of accountability. So it can be helpful to ask if they will be bringing anyone with them, and accommodating this as you plan.
6. Provide a comfortable place to stay
One of the speakers I interviewed told me of the time he was billeted with a family for a conference, and he slept in a child-sized bed! This didn’t make for a great night’s sleep – and a tired speaker is not in the best position to serve the following day. This speaker was quick to explain to me that he has no expectations of a five-star hotel – but a comfortable, adult-sized bed with a private bathroom and space to prepare is always appreciated.
7. Acknowledge the cost to their family
Donald Whitney refers to this as “remembering those left behind”! Others pay a price when a speaker attends your event. If the speaker has a family, their time away (both at the event, and preparing) requires a solo effort from the remaining parent. So it is always appreciated when this is acknowledged by the event organiser – perhaps in the form of flowers sent to the speaker’s wife, or movie tickets for the family to enjoy some quality time together when they reunite.
A cost may also be incurred by the organisation the speaker works for – e.g. the Bible college or church. They don’t (usually) expect to be compensated, but a thank you card is a nice way of saying “we appreciate you allowing him/her up to be with us.”
8. Ensure they are not out of pocket
I have never met a speaker who was motivated by money to speak at an event. That said, a guest speaker shouldn’t be poorer as a result of speaking at your event! There are lots of incidental costs that can be incurred by speakers:
- Petrol money.
- Taxi fares.
- Travel insurance.
Each of these costs should be covered by the event organiser – in advance, if possible (e.g. a petrol voucher), or promptly after the event. This should be at the request of the event organisation – not as a result of the persistent nagging of the speaker! A speaker may be happy to absorb these costs – but this shouldn't be assumed.
I was once asked to speak at a conference interstate, and when I accepted the invitation I was then sent a link to register (at my expense) to attend! I was very happy to speak at the event and wasn’t expecting to be paid to do so (I knew the organisation didn’t have much money), but I wasn't expecting to be financially contributing to the event.
If you are organising the event and money is tight, make this clear up front (see point #1). Explain what is and isn’t possible, and let the speaker decide whether or not they would like to proceed.
9. Provide an honorarium
An honorarium has one purpose – to express appreciation for the valuable contribution of the speaker. It’s not about payment for services rendered – most Christian events could never afford to pay this at an hourly rate when the total time for preparation, travel and attendance are all factored in.
But a gift (usually financial, but not necessarily) is a valuable expression of gratitude.An honorarium says: “You’ve spent significant time and effort to serve us – and we want to thank you and honour you.”
The amount is usually inconsequential — again, most speakers aren’t looking to walk away with a heavier wallet. And again, if you are organising the event and money is tight, make this clear up front.
That said, some speakers (and musicians) rely on these events to pay the bills. In this case, it is important to love them and pay them – because the worker is worthy of their wages.
As a side note, it’s also helpful to ask how they would like to receive the honorarium – paid to them, or to their employer, or to a mission agency they support, etc.
10. Follow up with them after the event
This is not only a courtesy to say thank you, but also an opportunity to share how the Lord used them. As Thom Rainer explains:
“After we prepare, pray, and present, seldom do we hear how the Lord may have used our efforts beyond the event itself. A simple email report sometime later can provide much needed encouragement and inspiration.”
I did this recently after an event I was organising, sharing some of the feedback our delegates had shared about how the event had impacted them. This feedback took very little time for me to share, and was a tremendous encouragement.
11. Provide a key point of contact
This has been mentioned numerous times. Not only is this helpful in the lead up to the event, it is also greatly appreciated when this person meets the speaker when they arrive – praying with them, and helping them to get settled in. The key contact can also serve an important role after the speaking engagement – particularly in directing f the speaker is swamped with people who want to speak with them afterwards.