Anyone who has led the search for a lobby day speaker knows how tough it can be.
The speaker must deliver a mix of education and motivation, engaging a group of volunteers who are either itching to meet lawmakers or tired from trekking The Hill.
The list of wants and needs within your organization can be huge, too. The CEO has ideas. Board members have suggestions. The survey from last year’s event presents a few requests.
While every association has a different process for hiring speakers, all of them start with needs and figuring out the type of content you want, and end with names. You need a strategy to begin identifying speakers that meet your organization’s criteria.
Here are some solid steps you can take, based on interviews we conducted with more than a dozen association leaders charged with hiring speakers every year. The job can seem daunting. But a little organization goes a long way.
Develop Your Radar
Begin by approaching your job with a few maxims. First and foremost is to start early on speaker selection.
Many speakers are booked six to nine months in advance, and you want a broad field to review. You don’t want to find a promising person only to realize they are already engaged for your dates. Starting early will give you the best chance of finding a solid speaker.
For those who do not have the luxury of an early start, or who need a speaker on a short deadline, head to your speakers bureau. They can work with your needs and your budget to get you a list of available speakers — and fast. It’s not an ideal situation, but it's a problem that can be solved.
The second maxim is to start thinking about speaker selection as an all-year activity — you should always be on the hunt for a great lobby day speaker. It sounds tiring, but it’s actually pretty simple.
Here’s a strategy.
Start a file and begin paying attention to your regular media diet. When you read an interesting piece in an industry publication, drop it in your file. See someone compelling on Anderson Cooper or the Sunday shows? Add the name. Soon enough, you’ll have a growing list of people to vet, and ideas to discuss.
Of course, you can also add to the diet. Get on list at your speakers bureau, so you know when new talent hits the circuit. Join lists that announce new authors. Add more trade journals to your mix, as well as mainstream publications that address national trends, like the Harvard Business Review.
Consume anything that can help you compile a list of names and ideas. If you have staff, enlist them, too. Request that they contribute at least one name a week to your file.
Perhaps the most important strategy you can pursue to fatten that file is to gather personal recommendations.
A study on the use of speakers by consultants Velvet Chainsaw and Tagoras found that many organizations turn to sources they trust. “The top three avenues for ideas are recommendations from peers (84.0 percent), members (78.2 percent), and staff (69.7 percent),” the report said, adding that 57 percent also solicited recommendations from speaker bureaus.
This presents an opportunity to reach out to everyone who might have an opinion on your fly-in. Get input from the boss, staff, field directors, volunteers, the rep at your speakers bureau — and any other key stakeholders who can give you names.
You can also contact sister organizations to recommend successful speakers from years past. Overall, you will get a lot of odd suggestions. But you’ll likely get some gems, too. More important, you will have engineered a solid process. Remember that the key to smiles in the ballroom on lobby day is often inclusion.
Do First-Hand Research
The final step in creating a short list — and it is crucial — is to see the speakers you are considering in action. Hiring a speaker without seeing a video or a live speech is like buying a car without a test drive. There’s no way you know what you are getting unless you experience it.
Check the speakers bureau website, YouTube, TED Talks, and other sources. Make time to plow through a lot of video. One events director told us that he reviewed 100 videos to hire a single keynote speaker. That may be extreme, but you are likely to review dozens. Another strong idea is to start attending events yourself. When it comes to evaluating a speaker, there’s nothing like being in the room.
The result of all this work is that you will find yourself solidly in command of a process that intimidates many. Your short list of names will be strong, because you vetted them. Your constituents will be happy, because you included them. And your lobby day will be memorable, because the speaker was well chosen.
Looking for a thought-provoking alternative to the keynote? Try a custom speaker pairing, like these Political Duos.
Glen Justice is a content strategist and contributor to the WSB blog. He is the founder of Outside Voice, a custom content firm, and has been writing about advocacy in various forms for almost two decades.