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Proper Host Etiquette
After spending several decades on the speakers circuit and presenting over 650 talks, I felt a small booklet containing basic guidelines for those involved with booking speakers would be in order. I would like to thank others in the gardening speaking profession for their assistance and comments in the preparation of this booklet; Ken Druse, Pamela Harper, and Tracy DiSabato-Aust, Scott Ogden, Lauren Springer-Ogden, Bobby Ward, and Barry Yinger.
Speaking on the road can be a wonderful experience or a stressful nightmare. Those of us who spend our lives on the road have experienced everything imaginable from magical presentations to horror epics. Will reading this prevent every disaster? Probably not. Program chairman who cause most of the problems probably won't take time to read this. Those who care, probably already have this knowledge. Remember that the quality presentation you have booked depends on following these common sense protocols. This booklet is free for anyone to use and share and your feedback is most welcomed. We thank you in advance for taking time to read.
How do you begin to book a horticultural speaker for your group? First, it is important to realize that all speakers are not created equal and your job as a program chairman is to match a speaker to your audience. You will also need to realize that often a speaker who knows their subject may be a poor presenter while the converse is also true. Some of the best presenters often have a poor command of their subject matter. A good speaker is first and foremost a good entertainer. This is not to diminish the information presented, but the entertainment value is prime. If you have a keen audience, be sure an find a speaker who will not be above or beneath their interest level and who has top quality slides/images. Conversely, if your audience is mostly beginners, you need not book a top-of-the-line plant expert.
Word of mouth is the best way to find speakers. Attending symposiums is a great way to hear potential speakers and make initial contact. Most speakers are willing to recommend other speakers that they feel would be suitable for your group. Most specialty plant groups have a speaker bureau. These include the Perennial Plant Association. Most County Extension Services have a list of Master Gardeners who are available for local presentations. Local Arboretums, Botanical Gardens, and Garden Centers usually have a list of available speakers. While you can usually get local speakers with a short notice, most popular top flight speakers book talks at least a year ahead. The most popular months for garden talks are September-November and January through March. If you are booking a talk outside this time frame, you may have better luck booking on a shorter notice, although you may have difficulty getting a large audience due to vacations and other family commitments.
Why do speakers charge so much? Think of speakers as entertainers who are selling their time. Many have extra sources of income such as books, videos, plants, etc, but most must be paid for their time in order to make a living. If you are paying an electrician, plumber, or auto repairman fees of $100 per hour, why would a horticultural speaker be any different? The great disparity in pricing for speakers is in part due to ability, but also due to the value that the speaker places on their time. Speakers associated with government or educational institutions may consider talks part of their job duties. To prepare a talk, a speaker has the cost of preparing the lecture, cost of processing, filing, and assembling photos, if these are used. Additionally there is the cost of being away from their job for the time required to travel to and from the presentation venue. During this time, the speaker is unable to earn an income. Most garden speakers consider talks a break even proposition at best. When you book a speaker, you should expect to pay their honorarium plus cover all expenses. Some speakers are willing to compromise on published rates while others are not. Additionally, some speakers are willing to offer discounts for a second talk at the same venue. Other speakers may feel that they may not be able to do justice to a second presentation on the same day. Giving a good entertaining presentation is an exhausting experience, both physically (vocally) and mentally. Your speaker will have a good idea of their limitations.
Some speakers who depend on this income for their livelihood and don't have staff to send invoices may prefer to be paid immediately after the presentation. Conversely, others prefer to send an itemized invoice after they return home. It is a fairly standard practice for speakers to submit air fare invoices for reimbursement as soon as their tickets are purchased since this can cause a financial burden to some. These financial items should be clarified in advance of the presentation.
The range of what you can expect to pay for a speaker is as follows:
Booking speakers follows the old saying; you get what you pay for. The price range for horticultural speakers ranges from gratis up to several thousand dollars per talk. You can often get good speakers for little or no fee for local groups. These may include those who are just getting known, those promoting a line of products, or government employees whose salary include the obligation to speak without a fee. If money is a consideration for your group, consider partnering with other nearby groups, charging an admission fee, or holding a rare plant sale or auction to help offset some of the expenses.
While making phone or personal contact is great, do not assume that a talk is confirmed unless you have a written confirmation. Many groups like written contracts spelling out details and obligations, while other simply opt for a letter of engagement. Often other groups will want to piggyback on a talk that is already booked for a particular region. All additional presentations should be first discussed by the host and speaker. It is incumbent on the speaker not to make another presentation that would dilute the audience of the original group. Some groups require that a speaker not present another talk in the same region for a period of x months if they feel the audience for the particular speaker is limited. The more details that are in writing, the less that is left for misinterpretation.
Keep in mind that a speakers time is money and the more time spent conversing back and forth over details, the more the cost to the speaker. Many speakers now have prepared packages providing most of the details that you will need to ensure a successful program. If the speaker has taken time to prepare such a package, it is important the host take time to read the package and not call with details that have already been explained. Both over-communication and under communication can be equally irritating.
Once you have booked your speaker, you will need to decide on a topic and duration for the presentation. There are two distinct philosophies as it pertains to speaker topics. Some "old-school" speakers will put together one or two standard talks. These talks do not vary with the audience and will be used by the speaker for a period of years. These are referred to as "canned" programs. If you want one of these speakers, you are stuck with their canned programs. Some topics such as design and travelogues are less regional and are usually fine as a canned program. Most of the in-demand horticultural speakers prefer to adjust talks to fit the audience and climate where they will be presenting. Often these speakers will have a list of topics from which topics can be selected. The speaker will then assemble a talk based on the information you provide about the audience and about gardening and climate of your region. The top flight speakers will often adjust the talk even at the last minute to make it more applicable to the audience.
A standard duration for a talk is 45 minutes to 1 hr, often with time for questions and answer at the end.. If there are time constraints, it is important to let the speaker know before they assemble their talks. Talks can be scheduled to run up to 2 hours, but this is an exception. This is usually considered too long for an audience to sit without losing interest or a break. Ask up front since some speakers will charge more for talks in excess of 1 hour. Some speakers can also do two talks in the same day, but two is usually the maximum before their voice wears out. If you are interested in more than one talk, be sure to ask the speaker how many talks they can present in a short time frame.
It has become standard for speakers to supply slide lists for their presentations if the talk is one that will be used for reference. For "concept" talks about gardening or planting design, slide lists are not particularly valuable. If you request these months in advance of the presentation, this is likely to generate a laugh from your speaker, but not much else. Speakers on the circuit may have 5-10 talks in a 2 month period. Unless you are having a "canned" presentation, don't expect to see a slide list more than a few days prior to the talk. You will need to find a way to get slide list duplicated at the last minute even though it may be an inconvenience. It is up to the program chairman to request these lists, have them duplicated, then distribute them to the attendees. This is usually done at a registration desk, at the venue entrance, or placing them in the venue seats. Do not wait until the audience is seated and then hand out the lists. I have sent slide lists to program chairmen, only to arrive at the talk and find that they "didn't realize they were to be duplicated." All I can say is "Here's your sign."
Now that you have booked your speaker, you will need to coordinate getting your speaker to the presentation venue. While driving is an acceptable option for nearby talks, most talks will require air transportation. Due to the unpredictability of air transportation, it is never a good idea to fly a speaker in the day of the presentation unless the talk is scheduled for the evening and there are backup flights available into the venue city. For example, to schedule a flight arriving at noon for a 3pm talk could lead to potential disasters for the program organizers and stress for your speaker. It is always preferable to bring your speaker into town the night before the talk.
Most speakers prefer to make their own travel reservations. Many use travel agents and prefer the consistency that this provides. You can offer suggestions for flights that you find at a good price, but do not ask a speaker to make several extra connections just to save money. The longer a speaker is on the road getting to and from a talk, the more expensive it is for them. More importantly, the more difficult and lengthy the trip, the less energy and focus the speaker will have to give an entertaining presentation.
Many speakers will have costs involved with getting to and from airports (taxi or shuttle) as well as airport parking if they drive a personal vehicle. If your speaker lives an hour from an airport and drive themself, they have a two hour round trip drive + long term airport parking charges. Mileage is usually reimbursed at the standard General Services Administration Federal rate available at www.gsa.gov. As program chairman, be aware that you will need to reimburse these additional travel expenses as well as the cost of actual air travel.
Once you have a talk booked, I recommend that you contact your speaker at least two months prior to the talk and again the week prior. Be sure to give the speaker a contact phone number as well as cell phone number once they arrive in the venue city. A backup phone for a second contact person is also very important. When you contact a speaker, you will want to work from a checklist. This will prevent the need to continually re-contact the speaker every few weeks.
Before your speaker arrives in the venue city, be sure to coordinate transportation details. If you speaker has driven or rented a car, be sure they have both maps and written directions to their lodging and presentation venue (if different). There is nothing more frustrating for a speaker than getting lost with bad directions. If you are picking up the speaker and being their chauffeur, be sure to let your speaker know how and where to find you at the airport...signs with the speakers name work well. Be sure to coordinate what will occur during the time you have them in the car. Some speakers may enjoy a tour of the city or area gardens while other may prefer to rest in their hotel. Good hosts present a speaker with a list of options and let the speaker choose. While airport shuttles are occasionally used for speakers, this gives the impression that your speaker wasn't worth being picked up by a member of your group. If you are transporting a speaker to and from an evening meal, it is important that you provide the speaker with a designated driver who is abstaining from alcohol. It's amazing how insensitive some hosts are with what should be a common sense topic.
If your speaker will need to spend the night in the venue city, you will be responsible for providing them with accommodations for the evening. Some speakers enjoy staying in homes and others prefer to stay in hotels... be sure to ask. Although having speakers stay in a home will save money, do not press this issue if your speaker is not comfortable with this arrangement. It is your responsibility to make sure that the lodging doesn't present any surprises for your speaker. A good example in homes would be having to share a bathroom with kids, smoking or in some cases non-smoking hosts, or pets roaming free through the home when the speaker may have allergies. Despite best intentions and great hosts, home rarely provide any down time for the speaker to relax and focus on the upcoming presentation. Hotels that are under renovation or hosting a kids soccer team would also not provide a good nights rest for your speaker. These may seem like small issues, but are huge in getting your speaker mentally prepared to deliver a good talk.
In reserving hotels, ask your speakers about room preferences.... smoking vs. non-smoking and bed sizes. Most groups will put the room on their credit cards and speakers are only responsible for incidental expenses such as pay movies and personal phone calls. Hotels cannot charge a room to your card unless you physically take your card to the hotel. If not, it will be charged to your speakers card. Be sure to communicate with the speaker whether they will pay for the room pending reimbursement or if you will pay for the room.
Meals can also be a disaster if program coordinators don't check with their speakers about food needs and preferences. Consider that speakers with hearing difficulties may have great difficulty making it through a meal at a noisy restaurant. The same is true for drinks. To have a dinner/reception and not provide anything non-alcoholic is irresponsible. This should be asked of your speaker when making preliminary arrangements. Conversely, if your speaker likes to drink with dinner, do not ask them to drive themselves. If you are having a meal in your home, it is crucial that the menu be approved by your speaker. I have lost count of the times that I've had to find a meal after returning to the hotel late at night from a home-based speakers dinner. In most general restaurants, speakers will usually be able to find something that fits their dietary needs. If you plan to dine at an ethnic or specialty restaurant, it is important that you first check with your speaker.
If a speakers presentation is scheduled for evening, be sure to allow time for a dinner meal. Some speakers prefer to eat prior to the talk, while others prefer to eat after. Be sure to coordinate this with your speaker prior to time for the talk. If you are bringing speakers in from outside your local area, be aware of their time zones. I've flown across country to have speaker dinners scheduled long after the time I was both starved and dead tired.
If you are scheduling your speaker to actually present an after dinner talk, be sure to let them know in advance. Such presentation are often disasters since everyone is full, tired, and often intoxicated by the time the presentation begins. If you must schedule an after dinner talk, be sure the program begins as early as possible and is very light and very short. There is nothing worse than planning a nice hour-long presentation with lots of information to arrive at the venue and find out that you are last on the after dinner agenda. Imagine finally being introduced at 9:30pm when everyone is ready to leave. I wish I was making this up.
Symposiums, especially for professional groups are usually terrible for meal arrangements. It's a common joke among speakers at these symposiums that the organizers don't give them any information about pre-planned meals or dinner options. If you are serving a buffet, It is discourteous to make your speakers stand in line with the other attendees. They should always have the option of being escorted through the line first unless they have a preference to stand in line and chat.
It is crucial that your speaker visit the speaking venue before the presentation to familiarize themselves with the venue and the equipment. Often speakers may say that this is not necessary, but as a program chairman you must insist on this. Over 95% of all presentation snafues can be solved in advance by visiting the presentation venue.
Does your speaker prefer a podium and lectern or will these be in their way. I can't count the number of talks where a decorated podium left no room for the speaker to move around while speaking, while also blocking the audiences view of the slides. Obviously decorations took priority over the presentation. Screen images serve as a trigger for the speaker, so be sure that your speaker is able to see the screen. If your speaker needs to read as a part of the presentation, be sure the podium has a light, but not one that will bleed onto the screen. Again, I've seen presentations ruined by podium lights that glared on the projection screen. It is critical that nothing compromise the integrity of the image on the screen. Be sure to have a clean glass or bottled water or whatever the speaker desires available for the speaker at the podium or near where the speaker will be standing.
If there is a lost art, it's introducing a speaker. The introduction of a speaker sets the tone for both the speaker and the audience and is a important part of any presentation. It is always preferable to have the introductions done by someone who knows the speaker and is excited that the speaker is there. At the same time, some speakers object to "cute" introductions where the introducer upstages the speaker... be sure to ask. Introductions should be brief, but detailed enough to give the audience an idea of who they are going to hear and the topic of their talk. An unfortunate trend in poor hosting is to introduce a speaker only with "this speaker needs no introduction." All speakers, no matter how well known, need an introduction. There are many popular speakers who get subjected to this treatment. Sure, the audience may know their name or their business, but often the audience knows little else about a speaker. An introduction should never last more than 1-3 minutes... especially when there are time constraints. If the speaker has 45 minutes, they need this time in which to complete their talk. You do not give a ten minute introduction and then leave the speaker with only 35 minutes. I have often experienced a 15 minute introductions for a 45 minute talk and then the moderator had the nerve to cut the speaker off at the end of 30 minutes. Introducers must take time to chat with the speaker before the introduction. A good introduction should include the speaker's name, their topic and a synopsis of their background. The introduction includes a highlight of their work history, major awards, and often their educational background. It is amazing how often introducers mis-read biographical information, make up incorrect statements about the speaker, mis-pronounce their name, or even introduce the wrong presentation topic. If time permits, a brief personal experience about the speaker is a nice touch. All introductions should end with a statement such as "Let's have a big welcome for ......" After the introduction, the introducer should not deliver the introduction and then promptly leave the room. If the introducer has other duties to attend to, they should stand near the rear door and exit quietly after the presentation has begun.
If there is a tight time limit on the speaker's presentation time, you will want to remind them prior to the talk. I also recommend that you have a designated person sitting in the front of the room who will give a 10 minute signal followed by a five-minute signal. This allows the speaker time to wrap up the presentation in a sensible manner. A piece of white cardboard that can be seen in the dark or something similar is recommended.
It is the responsibility of the program chairman to get the audience back into the presentation venue on time. Whether starting a program in the morning or returning after a break, the schedule is disrupted when the audience isn't seated and ready when the presentation is to begin. Often presentations are delayed while the audience wanders into the room. Even worse is starting to introduce a speaker when the audience is still entering the room. If you have scheduled distractions such as book and plant sales, it is imperative that these be stopped in time to re-assemble the audience. Often having someone walk through these areas just prior to start time with a bell or other noise-maker is very effective.
If things go badly during the talk, it is the speaker who will get the blame, not the meeting organizers. This is why top flight speakers may be very insistent with regard to setup details.
One of the first and one of the most important details is room lighting. If the presentation is to be slides or power point, you will want the room to be completely darkened. If you can see to write in the room, it is probably too bright for slides. This means no rooms with large windows including stained glass, no glass doors in the rear of the room, no domes, no tents, and no overly bright exit lights that cannot be dimmed. The lack of attention that is often paid to this crucial detail is shameful. Good speakers spend hours taking, selecting, then pulling and assembling slides that will demonstrate their point. When these details don't show up on the screen, it is the audience that loses. When I ask about the lighting in a room, the typical reply is simply, "We've showed slides in here before." Please understand that this fact is irrelevant. Of the venues where I have been assured that the room can be completely darkened, such only proves true about 50% of the time. A speaker with poor slides may not care if the lighting is too bright. There must be no light bleeding on the screen if the images are to be crisp and colorful. The choice of the speaker may allow lights to be turned on low in the back of the room to allow for note taking. Some auditoriums have bright lights that highlight the speakers. More than one occasion, the lights not only affect the slide quality, but nearly blind your speaker. Be sure these lights are adjustable and check with your speaker to see if they are even needed.
Allowing people to re-enter the venue during the talk can also be a disaster if light enters the room when the doors are opened. Many venues suffer from poor design such as glass windows or walls just outside auditorium doors. If this is the case with your venue, either do not allow attendees to re-enter through those doors or install a curtain to block light from entering, when the doors are opened or closed. In all cases, someone should be stationed at the doors to keep noise and disruption at a minimum.
Tents are never a good idea for a talk. I have done several tent talks over the years of which all were disasters. I was never informed in advance that I would be speaking in a tent. This is inexcusable and causes hard feelings that can ruin a symposium. At one such tent presentation, the temperatures dropped to 40 degrees, at another the wind blew the tent flaps constantly, and another was subjected to a surprise thunderstorm. In all cases the slides were not visible due to excess light despite the tent walls and ceiling being covered with black plastic.
Communications ahead of time can solve lots of problems. As more speakers switch to Power Point presentations, I foresee an increase in equipment snafus because of the interface problems between computer systems. If your speaker is using a slide projector, be sure to discuss the type of projector that is needed since all slide projectors and carousels are not the same. Be sure to ask if the speakers are bringing their own slide carousels. Some speakers like to take slides, but not in carousels due to airline carry-on regulations. If this is the case, you will need to provide the speaker with carousels and a quite place to load their own slides. Very few top flight speakers allow anyone else to handle their slides. If you will be using rear projection equipment, this will require the speaker to reverse all of their slides. Again, this should be communicated in advance of the speakers arrival. In small rooms (<100 people), regular projector bulbs are often adequate. In larger rooms for larger audiences, standard projector bulbs are not bright enough to project a clear, bright image. In this case, high intensity bulbs with long range lenses will be needed. Usually these are best handled by professional audio-visual firms. This is as important as having a dark room as it affect the quality of the projected image. Regardless of the bulb used, there must always be a back-up bulb and projector available in the room. If a high intensity light is used and not cooled properly, it can melt slides resulting in a messy legal battle. Be sure to check to see that your professional projection company is insured against such damage.
Projectors must be located so that the image is as large as possible on the screen. Often, this means that they should be set far back from the presentation stage. Projectors should always be equipped with both auto-focus and a wide-angle or zoom-lens that can be adjusted for the particular setting. Presenting a program to a group of 1000 people with a three-foot tall image is simply not acceptable. Projectors should also be on the same level as the screen. So often projectors are set too low which either allows heads in the way of the images or causes the top of the image to stretch because the projector is pointed upwards at too great of an angle. If the projector is angled too high, it will also result in poor slide drop. Before the presentation, be sure to run through both vertical and horizontal images to make sure the projector is situated properly. This must be done before the speaker is introduced. There is no better way to ruin a presentation than to introduce the speaker and then set up the projector. It is always advisable to have someone stationed by the projector to keep the images in focus...eve n with auto-focus projectors.
Power Point presentations also will require a darkened room with a good quality projector. Poor quality Power Point projection makes the colors and images look washed out and has resulted in some horrible presentations. It will take years before Power Point projection reaches an acceptable level of quality from venue to venue.
One of the most often overlooked parts of the presentation is the availability of a remote control for the speaker to advance the slides. Remotes can either be wired or wireless. Wireless remotes are most common now, but be sure to always have a back-up battery as well as a backup remote. If a wired remote is used, it must reach the lectern with plenty to spare. I find that the remote doesn't reach the lectern at almost 25% of my presentations. Many times, audience member will be asked to go get a remote extension from their home... avoid yourself this embarrassment. While it may seem possible for a member of the audience to advance slides from the projector, this effectively ruins the speakers timing. As we mentioned earlier, good speakers view presentations as entertainment and in entertainment, timing is everything.
If any projection equipment is being used, there must be a person assigned to monitor the equipment and solve any projection problems. There is nothing worse than a projection supervisor who doesn't have the knowledge to solve even basic problems such as jammed slides. Wait, there is something worse... projection supervisors who leave the room during a presentation.
Even with the best of projection equipment, the presentation will be a disaster without a proper screen. Blank walls are a bad ideas since they do not have the reflective qualities to show good slide details. Small screens are also a disaster since they will not allow the image to be projected large enough to show details. Attendees in the back and sides of a room with a small screen miss most of the impact of a slide program. For a small room of 50 people, an 8' x 8' screen is a minimum. A 10' x 10' screen is a minimum for an audience of 100 people. For anything more than 100 people, you should only use a large wall mounted screen.
Be sure that chairs are placed where attendees will be able to see the screen. This sounds simple, but it is truly amazing how often this is not attended to properly. Seats should not be placed in front of the projector or podium/lectern or directly beside the noisy projector... unless of course this is reserved for hearing impaired attendees.
Just like projection equipment, microphones are an essential part of any presentation. Microphones can either be wired or wireless. It is probably malfunctioning microphones that have ruined more presentations that any other single factor. This is due to the fact that many groups try to save money by using cheap microphones. This is not an area to save money. Again, I would recommend that groups use a professional for this purpose. Microphones should be tested before the talk begins by the speaker and the audio-visual director. The speaker must be aware of any areas to avoid to prevent microphone feedback. There is often feedback problems when the speaker is using one microphone and the introducer is using a second microphone. The speaker must test the microphone in advance to find out where to hold or pin the microphone to get good quality sound to the entire audience.
Be sure and find out if your presenter needs a laser pointer. If so, be sure that it is available and in working order.
If your speaker will be selling or signing books, be sure to decide who will supply the books, the group or the speaker. Speakers make much more money if they supply the books themselves, but usually they are not willing to carry heavy boxes of books to talks. Conversely, the groups make more money if they purchase and sell the books. Groups can purchase books from the publishers, usually at substantial discounts. The books can then be offered at a lesser discount or even at list price. Book sales near holiday times make great gifts, so be sure and order enough. If you haven't sold books before, your speaker or the book publisher can usually help with determining how many books to order. Most speakers are glad to autograph books either before or after presentations, but need a local person to handle the money. It is also not a good idea to have food or drinks on the book signing table for obvious reasons. Other speakers may have catalogs or other promotional material that they would like to send for the presentation. The will need to be provided with a contact person and address to which to send the material. The program chairman should notify the speaker when the materials arrive and is responsible for bringing them to the presentation venue and distributing them to the attendees.
It's always a nice touch to send a thank you note to your speakers. Often speakers are glad to recommend other speakers for future symposiums. Some speakers prefer to be paid at the time of their presentation while others prefer to send invoices as a tracking mechanism. Be sure to communicate this ahead of time so the speaker is not expecting a check and no one is there to write one. If you need receipts for reimbursement, be sure to mention this to the speaker.
In the rare case that something goes wrong and the talk must be cancelled, be sure to communicate about who is responsible for costs incurred. If the program is cancelled, the speaker may have already spent time and money taking photos and/or assembling the talk. In this case, they are entitled to part of their honorarium to cover their expenses. If the talk has been assembled, usually a payment of half of their requested honorarium is considered acceptable. If little or no work has been done on the program and the speaker has not already turned down other programs, there may need to be no fee paid. This would especially be true if the talk can be rescheduled for a future date. Several of the top flight speakers are now requiring a refundable deposit to cover cancellation costs incurred.
Keep in mind that most airline tickets are non-refundable. If the speaker has purchased their tickets in advance and the program cancels due to weather or other unforseen event, the speaker should be reimbursed for the cost of the airfare. Hopefully, it will be possible to reschedule the talk in the future and re-use the ticket. If you decide to bring the speaker in on the day of a talk and there are transportation (airline) problems, you would be liable for all or part of the honorarium since the speaker has fulfilled their commitments to the best of their ability. The program committee would at least be liable for reimbursements of all transportation costs.
I hope by understanding and following these few simple rules, your program will be successful for both you, your audience, and your speaker.