Wednesday, March 02, 2011

4 Things To Do If Your Speaker Cancels (#Meetings)

Every meeting planner has the same nightmare...  They spend months organizing the perfect event for their company or association, with an eagle's eye for every detail.  Then at the last minute their keynote speaker backs out.  Programs are printed, people are arriving and there is nobody to take the stage.

While rare, this does happen from time to time.  While there is no excuse good enough for the meeting planner, I have known of speakers who have had travel issues with airlines, been in car accidents, gotten the flu, calendared the wrong date, or had a family emergency.

A speaker no-show is more common for small groups that are not paying the presenter or use local executives for their program.  Professionals make their living serving the client and will move mountains and part the oceans to be at the event.  Because professional speakers work with meeting planners everyday they understand and respect all the nuances that go into executing a meeting.

I have seen events of all sizes scramble at the last minute to fill an open slot in their agenda.  Below are four things you can do if your speaker cancels at the last minute. (These apply for both local business club luncheons or a large multi-day industry conferences):

1.  Always have a Plan B.  I have worked with several organizations who have my phone number on speed dial in case of a need for a last-minute speaker.  While you might not think this would be something that would happen very often, I have filled in seven times in the last four years (last minute can mean a few days in before the event, several hours in advance, or once I was pulled from the audience to deliver a 45 minute keynote).

Savvy professional speakers also have a network of industry friends they can recommend who can step in at the last minute if a problem occurs. While you never want to get that call from your speaker saying they are too ill to speak to your audience, if they have already found a fantastic solution it will make your day much better.  (Speakers who are members of the National Speakers Association can tap into this network no matter where in the world they are scheduled to speak).

2.  Look to your event agenda, past speakers or future speakers.  A multi-day industry event will have a full docket of speakers who will already be present.  Look to see whose program could be up-graded from a break-out to a keynote.  If it is a break-out session you need to fill, see if the keynote speaker has more information that can be delivered as a "booster shot" to those who might want more following his or her main stage program (some speakers will charge you for the extra presentation, but most will be happy to step in and help you out in your time of need).

If it is a local business luncheon, look at your list of past speakers you have had over the last two years and see if you can bring one of them back for an encore presentation.  Since they already know the audience and the venue, they might be comfortable filling in with little notice.

Additionally, maybe a future speaker would be willing to come in and do his talk early.  Some people might not be able to do this from a preparation stand-point, but asking is always a good idea.

3.  Create a round-table lab.  Your audience is full of brilliant people.   Select two or three topic questions that are cutting-edge and involve timely issues.  Get someone on the board or planning committee to be the Master of Ceremonies and explain openly and honestly about how the speaker could not be there.  Next proclaim this to be a fantastic and unique opportunity to crowd source knowledge and best-practices.  Make the audience the heroes.  Then share the discussion topics, having each table elect a discussion leader.  Every few minutes the MC will encourage a new question be bantered about at the tables.  During the last 20 minutes of the meeting each table reports to the whole the best thoughts shared in their group.

4.  Make it a networking opportunity.  Turn the speaker-less meeting into a "Networking Speed Dating Bonanza" by encouraging people make more contacts.  Extend the reception time, and once seated for the meal have everyone introduce themselves around their table.  When dessert is served encourage everyone to move to a new seat in the room.

A main reason people attend business events is for the "networking opportunities", and most meeting planners admit that no matter how much time they schedule for people to mingle, they do not do a good job of it.  Make this open time powerful by facilitating introductions and connections.

Leadership is paramount to success in this situation.  If you confidently communicate to the attendees that the meeting will still have an equal or greater impact, then they will follow.  If you are timid about the changes to the program being positive, then they are lost.

***How about you?  What other suggestions would you add to this list?

Have A Great Day

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. 

(** Special thanks to my friend Scott Ginsberg who suggested I blog about this topic after I shared with him a story about a CEO who missed a local business event).


Jeff Hurt said...


This has happened to me...several times. And the unfortunate thing is that is seemed to happen with marquee famous people that were being used for large highly produced general sessions of 12,000 attendees. We had excelent contracts, had paid our deposits on time, had good relationships with these people and their handlers but the day of or the day before they unexpectedly canceled.

On one occassion, I had 12 hours to find a suitable replacement for a general session. I contacted a lot of resources and famous people I had worked with in the past but no one could get to the facility in time. I ended up having to find someone on the West Coast that could take a red-eye flight for an 8 am presentation. I went with a non-famous person that could deliver the goods.

The questions I asked potential replacements:
1) Do you mind being plan B?
2) Can you guarantee me that you will deliver a homerun presentation that will knock it out of the park for my audience? Remember, they will be expecting a marquee name so they will fill let down.

We worked all night with our production crew to come up with an usual intro that highlighted the original speaker and then looked like it was crashing. We did a humorus take on firing the speaker and bringing it a rising star.

The was one of the best general sessions we ever had. The substitute speaker was better than the original one scheduled. We also worked with the substitute to create PPT presentation that was a humrous spin on the orignal presenter's PPT.

One of the other times this happened was that my famous person overslept. Long story short, she was two hours late to her general session and the audience waited on her! We got our fee back because the speaker broke her contract. She felt so bad that she stayed half a day with our attendees signing autographs, taking pictures and being present.

Sometimes you can't always have Plan B ready. Sometimes you have to punt. In today's world the best thing to do is to use Skype as a backup and bring in the presenter or a sub via the internet. That works well too.

thomsinger said...

thanks Jeff. Great comment!

thomsinger said...

I forgot one more idea I have seen executed to spectacular success:

#5 Create An "Expert Panel". Who are the four or six most admired people in attendance at your event. Replace the missing speaker with an "Expert Panel". Have all of the thought leaders sit in a row and select the best MC you can find (the moderator is crucial to this being well done).

Have the moderator interview all the panelists about their best ideas in regards to an important topic, then allow the audience to participate in Q&A with these masters of knowledge. With four or six on the panel no one individual needs to carry the whole presentation.

Unknown said...

The only time i didn't make it to give a speech was because the night before I went into labor at the hotel!
My son was a month and a half months early ( i don't wait 9 months for any man) I called the conference planner in a panic and said i have some names of speakers in the city ( through the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers) and it turned out they had a speaker who could cover the session at the conference anyways.

It was quite a ride for me because I wasnt allowed to go home as you are not allowed to take a preemie on a commercial airline so I stayed at the hotel and my baby stayed at the hospital for a month.

OliviaC said...

Hi Thom,

Well I would add to that list: book your speaker through a Speaker Bureau whenever you can. Because if a speaker drops out at the last minute a speaker bureau has the expertise and the network in place to find another speaker who can replace your intial choice at the very last minute. And at Speakers Corner, we know it happens rarely but when it does, we have always been able to find someone to replace the initial speaker booked... It's one of the invaluable additional services a Speaker Bureau can give.

Dominican Republic Real Estate said...

i truthfully enjoy your own writing kind, very remarkable,
don’t give up as well as keep writing due to the fact that it simply just worth to follow it.
looking forward to see a whole lot more of your current well written articles, enjoy your day

Anonymous said...

I just had this reality hit me for the first time and my event is in 6 days. I have radio interviews and commercials running with my keynote speaker and the secondary speaker. I'm looking for another person to take my keynote's spot or just have the secondary speaker be the only speaker now. After 20 years, I guess this is the first time for everything. thanks for writing the article to help reconfirm my course of action.