Cannon Beach Conference Center

Caring For Your Speaker

NOTE: This article originally appeared under the title “Stop Speaker Abuse!” by Dewey Bertolini in the Fall 1993 issue of Youthworker magazine. Some of the content has been modified to better apply to the majority of our groups that attend CBCC.

With many indignities I have coped with during my dozen years as a traveling speaker, but few compare with the kamikaze rats, Camp Stench, and the lemon honorarium.

  • The squadron of rats dive – bombed themselves relentlessly from the rafters onto my bunk from midnight to five each morning during a three-day leadership conference.
  • At a weeklong summer camp, a septic line backed up into my bathroom any time anyone, anywhere on the grounds flushed.
  • After a weekend speaking in a sun seared, windswept wasteland (my lodging, a tin can trailer), my honorarium consisted of one bag of lemons – a commentary on my talks, no doubt.

Ah, the glamour of the ministry! And to think that I chose this line of work!

I cringe now remembering how I treated speakers in my early youth ministry days. Why wasn’t I sensitive to what these travel worn road warriors endure? Maybe I had to do it before I could understand. If I had known then what I know now, I would have treated my speakers far differently. Only years later have I realized why some of my speakers never returned for a second event.

Having been both a host and a speaker, I’d like to offer some suggestions that will leave your speaker personally refreshed and your group spiritually revived.

1) Recognize what you’re asking of a speaker. Life on the road is anything but easy. When you invite speakers to participate in an event, you’re asking them to endure at least some of the following:

  • Time away from one’s family.
  • The frustration of simply getting to the event (driving to LAX during the morning rush just to catch a flight creates a week’s worth of stress for me!).
  • The emotional drain of the speaking itself.
  • The helplessness I feel when after a session of speaking, I listen to story after heartrending story from one guest after another.
  • A subsistence diet of hostage – like rations.
  • The often unreasonable expectations of the counseling or leadership staff. (Isn’t every speaker Superman or Wonder Woman?)
  • The inevitable criticism when those expectations aren’t realized.
  • An exhausting schedule that often includes late night and early morning commitments.
  • A drafty room and sagging mattress.
  • In all likelihood, a less than livable paycheck.
  • The typical impossibility of seeing the results of my labor.

Before you pick up the phone and invite your speaker, realize that speaking is hard work. Then you’ll be more tolerant when your invitations are turned down, and more appreciative when they are accepted.

2) Match your speaker with your goals. Every speaker brings to the platform a unique blend of style and message. My style, for example, is direct, confrontational, and issue – oriented. A friend of mine, on the other hand, packages his messages in a hilarious, stand – up comedy presentation. Yet another weaves emotionally gripping human interest stories into his talks. While each of these styles may be equally valid, none are equally effective in every situation. So, consider the event and the speaker before trying to force a fit that will frustrate you, your guests, and the speaker.

3) Include all details with your invitation. Speakers need vital data in order to make an intelligent decision about their participation in an event. The following information should accompany every request:

  • Dates of the event

  • Name of the sponsoring organization

  • Location

  • Brief description of the event, including the specific goals

  • Number and length of the talks

  • Any additional responsibilities

  • Profile of guests attending the retreat

  • Both the expected and guaranteed number in attendance

  • Reasons the potential speaker was invited in the first place
  • Travel and housing arrangements
  • Specific amount of honorarium
  • Name and phone number of the contact person

Only with this information in hand can speakers properly evaluate an invitation.

4) Provide some comfort in traveling and housing. Let’s face it – unneeded wear and tear on the old bod causes many a speaker to burn out prematurely. As one who has spent much time on the road, I can tell you that it’s the little things that make the difference. Too often a host’s insensitivity to a speaker’s physical comfort is unprofessional as well as unnecessary.

When I was invited to speak at an out of state summer camp, the director expected me to drive the several hundred miles at my own expense. A conference director recently routed me from Los Angeles to Phoenix to St. Louis to Cleveland – and then only then to my final destination. Why? The airfare was $200 less than for a nonstop flight.

When a buddy of mine requested a mid – morning flight rather than the red eye, the conference organizer did everything within his power to convince my friend to forgo his request. Later we found out why: the travel agent was trying to win a contest by becoming the first to fill the 2 AM flight.

Regarding housing, the rule of thumb is this: all things being equal, a refreshed speaker is a more effective speaker than an exhausted one. Last year I spoke at a family camp. ‘We’ve got you in a nice cabin on the grounds,’ the pastor had assured me. ‘Big living room, separate bedrooms for each of your kids, a private bathroom.’ What we found was a concrete slab on which stood four prefab walls that had no insulation against cold or noise. Cardboard dividers defined the ‘separate bedrooms’. When the camp finally ended and we left his nightmare lodging for good, my family and I felt thrashed.

Speakers don’t need to be pampered. Millions of third world people live in hovels. But this family camp wasn’t in the third world. With ample facilities at our disposal, there is simply no need for shabby treatment of speakers.

5) Protect your speaker. The germ of this principle began germinating in my mind after I had been tied to a chair and was bracing myself for the annual speaker’s surprise, the Ten Buckets of Doom. Understandably, the contact person for this event hadn’t warned me about the chocolate syrup, melted marshmallows, feathers, and assorted junk that was about to be poured over me. ‘Hey, he’ll be a good sport,’ the leaders assumed. ‘He’s the speaker, isn’t he?’

Protect your speaker from pranks. Offering a thousand points to the first team who can throw the speaker into the pool, or forcing him to sing ‘Gray Squirrel, Shake Your Bushy Tail’ before five hundred guests in the dining hall hardly makes for a positive experience – from the victim’s point of view, that is.

Likewise, protect your speaker from criticism. For example, don’t open a meeting of your leadership staff as one retreat coordinator did: ‘Do you or your men have any complaints about Dewey’s messages so far?’ The director meant no harm. But such treatment can leave a speaker feeling utterly demoralized.

Finally, protect your speaker’s time. Skits, recreational responsibilities, cabin devotions at night, daily counselor meetings – these can exhaust your speaker’s physical and emotional resources. By all means, allow speakers to participate if they choose to – but neither require nor expect their involvement.

6) Pay properly and promptly. Money is usually the last item discussed whenever a group contacts a speaker with an invitation. When the subject does come up, it’s usually accompanied by coughs and hesitations that betray embarrassment in even broaching the subject.

Frankly, a fee set by the speaker makes life simpler for everyone. The invitor can evaluate the fee and decide to extend or withhold the invitation. The speaker knows up front what he or she will be paid. By charging a set fee like this, on the other hand, speakers risk appearing materialistic – especially if they charge outlandish amounts.

Other speakers entrust themselves in good faith to the conference organizers, and usually find themselves treated fairly (though they do sometimes end up with a bag of lemons or its equivalent). When I receive an invitation, my practice is to send the contact person a questionnaire asking for the information in my third point above. Only then can I accurately assess the proffered honorarium.

When setting the amount of the honorarium, consider the number of times the individual will speak the number of students who will attend the event, and the difficulty of travel required to get to the event. The more effort speakers expend getting to your site, the more they should be paid.

Here are rough estimates of what I consider appropriate honoraria (though don’t be surprised by higher fees that may well be warranted, considering the speaker and/or the logistics):

  • A local, one message event (such as a banquet or an outreach night): $200 – $400.
  • A local, weekend event: $600 to $1200.
  • A local, week – long event: $1000 to $1500.
  • Anytime an airplane is involved, a minimum of $1000 for the weekend should be budgeted, with $1500 and up for a weeklong event. (This is only the honorarium, not expenses such as airfare.)

Have the check waiting for your speaker when he or she arrives. I cannot tell you how many checks I still have coming in the mail – that infamous black hole of phantom honoraria. One last remark about money. I believe that for the sake of accountability, no one should travel alone. Could you budget for two plane tickets per speaker? A member of one’s family or a colleague should accompany a speaker whenever he or she travels. Too many questionable circumstances beyond one’s control can ‘just happen’, no matter how circumspect an individual may be. Jesus sent his disciples out by twos, never individually. Perhaps you can encourage your own speakers to follow the same pattern.

7) Pool your resources. Speakers don’t come cheap. The proper treatment of a speaker can become a big-ticket item. Avoid SSS (speaker sticker shock) by pooling your resources by cooperating with other ministries in your area. It just doesn’t make sense anymore to fly someone halfway across the country to speak to thirty people. We could accomplish so much more, for so much less money per paying customer, if we pulled five or six churches into an event. Besides, such unity pleases God, increases the opportunity for significant ministry, makes a positive statement to the entire community, and makes good business sense besides.

When R.J. invited me to come speak in Portland, he clearly articulated the goals of his Northwest event. I knew exactly how many talks I would do and a reasonable estimate of how many guests would attend them. By involving two dozen churches, R.J. planned an event that influenced hundreds of guest rather than dozens. He held the event in a hotel, housing me in a comfortable room away from the crowd. He encouraged me to bring my son. He stated his standard honorarium and asked m if that was a fair amount. When I arrived in my room, a basket of fruit (no lemons) on the table greeted me. During the course of the event, my wife at home received a small gift as a token of R.J.’s appreciation for her allowing me to come. Two weeks after the event he sent me a thank you note.

Because this guy cares about his speakers, he put together a quality event, demonstrating the fine art of avoiding speaker abuse, leaving his speaker totally refreshed and the students spiritually revived.


Maybe one of these ideas will work:

  • Videos or 16 mm films
  • Local pastor
  • Radio programs
  • Published Bible studies
  • Books with study guides
  • Published sermons
  • Personal studies
  • Alternate members of the group
  • Cassette tapes

The right speaker can be invaluable in helping meet the goals of your retreat. Here are some ideas of where to find them.

  • Publications and brochures of conferences and seminars
  • Magazines and book covers
  • Pastors conferences
  • Radio stations
  • Denominational publications
  • Ministry leaders from other churches
  • Friends and family

Scheduling a speaker can be tricky, but here are some tips to make it easier.

  • Plan dates for your speaker at least one to two years in advance.
  • Send a letter of introduction/information on your group and a request for several optional dates (if possible).
  • Follow up with a phone call or second letter in a few weeks to see if those dates would work and to clarify any questions.
  • Once a positive answer is received, send a letter of confirmation.
  • Three to four months before the event, send the letter with details of the retreat.
  • Two weeks before, call the speaker to finalize details of travel and other questions.