In Any Event 

Now, hear this … to speak or not

Alan Carmichael
Alan Carmichael

Finding a guest speaker for your event may seem daunting, but if a planner knows where to look, the process can be smooth and beneficial for the attendees and the organization.

The initial question to ask: When should we consider a guest speaker?

Good answers are: When you want to create interest in your organization, boost attendance at an event and draw even more people, especially new ones, to your cause.

The key is twofold: Find a guest speaker that will resonate with your audience. Good choices are media personalities, authors, athletes, comedians, elected officials and other notable figures. Then, match the speaker with your audience and other targeted attendees.

“A good fit is critical,” said Alan Carmichael, president and COO at Moxley Carmichael, and a frequent speaker and trainer. “The speaker must engage the audience and be dynamic enough to hold their attention.

“This is especially important for a recurring event because you want the speaker to be interesting enough that people will come back the next time.”


By increasing attendance, a guest speaker can have a positive impact on fundraising. A popular speaker with a topical message can allow an event planner to adjust ticket prices and sponsorship income upward, Carmichael noted.

The Volunteer Ministry Center has made great use of speakers for its events. Last April, the annual “Carry the Torch” luncheon featured critically acclaimed author Pat Conroy. The 2015 event, also to be held at the Knoxville Convention Center, will feature another noted writer, Sue Monk Kidd. Companies sponsored tables, and donations were accepted at the event, which also garnered significant media coverage.

John Seigenthaler
John Seigenthaler

Event planners should realize speakers are looking for audiences: to promote book sales, advocate a position that needs public support, etc.

National speakers can be found through agencies that represent speakers. Some companies and organizations have speaker bureaus that offer experts on various topics. Local speakers can be contacted directly or through marketing and public relations representatives.

“There are plenty of websites out there to find speakers,” Carmichael said. “Guest speakers always are looking for an audience.”

It’s important to do video and Internet research on speakers, too. Search YouTube clips, as this is a good way to evaluate whether or not the guest speaker fits the event.

“Having a compelling message is the key,” said Carmichael, who added a speaker without passion for the subject will lose the audience.

Carmichael recalled a memorable speech by the late John Seigenthaler, a legendary journalist and civil rights icon, who passed away July 11, 2014. Seigenthaler was the former editor of the Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, and Carmichael worked for him in the 1970s as a reporter at the Nashville paper.

Seigenthaler spoke last January in Knoxville at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon.

Butch Jones (UTAD photo)
Butch Jones (UTAD photo)

“John spoke movingly about his role in the civil rights movement,” Carmichael said. “He was attacked by a mob in Alabama as he was trying to rescue Freedom Riders. Everyone at the speech was riveted by his words.”

Peyton Manning and Butch Jones made speeches this past summer to help raise capital funds for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley. They aimed their remarks at the audience.

“What made it so good was that Peyton talked about how he got where he was in life on and off the field,” Carmichael said. “It wasn’t just about football. Butch told the story of how he and his wife Barbara helped a young athlete along the way. They tailored their remarks.”

Joan Cronan and Natalie Haslam
Joan Cronan with Natalie Haslam

Former UT Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan is an excellent motivational speaker, he said. And News Sentinel cartoonist Charlie Daniel makes humor an effective part of his presentations.

“Humor can be tough to make work, but Charlie is one of those speakers who knows how to make it appeal to his audiences,” Carmichael said.

“It does help to be a cartoonist, or a humorist like columnist Sam Venable, who is another popular speaking choice.”

Event planners should always seek to improve their event from previous years. It’s important to select a speaker whose message is different from past appearances.

Event supporters enjoy variety and surprises – especially at galas and fundraisers – and that will keep people coming through the doors.

Michael Tremoulis, a fall intern at Moxley Carmichael, is a senior at the University of Tennessee studying public relations. When he’s not daydreaming about meeting J.D. Salinger, smoking a cigar with Winston Churchill or sharing a beer with Jack Kerouac, you can find him obsessively listening to Bob Dylan or eating a smorgasbord of meats and cheeses.



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