August 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 4 // Tools of the Trade // 4TOT2

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Before You Say Yes: A Planning Guide for Speakers

We need guidelines to help us decide whether to accept invitations to speak, whether to a class on campus or a special interest group outside. As educators and workshop organizers, we could also use suggestions on how to approach potential speakers. This article describes a single-page format that can be used to guide the planning process. Essential elements include contact information, location and organization of the activity, audience, learning goals, expected content, conclusions, and evaluation. Use of this planning sheet can give organization to an often haphazard process of planning, and enhance the potential of achieving the learning goals of a presentation.

Charles Francis
Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska
Internet address:

Heidi Carter
Education Coordinator
Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska

Cris Carusi
Information Specialist
Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin

James King
Assistant Professor & Distance Education Specialist
Agricultural Leadership, Education, & Communication
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska


When people are asked to be on a program, they often say "yes" because they are flattered by the invitation, it's part of their job, they are obligated to the person doing the inviting, or their calendar is open that day. Event planners need to provide enough information so that the invitee can make a thoughtful decision. It is up to the organizer to prepare the best possible event, ensure the speaker and goals are appropriate for the intended audience, and check that all arrangements are made well in advance.

A form such as that in Figure 1 at the end of this article can facilitate communication between speaker and organizer. A speaker can have this form handy when invitations arrive, or an organizer can prepare parts of the form and provide it to a potential speaker to complete. We suggest that the form and a copy of this article be given to potential speakers. The form would be essential if another person took over planning. It can also be helpful to a session moderator.

The Form

The Facts

The need for current and complete contact information as well as particulars on an event is obvious: when, where, AV equipment requirements, audience. The organizer must also note specifics regarding travel and reimbursement. Who makes travel arrangements? Who pays for what and when? Is an honorarium involved? Most invitations to Extension and government agency representatives do not involve payment, but rather depend on the interest of the speakers and their willingness to provide a useful service. But it's still useful to discuss what the speaker will gain from the experience: a chance to reach a new audience, an opportunity to advance an agenda, or a forum for floating new ideas.


Writing down the topic clarifies the presentation and establishes the framework. The title is negotiable and may change during preparations. Any modification should be clearly communicated and subject to joint approval. Only in unusual circumstances would an invitation be, "Just come and talk about your research."

Audience and Materials

A speaker needs to know as much as possible about the audience, the nature of the site, and the flexibility in setup arrangements, and to have some indication of recent experiences with the group. Dates for materials that are needed before the event should be discussed and recorded. The speaker can list what existing materials will be used and what materials must be developed.

Learning Goals

Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you are going, you are liable to get there!" Too often we consider learning goals to be implicit in an invitation. For example, "We are having our annual meeting of the farmers' society on Saturday, February 19th. Could you come and talk about your research on open-pollinated corn?" If you have expertise and enthusiasm about the topic, there is a quick "yes," and the conversation is finished. But the organizer's and the speaker's expectations may differ. Each may have different ideas about what is important to cover. The probability of a useful experience is increased by making sure learning goals are explicit, understood, and mutually accepted.

Learning goals should be appropriate for the type of group, their ages, their prior knowledge, and their current interests. Even for the same topic, the goals may be quite different for a high school class and for a group of retired landowners. Learning goals also guide the outline of the presentation and determine teaching strategies. A good question is, "What does the audience want to learn?" There may be value in a historical overview before launching into a topic. Side journeys can maintain interest, but should only be used when the results can be related to learning goals. Regarding strategies, mastery of a technique for the field is unlikely to be achieved through a classroom lecture.


This section should include the opening, outline, and activities. The first 5 minutes are critical. They will determine whether an audience wants to listen to the rest of a presentation. A striking statistic or brief story can provide this entry and gain attention. The opening is on the form because the organizer may have valuable ideas.

Working through an outline can help the speaker tap the organizer's experience with the group. The conversation may include possible themes, ways they can be approached, and resources. In most situations, it is possible to introduce variety and brief participatory activities. For example, participants can write down a response to a question and briefly discuss it with their neighbors. Adults have an attention span of 10 to 12 minutes, and a change of pace is essential to maintain focus.

It may be useful for an organizer and speaker to discuss other details before the event. Is the single-person presentation the best approach? What hands-on exercise can we do? During the conversation, other options may arise, additional speakers may be suggested, or new ideas may completely change the event.


During the presentation, it is valuable to survey the group to see if learning is taking place. This review can be done by asking questions and recording answers or by giving a short, informal quiz. Rather than being seen as a disruption, we need to recognize that short breaks for evaluation are in themselves a part of the learning process.

The final evaluation is important to an audience because it brings a sense of closure, a sense of satisfaction in accomplishing stated goals, and even some direction for the future. A good evaluation causes people to reflect and to integrate new information into their personal context.

We found that paired interviews are highly successful. Two people ask each other questions related to the learning goals and record each other's answers. This method introduces a higher level of responsibility than filling out a questionnaire. Participants from several workshops even rated the paired interview as one of the top activities. The final evaluation also gives feedback to organizer and speaker that helps them design follow-up materials and/or action steps.


The answer to "Should I say yes?" is one that a speaker should decide after careful discussion with the organizer. If you're the right person for the challenge, and if you have adequate time to prepare under the conditions described by the organizer, there is every reason to say "yes" because you'll be successful. We think using the form will help an organizer and potential speaker arrive at the best match.

Figure 1.

Before You Say Yes: A Planning Guide for Speakers

Topic: _____________________________________________________

Date & Time: __________________ Location: __________________

Type of Audience: _________________________ Number: ________

Event Organizer, Phone, Address, Email:


Invited Speaker, Phone, Address, Email:


Learning Goals:

  • Opening and Content: Conclusions: Visual Aids, Activities, Other Needs: Evaluation of Learning Goals: How much time will this take to prepare? _______ When? _____