Every few weeks I get a call that goes something like this:

“Donna, we’re thinking of inviting Jane [or John] Doe to speak about social media at our executive leadership conference [or all-employee meeting or …]. Have you heard of him [or her]?”

In the best of all possible worlds, the caller has named someone I respect, and I can say: “Yes, I know her. She’s great. Excellent choice!”

Often, though, the name of the potential speaker is new to me, so I will say so, adding: “My not knowing Jane does not mean she’s not capable. It just means we haven’t crossed paths.” On a few occasions, I’ve later searched online for the person and found some excellent blog posts, articles and Twitter updates.

Sometimes, though, a Google or Bing search turns up a few dozen hits, with no blog, no Twitter stream and no Facebook or GooglePlus presence. Hmm. Hey, there she is on LinkedIn! Nice start!

If I turned up for a seminar on social media by someone who is just learning the ropes, I’d be pretty peeved. Actually, last year I attended an event where a speaker talked about social media as though we were frozen in 2008. His slides and statistics were woefully out of date, accompanied by screenshots of the old Facebook. Sitting there, I was waiting for him to exhort us to join MySpace. (Was he ill-informed or just lazy? I don’t know.)

So what kind of due diligence are these organizations conducting before hiring a speaker? Do they ask for references? Testimonials? Anything?

The next time someone asks me for advice, I’m going to offer up suggestions like these:

  1. Be certain of the needs of your audience, and what you want the speaker to accomplish.
  2. Sharpen the topic and find a speaker who can address it. “Social media in business” is too vague. “Using social media to market your book” or “Boosting restaurant sales with Twitter” are better. In fact, you probably don’t want a “social media speaker” at all. You really want someone who can talk about marketing or communications or fundraising or whatever, and the social media tactics that work within well-crafted strategies in these areas.
  3. Know whether you want someone to speak in theoretical or practical terms. A person who is an academic and not a practitioner cannot tell you about the genuine challenges and benefits of using social media in an organization. Does she have any business experience, or does she speak based only on research? This distinction may not rule the person out as a presenter, but I’d be cautious before hiring her because she may not be able to answer questions based on the real world. (That being said, I would expect a speaker to do a certain amount of research so that her presentation is up to date and tailored to the audience.)
  4. If he purports to be an “expert” in social media (or, God forbid, a “guru”), look for his presence on various social media platforms. Is he active? Does he have a following? (If he calls himself a “ninja,” by the way, I think you should look elsewhere, but that’s just my opinion.) What is the person talking about in his blog, on Twitter, and so on? Is it all about him, or is he sharing valuable knowledge?
  5. Ask for references from previous groups the person has spoken for. Does he have video or audio on his website, to give you an idea of what he’s like on stage?
  6. Also ask what the person did before becoming involved in social media. Look for someone with experience in a relevant organization or industry.

Of course, all of this assumes that the person knows how to present, and doesn’t stand there droning on reading his slides.

Am I being fair? What would you add to this list?

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