By Donella Meadows
–October 21, 1993–
Once I asked my favorite writer, Wendell Berry, to give a speech at Dartmouth College. “Which would you rather have me do?” he asked. “Go around speaking, or stay home and write?”
That was easy. There’s nothing on which I’d rather have Wendell Berry expend his life energy than his writing. I won’t trouble him again. And I thank him for that reply, because it made me think about how I expend my own life energy.
I expend it on both sides of the Big Important Event that needs a speaker. I’m the program chairman, looking for someone who will attract people and leave them in a gratified state of mind. Or I’m the invitee, answering the phone call, responding to the letter, and sometimes — rarely — giving the speech.
On both sides of this speaking business, I’m frustrated. As the person with the hole in the program, I’m a good-hearted volunteer with my organization’s reputation at stake, I’m shy about approaching speakers, and I fear rejection. As a potential speaker I find myself spending hours fielding invitations and balancing obligations. I keep thinking there must be a better way to handle the transaction from either side.
One solution is to put the problem into the hands of experts, namely speakers’ bureaus. They maintain lists of willing speakers on all topics and do the negotiating with the chairpersons of the program committees. For their services they cream off 30 percent of the speaking fee, which as a result is usually high.
Something bothers me about this commercialization of what I see as a community service, but in my frustration with the time it takes both to find speakers and to handle speaking requests, I have made my peace with speakers’ bureaus. I advise you to turn to one next time you’re on the program committee. Even if your virtuous organization hasn’t much money, the bureau may be able to put together several engagements in the same region to attract the person you want.
What if there is simply no money? In that case I’d ask someone close to home, someone fresh and interesting who would be eager for the opportunity. If there’s a special point you want your speaker to put across, consider putting it across yourself. Many requests I receive are from someone wanting me to be his or her trumpet. I’d rather encourage people to be their own trumpets.
If you must invite someone not through a bureau and not within your local network, I can offer some guidelines. You might sense a tone of frustration as I describe them. That’s because I know what happens to a speaker’s life if they are violated many times a day.
First, do your homework. Know who the invitee is, what he or she stands for, why you want him or her. Don’t say, “Well, my friend heard you and said you were good,” and then fish around wondering “good for what?” Don’t ask someone to talk on a subject about which he or she has no expertise.
Don’t even hint that your choice is quota-based. Even if you think you do need a woman on the panel, or an environmentalist, or a whatever, it’s insulting to let a person think that’s the main reason you thought of him or her.
DON’T CALL. Especially not at a home number. Imagine ten good-hearted people calling in one day. Write a letter instead.
Make your written request concise and clear. Specify the date first (it may be impossible, whatever comes next). Then describe the audience, purpose, topic, and what a tremendous difference you hope that speech will make in the world. Then the financial arrangements. Don’t ask what the speaker charges; tell what you can pay. A low honorarium will not doom your request, but a high one will almost certainly increase its chances.
About honoraria: I resent them if I’m paying, and feel guilty if I’m collecting. It takes a good conservative to come at this question squarely. William F. Buckley once mused that if people want to know what he thinks, they can buy his books. If they want him to TELL them what he thinks, they’re asking not for ideas, but for entertainment. Entertainers, he said, cost money.
For that reason, or just for purposes of honest compensation, understand that you’re asking for hours or days, if you include travel, out of a busy person’s life. Offer an honorarium and make it as high as you can.
If you want a fast answer, include your phone and fax number, or, best of all, include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with a check-off, yes or no. If the answer is no, don’t ask why. Maybe the potential speaker has a tight deadline, or another engagement in Tulsa or Timbuctoo, or, in my case, my sheep are expecting lambs, or I need one night at home that week. It’s really not your business. Take the “no” as well considered and end the conversation. Don’t ask what date would work. Don’t ask who else could fill the program. You’d be surprised how many desperate program chairpersons ask me that. My heart goes out to them, but it’s their job to fill that speaking slot, not mine.
A final suggestion: reconsider the idea of having one exotic person do all the talking. That age-old formula is, when you stop to think about it, boring and unempowering. The interesting part of the program is the end, when the audience gets to talk. Why not let everyone talk right away? Or get a few people to research the subject to get the discussion going? You might discover how much wisdom already exists right at home, without the need for speakers from anywhere else.
Think how much time, money, and fossil fuel that would save!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993