We asked you: 10 TEDx organizers share how they find speakers for events

TEDxHeraklion 2014. Photo by Nikos Charalampidis

TEDxHeraklion 2014. Photo by Nikos Charalampidis

Talks on science, space, and dung beetles. Talks on philosophy, medicine, and folding paper towels. Every day, all over the globe, TEDx organizers are tirelessly working to find inventive, ingenious speakers ready to bring talks to life.

We asked 10 TEDx organizers to share the process behind sourcing great speakers and great talks. Below, 7 pieces of advice that came up again and again:

  1. Use your theme as a guide. Use it to lead you to the questions, sub-topics, and issues that could be tackled in fascinating talks.
  2. Look for ideas that matter, then the people who can share them.
  3. Plan (far, far) ahead. Finding speakers takes time (not to mention communicating with speakers, navigating their schedules, giving them and your team time for rehearsals, revisions and unexpected hiccups). Give yourself time to look, time to invite, time to schedule, time to rehearse.
  4. Put together a curation team whose members have different interests and expertise. It will help make your line-up well-rounded and well-researched.
  5.  For inspiration, read, research and watch. Look to magazines, journals, films, reports, videos, museums, universities.
  6.  Ask around. Within your community. Within your team.
  7.  Stick with it. It will be hard at times, but on the big day, seeing your speakers light up a room with their passion for great ideas is worth it.

For more, read the full interviews with all ten organizers:

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Wolfgang Weicht, TEDxRheinMain

How do you find speakers for events?
We start with an event theme and define a mindset for that. Then we define a broad spectrum and everyone starts to select potential speakers. We then generate an A-list of speakers and a back-up list. Then we contact them.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Have a theme and define potential sub-topics. Generate a mind map to define a mindset for the theme.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
The more you do this the better it gets. Stick with the same speaker coach to ensure a learning curve regarding speaker training.

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Ruta Kruliauskaite, TEDxVilnius

How do you find speakers for events?
We first come up with the concept of the event and break it down to 4 sub-topics (according to 4 sessions). For each of the sub-topics, we raise a lot of questions that would fit the theme and look for speakers who could cover that. Looking equals browsing other conferences; reading magazines; posting an application form on our website. We also have each team member suggest leads and then we go through them together as a team. When we have leads for local speakers, we get to know them first and see if they are a fit for the event. We never say they’re definitely going to speak, it makes them work and prepare harder.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Spend a lot of time on it. Meet people, you will find the best speakers where you least expect it.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
It’s a very tough process and sometimes very slow, so you have to be prepared not to see results right away. But sometimes one hour spent on a single meeting and deep conversation brings so much more to the event than one hour multitasking on so many different small things at once.

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  Antonella Broglia, TEDxMadrid

How do you find speakers for events?
First of all we think of an event theme (eg. True and False), then a topic (eg. Mockumentary). Then we think about who could speak on that — eg. a movie director, a university professor, or a journalist.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Create relationships with the people in your city. Make sure you co-curate with people outside of your team who are in tune with new ideas. Always start with a theme, then a topic, then a speaker. The speaker is the last step.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
A good line-up is one that is surprising for the curator, too.

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    Angela Pause, TEDxWaterloo

How do you find speakers for events?
I read everything: The New Yorker, The Economist, The Atlantic, Nautilus, newspapers. I read what’s happening in my community and at local universities. I follow interesting people on social media. I know this works because I have identified potential speakers for my event that end up on TED, if not on my stage. We share the same standards and the same “aha” factor for what is an idea worth spreading.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Find eclectic thinkers and put them together.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
Take chances. Insist on benchmarks being met: outlines, complete talks, slides, rehearsals (live or Skyped). It is as much theatrics as it is intellectual.

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Michelle Jones, TEDxMtHood (formerly TEDxConcordiaUPortland)

How do you find speakers for events?
We maintain a year-round list of people who seem like they are doing good work and have ideas worth spreading in our community. One thing we started doing last year is inviting our alumni speakers (we now have 75) to nominate future speakers. We send a Google form and invite them to fill it out as many times as they wish. Our alumni speakers understand TEDx, understand our event, and the community we are building. We have also invited a speaker back to guest curate a session twice in the past and that has had mixed results. Some of those speakers are good, but having one person curate an entire session is a bit burdensome in some ways, so we have found that inviting speakers to nominate a few folks is preferable. We bring them to the event to introduce the speaker they nominated.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Use the community you have built to find good ideas for new speakers to add to your community. Start very early. We host a series of events with our speakers once we have the roster finalized (about 5 months before our event), so they can get to know each other and form a community with us and with each other. The first event is an informal get-to-know-you session, event 2 is a mingling with alumni speakers for advice, and event 3 is a “preview” event during which they give a 1-minute talk previews in the order they will present on event day.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
We end up with about 6 or 7 times the number of speakers we need, so we start VERY early with this process and do several rounds of narrowing down the list to get to a manageable-sized list of about 30-40 people who we can research in-depth to then choose our top 15 or 18 folks.

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Elena Papadopoulou, TEDxThessaloniki

How do you find speakers for events?
Ask our team to suggest speakers. Ask our community to suggest speakers. Ask people who are in a specific field to suggest specific topic speakers. We make a list from all the above and divide them by topics/fields of interest and then the curator and the team makes a list of their top 30 speakers and sends out invitations. The first invitations are sent to speakers from different fields to cover as many topics as possible.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Choose a general topic that can include speakers from various backgrounds. Include talks that cover as many different fields as possible related to the subject. Try to have 50-50 men and women. Pick 2 or 3 big names and have the rest of your speakers be extraordinary people who are not yet necessarily known to your general audience. Try not to make it too emotional. Very technical talks should be as simple and understandable as possible. The audience needs to understand what is being said on stage — images and simple graphs help a lot.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
A big name does not guarantee a great talk. You need to have a clear idea of what you want your speaker to talk about and guide him/her through the draft of his/her talk. Usually a “newbie” speaker gives a great talk as they are paying attention to the feedback given to them.

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Ioannis Iliadis, TEDxHeraklion

How do you find speakers for events?
Research, research, research. The process is made up of 3 steps: We follow trends in technology, science and culture, and look for social problems that are rising. We look for speakers from our community to speak about ideas coming from our community. We try to never forget the WOW factor; we try to find something from the entertainment sector or hard science that will make people’s mind explode. We use a variety of sources for research, from Harvard Business Review to TechCrunch to Kickstarter; from National Geographic to literature to architecture.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Define the subject. Define the budget to cover travel costs. Ignite minds. Try hard — finding a gifted speaker is not so easy.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
By searching speakers out and researching their work, I now have a knowledge base in subjects that I never studied before. That’s something to love.

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Barrie Cohen, TEDxSeattle

How do you find speakers for events?
Marnie Weber, my co-curator and I started last time by writing out questions that intrigued us about Seattle and were related to our theme. And we wrote out general silo ideas: Health, Environment, Tech, Culture, The Future. We are both Seattle natives and know a lot of people, which helped. I am also a voracious reader of articles about my city (business journals, tech journals) and I listen to the local public radio affiliate daily and write down names of people who have interesting stories to tell/ideas worth spreading. Other speaker sources are local meetup groups who have speakers at their events, our local university scene (UW, Seattle U, etc.) and my great team.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Keep a running idea sheet and share it with the whole team. When an idea for a particular individual or a topic pops into your head, add it. You might have an idea around a specific area like sustainable architecture, and a team member might know someone perfect, but that person never came to mind for you. When we audition speakers, we “grade” them in 3 areas: RELEVANCE to theme, CLARITY of their idea worth spreading, and OPENNESS to coaching. We don’t deal with people with impenetrable egos! We offer coaching and expect our speakers to engage with our coaches and prep to our standards.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
Trust your gut! If someone seems like they will be a pain in the ass to work with straight out of the shoot, they will, and it will come across in their talk. On the flip side, if someone seems right, but they are “green” and need more coaching, spend the time with them to make this the talk of their life rather than not selecting them because they don’t have a ton of experience. Passion trumps experience every now and again!

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Kara DeFrias, TEDxIntuit (Internal event)

How do you find speakers for events?
For TEDxIntuit, it’s a mix of people with whom we have personal relationships and people we’ve found from reading local magazines. For example, we’ll scour San Diego Magazine‘s 50 People to Watch issue and invite a couple of those people to speak. We also invited a speaker I met through another TEDx event.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
In addition to looking in local magazines and newspapers, take a look at universities in the area for who’s doing interesting work in their field.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
We’ve yet to have anyone say “no” to a speaker invite, which pleasantly surprises me almost every time (since talks given at internal/corporate TEDx events can’t be shown publicly).

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Kat Haber, TEDxHomer

How do you find speakers for events?
From personal experience; from NGOs; from local media; by noticing who is making big things happen regionally; from speaker competitions in schools; from nominations by community members; by identifying ideas that need to be amplified in the world and finding people who can deliver these powerfully.

What is your advice for organizers looking to develop a good speaker line-up?
Be willing to take a chance on ideas and people.

What have you learned from the speaker selection process?
It is often easier to coach “unknowns” than professional speakers.

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