how to follow up with a bad guest speaker

A reader writes:

In my current role, I’m responsible for hosting programs for my organization in honor of certain monthly observances (i.e., Women’s History Month, Disability Employment Awareness Month, etc.) that usually require a guest speaker. Because I essentially have no budget for this, I’ve had to rely on the kindness of individuals willing to speak at our programs for free. Usually I Google search who has spoken to other organizations in the area in past years, research their bios, education, and experience, and extend an invitation from there. I’ve had some amazing guest speakers who have given thought-provoking and insightful presentations, and I’ve also had a few that were a little short of amazing…but overall the programs are well received.

I recently invited a speaker who seemed great on paper. While maybe not as experienced as I would have liked, his credentials were a great fit for our presentation and he had public speaking experience. He was very passionate about this particular topic in speaking with him, and I’ve found that passion often equates to a great presentation.

The presentation came and went…and it was bad. He arrived 20 minutes late, citing accidents on the road (it was raining that day, but still). Instead of a lively, engaging presentation, he read a paper he wrote aloud — a paper that I would have considered not great had I read it in fifth grade. His cell phone rang in the middle of his presentation. Some employees afterward commented to me how this particular event was not up to par. This ultimately reflects on me (as it should).

The issue is that when he arrived and before his presentation, he asked me to write a thank-you letter and send it to his boss, and I agreed (I usually write a thank-you letter to the speaker anyway, unrequested). How do I word this thank-you letter now? Usually my letters are glowing about the presentation and how well-received it was. I feel like I’d be lying if I said how engaging, insightful, and well-received his presentation was. To be honest, his communication with me leading up to the event was riddled with grammatical and misspellings and didn’t reflect well on his organization (but he was already invited so I was naively hoping it wasn’t indicative of things to come). But then again, he took time out of his day to speak for free and his heart was in the right place, so I’d like to write something nice. How do I navigate this situation?

How about just thanking him for his time and enthusiasm? Those are two things that he really did lend you, and you could honestly thank him for them.

I’m curious about how you found him. Is he someone who does speaking engagements regularly, or was this more of a one-off for him? If he does this more than very occasionally, it might also be worth offering him feedback. If that’s the case, you could start by asking him if he’d like the feedback or not — saying something like, “I did receive some feedback from participants that I’d be glad to pass along if you’d like it.” Then, if he does, you could share with him that people were looking for more of an engaging presentation rather than just hearing him read a paper, and that people were disappointed that the event started late and was interrupted by his phone. But again, I’d offer him the opportunity to say yes or no to hearing feedback in general before sharing that with him and would only do this if he’s speaking regularly.

If you had paid him, that would be a different story — in that case, I’d say to share your concerns with him much more directly.

{ 104 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    I’m sorry, but not paying your speakers is BS. It’s not the job of a marginalized group to educate the non-marginalized group on their struggles, and if your company wants that kind of “enlightenment,” they should be coming up with the resources to do it. Anything else indicates that your company wants to feel good about itself without actually making it a priority.

    1. fposte*

      I get why you feel that way, but there’s a whole world where this is a thing–that’s why the OP can find people who’ve spoken to other organizations. They’re not usually people who get paid to speak who are then donating their services; they’re folks who just speak at places sometimes.

      1. nofelix*

        Nobody dislikes being paid. Offering compensation should be the default even when there is precedent of people working for free, just out of common decency.

        Speakers incur costs coming to speak at events. Even if they’re re-using material they will still have to put in some time to tailor it. Then there’s organization time, travel time and expense etc.

        I feel that ethically, if I want people to volunteer their time then it should be an open invite so interested individuals can approach me. If I approach someone then it’s with an offer for paid work, and they can always refuse the money if they’d prefer.

    2. Katie the Fed*


      If these issues are so important to the company, then pony up some cash to do the events right. Otherwise it’s just paying lip service and doing so in an exploitative way.

      Also, OP – you ignored some big red flags against your better judgement. I would listen to your gut next time.

      1. Chinook*

        “If these issues are so important to the company, then pony up some cash to do the events right. Otherwise it’s just paying lip service and doing so in an exploitative way.”

        I agree in theory but not all speakers need to be paid by the people they are speaking to. DH is the community resource police officer in town and speaks to lots of groups, non-profit and for profit, as part of his duties as outlined by the city. He is tickled when they actually feed him when he speaks at a dinner (there have been times when they have insisted he stay behind the scenes and not eat with them) but he would have to refuse if anyone offered to pay him for him time.

        As well, keep in mind that one bad speech doesn’t make a bad speaker in general. Getting rattled by something (like bad roads) can do you in. The only time I saw DH speak was at a dinner I was also a head table guest at (small town) and, when he mentioned in passing his military service, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. I could see that he was rattled (he never went overseas or in harm’s way but has learned to accept the gratitude shown on behalf of those who have but aren’t there but still is shocked to see it) and it showed in his speech. He normally can talk off the cuff with a few notes in front of him but not this time – he started rambling as he just couldn’t get focused after the interruption. Normally he is high demand by community groups and his boss hears compliments but you wouldn’t have known why from his speech that night.

        1. Helka*

          I don’t think this was a case of being rattled, though — bringing a written paper and reading it off is definitely amateur hour when it comes to public speaking.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Yes. And you have to know your own capabilities. I’m a shockingly bad public speaker. Nobody believes it because I’m generally very composed, and then they see me try to speak in front of a room and are like “yeah, ummm….not your strong suit.” So I do more things 1-on-1 and behind the scenes. I wouldn’t sign myself up to do speeches.

          2. T*

            Actually, that’s not necessarily true. In some academic settings, reading a paper and then answering audience questions is normal. You’re right that it is not usually the best way to keep an audience engaged, particularly when they aren’t already informed or enthusiastic about a subject.

            I would guess in this case, it was the speaker’s way of making sure he could keep his thoughts straight and coherent. Hopefully the letter writer’s feedback will help him improve.

        2. PEBCAK*

          But the OP says they are relying on the kindness of individuals willing to speak for free. That’s really different from individuals who are paid by their own organizations to do outreach.

          1. Laufey*

            How so? It sounds like the key thing to the LW is that she doesn’t have a budget to work with. If the ultimate prerequisite is that the speaker not be paid by the LW’s company, does it matter if they’re donating their time, gaining exposure, marketing a non-profit, or being paid by their organization?

      2. Ops Analyst*

        Former non-profit educator here… I did a lot of volunteer speaking for local organizations in whatever area I happened to be working. I did it in support of our mission, as well as to provide enriching learning experiences to the community. Occasionally I went to other orgs and corporate offices. I never got paid by the people who invited me. It was part of my job and I enjoyed it.

        1. Not telling*

          Yes but it was your JOB, and you worked for a non-profit,and it sounds like you were speaking to other non-profits.

          OP sounds like she is organizing an effort for a for-profit organization who is maybe trying to increase their ‘social responsibility’ agenda. In this kind of situation, non-payment does the opposite–it devalues the speaker and their subject matter to expect these speaking efforts to be provided for free.

          1. Ops Analyst*

            As I said, I went to corporate offices too. It was part of my job but I did a lot of it during off hours. A better way to phrase it might be to say it was part of my career. It wasn’t just for the specific job I held. I did a lot of that kind of stuff to advance my career and reputation in the field. People do free stuff or pay to do things that advance their career all the time. This is really no different.

      3. Steve G*

        But the type of people who accept money to speak may not be experts in the field you need them to be.

        Even little old me has spoken 2X at conferences. Both times were part of larger panel discussions and I presented on industry-specific nuances that you really had to be doing my job to understand – not just have a broad understanding of issues.

        I gladly accepted the invitations to speak because I wanted to get the word out about what I saw as design glitches in the way our industry was regulated and my job gladly ponied up the expenses there and back.

        My company making hundreds of millions per year really didn’t care whether we got a couple of hundred (or thousand) from this, and how much could I ask for anyway. And getting paid wouldn’t have made me prepare any harder.

        That being said, I had to send in multiple draft powerpoints and talking points before being allowed to present, and before the last one, we have an hour-long pre-panel powwow call. There were a lot of “what is your point” and “why do you think that” type questions, I wasn’t allowed at all to just talk about what I wanted, or wing it.

        1. Not telling*

          Again, this is not the same scenario. You were speaking to your professional peers. Your position on the panel was recognition of your level of knowledge and expertise on the subject matter.

          And not all companies make millions or would turn their nose up at a few hundred dollars in speaking fees. The fact that this guy was asking for a letter from OP suggests that the company grudgingly gave him time off for the event–and probably not enough, hence his tardiness–and want documentation of his efforts in order to correctly account for the cost of his absence, in their marketing budget.

          Likely if OP refuses to provide the thank you note, the speaker will be forced to take the time as personal leave, and that will definitely reflect badly on OP!

          1. Ops Analyst*

            I’m not sure I get all objections are from people who aren’t speakers when so many people who are speakers are blatantly telling you it’s not a problem. Some companies pay for speakers, some don’t. Some speakers are perfectly happy doing it for free, others are not. Who are you to say that all companies should pay and that no speakers should be happy to do it for free? If you don’t want to speak for free, don’t. If you don’t want to ask someone to speak for free, don’t. But don’t go waging a battle on behalf of people who aren’t even asking you to fight.

            1. nofelix*

              People who are speakers and do it for free are often doing so to build their reputations to find paid events and don’t want to rock the boat.

      4. Mabel*

        Regarding this – “Also, OP – you ignored some big red flags against your better judgement. I would listen to your gut next time.” – I’d be interested to hear what Alison would suggest you do if you’ve invited someone to speak (based on whatever research you could do on the person) and then have doubts or want to rescind the invitation. I wouldn’t know what to say.

        1. Nan*

          I think this can be what white lies are made for: “I’m so sorry, but we’ve had a conflict come up with this event and need to cancel for now. I so appreciate your willingness to speak, and apologize for needing to cancel.”

          Of course, if you’re cancellong because you found their blog full of racist rantings or something, I’d advocate clearly telling them that’s the reason.

    3. misspiggy*

      For me it depends – but yes, unless being a guest speaker benefits the speaker or their organisation, non-payment does seem odd. At the very least, I’m not sure how a poor speaker could impact negatively on the OP’s reputation, when there is little or no budget to justify high expectations.

    4. hayling*

      I dunno I’ve given unpaid presentations to other companies as part of a “panel of experts.” It was fun, good PR for my company, and you usually get some kind of gift afterwards.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Loads of organizations send speakers for free, because part of their mission is to educate on their issue. When I worked for an animal protection organization, I gave countless talks for free — to schools, to community groups, etc. It was part of what we did to advance our issue.

      1. Helka*

        I wonder if the OP can clarify about that — “relying on the kindness of individuals willing to speak for free” doesn’t sound to me like they’re getting people who are speaking as part of their jobs (for which their employer is paying them). But on the other hand, asking the OP to send a thank-you note to the speaker’s boss does sound like this was something the speaker was doing as part of work.

        1. fposte*

          Even if it’s an organizational expectation that you do some stuff like this, it’s still a lot of extra work, travel, and off-hours obligations, and I’d consider it a kindness. I do a lot of this stuff, and it would piss me off royally if somebody took it for granted because they figured I had to do it.

          I also think there’s a spectrum that some people may not be familiar with. Sure, there are people who come to the workplace the way Officer Friendly came for assemblies, which is clearly on the clock stuff that’s part of their job. But there’s also a lot of evening, weekend, conference speaking unpaid that’s encouraged for outreach but is taking additional work and time.

        2. Not telling*

          I interpreted the request for the thank-you note as an indication that the employer is basically asking for a ‘doctor’s note’ to explain the speaker’s absence from work. Likely the employer was extremely unwilling to let the speaker off work for a little while, resulting in him not giving himself enough travel time. Without OP’s note, the speaker’s absence may be attributed to an unexcused absence and he’ll likely face repercussions.

          This really should be a wake-up call to OP that he/she is not just relying on ‘kindness’. These people are making real sacrifices. The guy will probably have to take vacation time for his speaking time and may get in more trouble if she doesn’t produce a thank-you note verifying his absence from work.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I wouldn’t conclude that at all! I mean, it’s possible but the more likely explanation is just that he wanted credit with his boss for doing something in the community.

        3. snuck*

          I would be thinking a healthy donation to the speaker’s cause is a good idea – if the company doesn’t want to pony up for it then a quick whip around or a donation box by the door or whatever… (In Australia) if you speak at a different church – effectively taking the sermon space – you are often paid a small amount towards your time/goal. Service organisations often offer a box of chocolates or a bunch of flowers for their dinner speakers (Rotary/Country Women’s Association etc) … I would find it odd if there wasn’t any ‘reward’ for the speaker, but a token reward like this shouldn’t be seen as payment either – it’s thanks for their time organising and presenting.

          If I reached out to an organisation and asked for their recommendations on a speaker, and then the speaker was a mess then I might reach back out to my contacts at that organisation and casually mention it “Hey Joe Bloggs was really late and the presentation was just a read out speech, maybe you could help them put something a bit more inspiring together so next time we can have a great response to your organisaition/theme/whatever” smile smile smile.

      2. PEBCAK*

        The OP says she is relying on the kindness of speakers, not that the speakers are paid by their own organizations to do this type of outreach. If it is indeed part of their own jobs, that’s a different story, but as written, it sounds like the set-up benefits the company more than the speaker, and that’s what I read as being a problem.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think it’s all that different from going into a high school to talk at career day. You do it because you get something out of it, or you wouldn’t bother to do it.

          This isn’t like asking people to perform entire jobs for free. It’s an hour of their time, which they’re willingly giving for some reason of their own (wanting to promote a particular message, networking, resume builder, whatever).

        2. fposte*

          But she’s not luring people in with the promise of being paid and then stiffing them. Speakers are agreeing to this arrangement, so presumably they consider there to be sufficient benefit to them too. I don’t see any reason to second-guess them on this.

        3. Ops Analyst*

          There are people in the world that are happy to offer volunteer services. It’s a feel-good thing as well as a way to gain a reputation and increase knowledge and skills in your field. As mentioned above, I did a lot of this kind of stuff as a non-profit educator in the past but I also pursued volunteer work on my own that I did not get paid for by my org. It was something that I wanted to do. It was exciting and fun, provided excellent networking opportunities, built my reputation in my field as an expert, it developed my public speaking skills, and gave me a sense of greater contribution. It really isn’t always about getting paid. A lot of the time it’s about giving back.

      3. Development professional*

        This is true.

        I wonder about the OP’s research methods though. If it’s a regular part of her job to book speakers on these various issues, maybe what she really needs to do is spend time learning about these types of organizations and building a network of people who do this. If she’s googling who spoke to other organizations, instead of googling for organizations that care about the topic she wants to cover, this could be where she’s getting into trouble.

      4. Sara*

        Exactly this. I work for a political organization and of course we go give talks for “free.” Yes, we might not be paid for doing that particular event for an hour, but if someone hears us saying something they agree with and as a result decide to give us money, then that speech was definitely not “free.” This is something that’s regularly done.

    6. TheLazyB*

      Depends. I work for a government organisation and not only do we have a teeny tiny budget, but we’re very limited in what we can spend money on. Our CEx has been told he cannot authorise buying tea and coffee for staff.

      If people are willing to speak for free, why shouldn’t they? Maybe they’re doing it for the experience and/or exposure.

      1. PEBCAK*

        The problem is that exposure and/or experience don’t pay rent. There is a pervasive attitude that speakers, artists, writers, etc. should be glad to work for “exposure,” but if their work is benefiting the sponsoring company, they should be paid. All of these things take time and work, and should be treated as such.

        Now, if the speakers are indeed paid by their own employers or by a third-party of some sort, it’s a different story, but people should not be expected to work without compensation just because they are advocating an issue they are passionate about, etc.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think you’re conflating entire industries expecting people to do real work for free with people being happy to take an hour out of their day to share a message. People don’t expect to be paid for giving informational interviews about their field, for instance.

          1. PEBCAK*

            I understand that, but I’m going off of the context provided in the letter that the OP expects a certain level of expertise and preparation. That takes work. It also rubs me the wrong way that the company is organizing events around Women’s History Month, Disability Awareness, etc. without allocating resources for these things. It sounds a lot like paying lip service to diversity without making it a (budgetary) priority. The combination of those two things is distasteful to me.

            1. Anna*

              Again, you might be reading more in to it than exists. If it’s women’s history month, and I want to provide a program to my coworkers or the students I work with, I’m going to do some research on Google and see if there are organizations in my city that would be interested in coming out and talking to coworkers or students about women in history. I regularly ask speakers to visit the classroom and talk to our students about their work. Nobody involved expects payment, or to make payment. This is not the same as asking a comic book artist or writer or any other creative human to write this awesome book, it’ll be so cool and there’s no money but you’ll get TONS of exposure and we all know creative people need exposure because otherwise NOBODY would know about them! I work with people in both worlds and there is a HUGE difference.

            2. Sunflower*

              Depending on the company, I think it would be kind of silly to pay some speakers. For Women’s History Month, maybe you find a speaker who has excelled in a male dominated industry. She’s probably going to speak more about her career and how to break barriers as opposed to specific things about her job. It’s not an hour of consulting. I can understand why people might be paid for speaking at industry conferences where they are giving tips that will help companies improve their processes but it would be kind of silly to pay someone to come speak about their career TBH.

            3. Grapey*

              She said ‘organization’, not ‘company’. It is likely that OP could be working for a non-profit that may already be centered around a marginalized group of people.

          2. Not telling*

            What I got from the letter was that the speaker may not be in a field where speaking is a regular expectation, in fact the subject matter may not even be their profession.

            To me it sounded like OP researched and found a local historian to talk about, for example, slave trade in their area, and asked if they would spend a lunch hour talking at OP’s office. But the historian may not be a career historian, maybe they are a sanitation engineer and while taking an hour off to speak could be arranged, the employer resented their longer time off to travel to and from.

            Hence the tardy arrival and the request for a ‘thank you note’ verifying that the speaker really was where they said they were, and not playing hooky or interviewing for another job.

            People can be experts on topics that are not related to their day jobs.

            1. Ops Analyst*

              I’m not sure where you’re getting all this from. You’re just creating your own narrative based on pretty much no evidence that supports your claim, I’m guessing because you dislike this practice so much. OP very clearly stated that she found people by searching for people who had already spoken at other organizations in the past.

          3. jag*

            PLUS asking someone to a specific task that is custom for your organization for free is one thing – it’s trying to get around paying people for work.

            Asking someone to give a talk about their agenda is quite another – even if they have to prep/customize the talk for the audience, it’s just not the same. We live in a world of ideas and many people want to share their ideas and influence the world. This is not the same as undermining, say, the graphic design profession by asking people to design something for you for free. Or even asking a band to play “for exposure” which undermines payment for the product.

            Government entities and nonprofits want their knowledge to be out in the world. In fact, they should be getting their knowledge out in the world.

        2. Ops Analyst*

          I think it’s a bit much to act as if anyone is saying that. Speaking for free is akin to a marketing budget within a business, where the business pays money to get into events and gain exposure. Writers, artists, speakers, etc. need to market themselves just as a regular business does. Speaking for free is “paying” to get exposure for their business. There’s nothing wrong with that and if someone doesn’t want to then they don’t have to.

          1. Sunflower*

            Yes this exactly. My company holds an entire conference with speakers/experts from a big company where no one is paid. These people are experts in their field, far along in their careers- they understand what they’re doing and are obviously not being taken advantage of. Networking and exposure is worth it to them. I think this is very very common.

    7. cheeky*

      Totally agree. And, furthermore, WHY does your company do these events in the first place? Is it relevant to the work?

    8. BRR*

      I completely agree that if the company considers this important then it should be important enough to spend money on.

      However, the people can always say no.

    9. the_scientist*

      While I don’t necessarily agree that speakers should be paid (I think that’s preferable and at the very least they should receive some sort of gift for their time) I do wonder a bit at the tokenism aspect. Why does OP’s organization need to have speakers for these events? How does that connect to the company mission statement, vision or values? Who are the people that are speaking and what are they doing- a short talk or an extensive training? Is this stuff that COULD be done in-house but the organization is using volunteers to avoid having to pay a staff member for the work?

      A lot of members of community organizations or advocacy organizations are happy to deliver lectures for free and as long as the recipient is upfront about non-remuneration, I don’t think it’s inherently exploitative. That said, you do get what you pay for, so if OP’s organization thinks these talks are really important and necessary there should be a budget for that.

    10. Sunflower*

      In my company, we don’t pay any speakers. Some we will pay travel/hotel expenses and take out to dinner and others we pay nothing. Many speakers are totally okay with this because the events are for networking and/or it gets their name out there. While these events may not be completely in that realm, some people will speak simply because it adds to a company’s good will and shows support of causes. My sister works in a male dominated industry and speaks all the time for free at events geared towards women. She also speaks at other types of events focused on other issues like education is high crime areas.

    11. Green*

      If someone’s job is motivational speaking, then you should certainly pay them. But that doesn’t sound like the case here.

      I had a similar work environment previously that did these things as part of a diversity committee. Unfortunately, that was just about the only thing we did for “diversity”, and so it rang pretty hollow to most of the employees, but we liked the lunchtime speakers all the same (for the most part). However, we used it as a (voluntary) opportunity for fundraising for a charity that the speaker represented.

      The office typically offered a very nice catered office lunch at a subsidized price on Thursdays (i.e., $15 lunch for $5) and deducted the charges from our paychecks. When we had a monthly or bi-monthly speaker, you went down and ate (the lunch was free on this date) and signed a sign-in sheet and put an amount of money next to the sign-in sheet. You could choose to attend or not, but if you did attend the custom was for staff to put $5 for the lunch, associates to put $10, and partners to put $20 that would go to the organization the speaker represented; the company made a donation (in addition to the free food for us) as well and sent a combined check. We typically raised about $500-1,000 on a bi-monthly basis for each organization, so non-profits were happy to give an hour to get some cash for their non-profit and to make a connection with new potential high-income donors. And, again, this was totally voluntary and low-pressure (unlike our United Way campaign…).

    12. jag*

      I work for a nonprofit organization and we speak for free all the time. Part of our mission in society is to share our knowledge. We want to do it. In deciding to speak, our key criteria is the impact we can have on the world – so we look at the audience in making a decision.

  2. Artemesia*

    It sounds like an inexperienced speaker and I think ‘feedback’ would be crushing to him. I’d send the note about how generous he was to take time to share his expertise and leave it at that. You can write several nice sentences without mentioning that everyone loved the talk or that it was amazing. There is nothing to be gained from making him feel bad — lots of people are not good speakers and this will happen from time to time.

    1. hayling*

      It’s not just that he was a bad speaker, he had bad business etiquette. I am not sure you can really give constructive feedback on that.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed — that’s what I meant when I said to only offer the feedback if he’s more than a very occasional speaker. If he’s just some guy who thought he’d give this a shot once, I would not.

      1. Green*

        I can’t help but think that this may be missing the diversity point. Some of our speakers for our similar diversity series came from the communities that the organizations served (and many of those organizations sought to hire people from those communities). Many of these people haven’t been exposed to these kinds of corporate presentations, and things that seem obvious to the audience may not have been within this person’s experiences. I’d consider that perspective too, and unless this person is the Outreach Director or something, just thank them kindly and move on.

        (It sounds as though this person wasn’t particularly effective, but some of my favorite speakers have been people who had intellectual disabilities or little or no formal education but spoke from the heart about why the organization mattered to them. The presentations were not polished, and were often very short, but also compelling and probably served the ultimate purpose better than a “perfect” presentation.)

        1. Green*

          Sorry — didn’t mean Allison’s post was missing the diversity point, but rather the expectations around professionalism and corporate etiquette with a visitor.

  3. some1*

    “he asked me to write a thank-you letter and send it to his boss”

    This guy doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of a TY note. He should have asked the LW to send feedback to his boss if that’s what he wanted. His boss didn’t do anything to be thanked for by the LW.

    1. JC*

      Well, his boss might have let him prepare for and give this talk as part of his work day. That is worthy of a thanks from the LW.

    2. fposte*

      I disagree–we do thank you notes to higher-ups a lot. It’s a way to acknowledge the work the speaker did and also to acknowledge that an organization has to run support that makes this kind of thing possible.

      1. some1*

        But you send the notes voluntarily I assume. I think it’s kind presumptuous to ask someone to send a TY note in the same way ou would ask someone to send feedback.

        1. fposte*

          But it’s enough of a convention that I wouldn’t be put off if somebody said “Hey, can you send a note to my boss?” It’s not a secret followup–I usually would say “Is this the person I should send a note to, and is there anybody else I should thank?” In this case the person would just have beaten me to it.

          1. Zed*

            I have been offered letters enough times that I probably wouldn’t hesitate to ask if I really wanted one. Usually the offers are phrased something like, “Hey, would it be helpful for me to send a letter acknowledge your work on this? Should I address it to you or your boss?”

            But of course I’m in academia…

            1. fposte*

              Yeah, me too, so maybe that’s the context. Though I do it for professionals as well; it’s always good in a public service job to have something saying your work is valuable.

        2. AVP*

          I thought of it more as you would a doctor’s note – he asked the OP to send the note as informal proof that this event really existed and he was there. “Thank you note” probably isn’t the right term for that, but I think that’s likely what he was getting at.

          1. I gave a letter to the postman, he put it in his sack*

            THIS. THIS. THIS. THIS. THIS.

            It took me awhile to get the picture, but yes: the speaker asked for a thank you letter back to his boss a) to prove the event happened, b) to justify the expenses of doing the event, and c) probably to go into the boss’s file on the speaker as a “good thing” he’s done (to be referenced when appraisals or promotions are being discussed).

            I’ve lived through this myself: someone invites me to talk somewhere (I am occasionally called upon to do some form of technology evangelism) and my group has a limited budget for such things, but I really want to do it, and I have to make a case for it, and when I finally get it all approved, it’s implied that I had best be able to show that this was worth it somehow. No-one is expecting me to make a sale, or that the company’s stock price will rise dramatically – but a letter from the person who invited me that says “thank you” and “how important it was to have someone from [company] there to talk about [technology]” etc – that’s kind of an expected thing.

            While I don’t know the details of OP’s incident, I think it’s important to note that you don’t want to put constructive criticism in a thank you letter to the guy’s boss.

            1. Not telling*

              Yes I posted as much elsewhere but I have to add it again here. The guy is asking for proof that he was at a legitimate event and not playing hooky.

              I cannot stress enough: OP, you are asking for kindness from people. How could you seriously think that an appropriate response to someone for that kindness is to criticize them to their boss???

              It sounds like the real issue is that you are embarrassed. Rather than accepting the criticism that has been given to YOU, that this month’s event wasn’t up to snuff, you want to blame someone else who was volunteering their time for you. Instead of throwing the speaker under the bus, shouldn’t you instead be directing your energy to your own efforts, and making sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?

              Perhaps you need to approach your managers about establishing a budget so that you can invite a better quality of speaker (even volunteer speakers should be offered lunch and gas money, for example). Perhaps you should restructure the program so that it relies less heavily on speakers and more on group participation. Perhaps you need to spend more time researching the people you invite, or work on how you extend invitations so that the expectations are clear. Perhaps all of these. Perhaps none of this is as big a deal as you are making it–did these coworkers really mean their criticisms to be taken so seriously or were they just passing comments? And are these people who tend to be hypercritical?

              I also want to add that an occasional dud is pretty common when it comes to public speaking, symposiums, seminars, etc. Even when paid. I don’t know that paying your speakers is a guarantee that you aren’t going to get another dud every now and then. People aren’t perfect.

              And while you are concerned about how this speaker reflected on you to your colleagues, you may also be concerned about other optics–specifically how your treatment of volunteer speakers reflects upon our company and it’s so-called corporate responsibility strategy.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                The OP never suggested that she was considering criticizing him in an email to his boss! She only asked how to navigate the thank-you. I’m the one who introduced the idea of offering him feedback.

                I think you’re being overly harsh here. The OP has explained in the comments that she doesn’t work for a company; she works for the government, where she’s not permitted to spend funds on speakers.

        3. Lindsay J*

          It kind of reminds me of working in retail and sales where we had those customer satisfaction surveys.

          Every place I worked I was specifically instructed to tell people who received the surveys – “If you feel I provided good service today, please rate me and the company all 10s. Anything less than a 10 is considered to be the same as a 1 in our customer service ratings.”

          It really did feel presumptuous to say, and I hated asking for it. But I would rather ask than wind up encountering adverse actions taken against me because somebody thought that I did a good job and so felt that all 8s or 9s were a fair rating.

          Asking for the thank you note here might be a similar thing – he may need it as proof to his employer (maybe part of his job is that he needs to do so many outreach programs a year. Or maybe if he does speeches outside of work it will improve his chances at getting a bonus or something) and since he did do the speech he feels like he needs to ask for some evidence that it happened.

          1. Phoebe*

            I’ve see this approach to customer service surveys before and I have never understood it. If anything below a 10 is the same as a 1, why bother with a rating scale at all?

    3. Artemesia*

      This might have meant essentially ccing the boss on the note back to him. This is a common request.

  4. Lightly Salted*

    “Usually I Google search who has spoken to other organizations in the area in past years, research their bios, education, and experience, and extend an invitation from there.” . . . I think you might need to rethink how you are finding speakers. Maybe you can form a speaker committee to have additional people involved in the selection process. If the goal is to have speakers that add value to your commemorative events, it might also be helpful to think more about what you think they can bring to your organization in particular.

    1. einahpets*

      This is what struck me about the original letter as well. Frankly, based on that search strategy, I am surprised that the OP hasn’t run into problems before now.

      Unless this is a really informal series for a small organization, I would think about forming a committee. Maybe some of the individuals who approached you with feedback would be interested in participating in the selection of future speakers?

    2. AnotherAlison*

      We had a similar problem. . .

      We’re an engineering company and often have reps from our vendors want to give lunch and learns. No money exchanges hands with anyone, but a few of the recent lunch and learn presentations really sucked, one to the point of people in the room laughing at some of the points the speaker was trying to make. After that, a few people complained, and instead of an administrative assistant automatically booking any vendors who asked to present, a technical person now has to vet the speaker.

      If you had said “form a speaker committee” to me 6 months ago, I would have thought it was ridiculous, but I am now for it. It’s very awkward for the employees when they have to deal with a bad speaker.

      1. Windchime*

        I hope they didn’t openly laugh as the person was presenting. That would be incredibly rude.

      2. Not telling*

        Yes my company has weekly lunch’n’learns also. The speakers aren’t paid, in fact they cater the lunches for us. But they aren’t paid because their company is paying them to spend their time with us and to feed us. We too have office topic-experts who are supposed to screen the speakers so that we don’t have unqualified or irrelevant speakers in front of us. Still some are really bad and we suffer through. But it is beyond rude to laugh at a speaker.

        But this underscores why OP shouldn’t write a critique of the speaker. In your office and mine, it is the committee or topic-expert who is responsible for ensuring the quality of the speaker. And that is what OP’s job is too. OP shouldn’t write a criticism of the speaker just because OP themselves did their own job badly.

  5. M*

    Although you get what you pay for I believe some truthful feedback is necessary otherwise the next person will falsely assume that his resume that now includes your organization as a featured speaker is an endorsement. Requesting the letter indicates to me that speaking is an area that speaker is trying to break into (otherwise why do it for free)? You’re not doing any favors tip toeing around his lackluster presentation.

  6. bopper*

    Perhaps it is time to turn to the Dogbert review generator:

    “Many in the audience have indicated that they are eager to comment on his talk. You would be lucky to get Speaker to speak for you. Many wonder at the extent of his knowledge. Mr. Speaker didn’t appear stressed about his talk. Such an speaker demonstrates the importance of proper recruiting. “

  7. OP*

    To clarify, I work in government and we are extremely constrained on what we can spend money on. We actually can’t pay for speakers. Nearly always, I find speakers in other parts of government or state-run institutions that are also constrained and cannot accept payment. It’s usually mutually beneficial. I’ve had more inexperienced speakers than this in the who don’t do an amazing job, but employees are accepting. While passionate and enthusiastic, this individual was just not up to par professionally in his communications or actions.

    1. fposte*

      I do agree with upthreaders, though, in thinking that that’s where the unpaid part comes in. He wasn’t a professional, he was a volunteer, so it’s not surprising that he wasn’t up to par professionally.

      1. Anna*

        I disagree. Normally “volunteer” still means they’re being paid by someone and this is part of what they do. It’s not that she’s trawling on FB or Craigslist asking for an actual unpaid volunteer to come in; it’s more likely she’s reaching out to organizations that might provide someone. That the speaker asked her to send a note to his boss sort of makes me think the organization the speaker works for provides speakers to different groups that request them.

        1. fposte*

          I guess it’s a question of what your context is. To me a thank you note doesn’t have anything to do with whether he’s paid or not–it’s just acknowledging the work it takes–and the fact that he has a job someplace doesn’t mean he’s getting paid to do this particular talk. And she absolutely is trawling for free speakers, and when you’re talking a task where people get paid $50k a pop, you have to realize that what you get for free isn’t always going to be professional quality.

          I think it generally works out okay–as I said, I talk for free with some frequency–but it’s important to keep your expectations proportionate to the request. The OP has been pretty fortunate most of the time with her speakers, so I understand being disappointed, but I think it’s an inevitability in the world of unpaid speaking that you get a few lemons.

    2. Sunflower*

      I plan conferences and I work very closely with the person in my office who finds speakers. I also handle all our conference evaluation forms. We have a small budget and will pay travel expenses for some people (we don’t technically pay for anyone to speak) and we don’t pay anyone other things. In my experience, 80% of the time the speakers end up being fantastic. The other 20% not so much. At every conference, we end up with at least one person who no one likes. Usually it’s more that they’re nervous and don’t know how to present the content as opposed to being uneducated. I think it’s just something that comes with the territory.

      I would write the note genuinely thanking him for his time. Maybe something came up and he just didn’t have time to prepare so he came off as more awkward than he did before.

      How much interaction are you having with the speakers before they show up? The person in my office usually scopes them out on LinkedIn and then has a couple phone conversations with them to make sure everyone is on the same page with expectations. She’s been doing this for a long time and she can usually tell from those calls if someone is going to end up being not great. She sometimes tries to find another speaker to help balance the panel out but that doesn’t always happen.

      1. jamlady*

        I agree – given the inexperience and the fact that he was freely giving up his time, I would just send something short and to the point. “Thanks for your time and enthusiasm.. blah blah blah” – and just leave it at that.

      2. Dynamic Beige*

        ” In my experience, 80% of the time the speakers end up being fantastic. The other 20% not so much. At every conference, we end up with at least one person who no one likes. Usually it’s more that they’re nervous and don’t know how to present the content as opposed to being uneducated. ”

        I agree with this… the unfortunate thing is when these people are in the organisation itself. At a conference recently, most of the highest level executives spoke. Some of them are very good, this one person not so much and the scores on the evaluation forms confirmed it. I don’t know if they are shared with the people who gave the talks or not or if those forms are used as a way to coax people into training to improve. There are lots of people out there who do executive coaching for this sort of thing for a reason.

    3. I gave a letter to the postman, he put it in his sack*

      OP, I wrote something above. In short, I hope that you’ll just send a nice thank-you note to the speaker’s boss. And if you want to follow up with constructive criticism for the speaker – that would be exceedingly kind of you.

      I don’t know the exact situation of the talk, or how badly it went, but unless he was up on stage goose-stepping and reading selections from Mein Kampf and just making like a real-life version of Franz Liebkind from The Producers – please don’t get him fired over this.

    4. Not telling*

      I commented above before I saw this post.

      If you and your speakers are government employees who are so constrained, then surely you understand that this speaker and his boss are just trying to dot their I’s and cross their T’s to account for his time properly. The request for a ‘thank you’ note was perhaps an erroneous term. He’s likely just looking for something akin to a receipt that they can file away in case anyone audits the time sheets and questions what his time was spent on.

      Maybe the guy didn’t invest a whole lot in his presentation to you, but is that a reason to invest NO kindness in return? Even with people I’ve absolutely loathed, I’ve managed to eek out a few decent sentences that sound nice “It was such a pleasure to invite you to our office last week to speak on such-and-such topic. My colleagues and I sincerely appreciate the time you took out of your busy day to come to our offices and share your expertise with us. Please except our thanks.”

      Feel free to copy and paste these three sentences if you really cannot find it within yourself to compose something of your own.

  8. DrPepper Addict*

    I think I know this guy. Is his name by chance Matt Foley, and does he live in a van down by the river?

  9. A*

    This is a very common situation in my field (public libraries). I do think you owe him a polite thank you letter for his time. It does not have to be glowing or long but it is the least you can do.

    What your real problem is going to be is vetting future speakers so it doesn’t happen again. If it is a public library, I’d recommend using the state’s public library listserv to ask for recommendations of speakers. It is well worth the effort to encourage your board to support paid speaking engagements as you get what you pay for here. Otherwise your best best is to plan programs based around the expertise (in quilting or whatever) that you already have on staff.

  10. Lily in NYC*

    I am amusing myself by picturing this speaker being a really bad historical impersonator.

  11. OP*

    Thanks for all the responses. Upon reflection, I feel bad for being so harsh on our speaker. He truly did have good intentions and took time out of his day to speak with us. I think his inexperience just showed though. I’ll just write about his passion and enthusiasm. I wasn’t looking to say anything but nice things to his boss anyway, but wasn’t sure what to say or how to word it. If he specifically asks for feedback I’ll gently give it to him, but otherwise will leave it as is.

    I agree that we need a real “budget” for these events, but it is what it is and I work within the constraints I have. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled and lucky enough to have Pulitzer-Prize winners, museum curators, and other very experienced speakers willing to volunteer to speak.

    Someone did raise an interesting question though. What would you do if you extend an invitation to something like this and several “red flags” are raised in the subsequent interactions with the person?

    1. Not telling*

      Red flags don’t constitute proof that a person is an inappropriate invitee, so I would avoid any kind of response that might be taken as an accusation or challenge of their expertise or professionalism. By this point, you’ve already invested some time researching and conversing with them, so there’s nothing to be gained by spending more time on them.

      AAM’s advice always seems to err on the side of brevity– “I’m sorry to say that we have to cancel your scheduled presentation for next Wednesday. I want to thank you so much for your willingness and enthusiasm for the event and the time you have likely taken already to prepare for your presentation. I’m sorry that this cancellation may have caused you inconvenience.”

      No matter what the reason for canceling–even if you suddenly discover truly abhorrent rhetoric or behavior int heir past–sincerity in your notification will likely be the key to successfully delivering the message.

  12. Stemmie*

    Ooooo…I cringed when I read this. I was in OP’s position once, but I didn’t stop at thank you and gave her an open-faced feedback sandwich: a flimsy layer of positive flatbread topped with an unstable heap of runny criticism salad. And she was visibly rattled. I really, really wish I hadn’t gone there. I was running a 2-week science camp, and we hosted 5 speakers in total who ALL went into too much technical detail for our audience of kids, but she was the only one I told about it. And in spite of that, she actually had a lot of kids approaching her to talk to her afterwards, even more so than the other 4 equally overly-technical speakers, so I should have just thanked her all the more. I was even anticipating that it might happen, but I forgot to prep our speakers by sending out a list of pointers – which we even had on hand from another project – arrrgh!

    I think if OP has to do this regularly, it would be good to send out a little how-to/do’s-don’ts of engaging speaking.

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