Let me start with an apology to all guest speakers. I know it’s a tough job. Not only are they coming into the group cold, with very limited time, but they are up against professional speakers who do this for a living. So, my heart goes out to them, but, the focus of this article is on the impact a guest speaker can have on the “art and science” of training small groups, and what you, the program facilitator, can do to minimise their negative impact.

1. The Over-Timer

They speak too long and eat into your time, making you constantly adjust what you have to say. Recently I had a guest who spoke for 45 minutes (even though he was scheduled for 15), leaving just a little bit of time before morning tea, which made it virtually impossible for me to get the group back, or engage in any meaningful content.

If you can limit their session to 15 minutes and then tightly control it that’s great. If they want a longer time have them speak after lunch.

2. The Cold Caller

The guest speaker usually wants to speak at the commencement of your session. The group is ‘cold’ and their session is usually a pure ‘information’ session, leaving the group ‘colder’ than when they first arrived, making the job of warming the group up more difficult, with less time to achieve it.

A couple of ideas here. Firstly, conduct a brief warm up before they speak, however, this can all be undone by a particularly boring speaker and you’ll have to redo it. Alternatively invite the guest speaker to speak after lunch and hopefully the rapport you have with the group will improve recovery time.

3. The Contrary

I’ve had a guest speaker get up, and while trying to prove how much they knew about my topic, contradicted some of my content. Perhaps it was a flippant comment, perhaps it was meant to be sarcastic or perhaps it was just that they had been taught the wrong theory, but they said something I was going to be refuting later. I can’t be seen to contradict, diminish or belittle a senior manager of the organisation, but I can’t support or endorse what they’ve said either.

On this occasion, when it came to the conflicting content, I simply said “What [the speaker] meant to say was …” and I corrected their fallacy. I could just as easily have ignored their input and taught my version. This would have had the advantage of not drawing attention to the issue … unless one of the participants brought it up.

4. The Just in Time

Of course, the 9:00 AM speaker who turns up at 8:58 causes a problem because you are ready to start, you’re not sure if they’re coming and you haven’t built any rapport with the guest speaker and may not even be aware of their title or position in the organisation.

If possible, contact the guest speaker prior to the session, to introduce yourself, ask how they would like to be introduced and perhaps to review what they plan to talk about. Ask them to arrive fifteen minutes early … and be ready when they arrive.

5. The Attention Centre

At the risk of sounding contrary, the opposite is also true. They arrive too early, which in itself isn’t a huge problem, but when they demand your attention, it takes away from your set up time and stops you from chatting to the participants as they arrive, building rapport and making participants feel comfortable for the day ahead.

To counter this, ask them to help with set up (I always enjoy having Directors and CEO’s putting handbooks on tables), or simply introduce yourself, have a brief chat and explain that you need to focus on getting the room right and making the participants comfortable.

6. The On Seller

They come in and, although their brief was to introduce your topic, all they want to do is promote whatever it is they are trying to push or sell at the moment, whether it’s a corporate retreat, or an event, a particular process, product, software or whatever it is they have coming up. So, the whole thing becomes a fairly obvious sales pitch. A bit like a ‘Time-share’ seminar.

Again, it may be an advantage to contact them prior to the session, to check their content, and ask the question “How does this relate to the topic of the session?” and either restrict their time or suggest alternative content.

7. The Joker

The speaker decides to tell a joke. The joke is at best boring and dull, and at worst offensive to people in the audience. It kills the vibe in the room and puts everyone into a passive state when you want them to be interactive.

This usually occurs when a speaker is a subject matter expert but not necessarily a trained presenter and they have been told this is a good way to start. This is a difficult one to recover from. After the failed attempt at humour the guest speaker’s presentation usually becomes more and more awkward.

It’s best not to react, either verbally or non-verbally, to the delivery of the content, thank them for their time and deliver a summary of the salient points. If necessary, you may need to apologise for the inappropriate humour … but wait until they have left the room. Don’t forget to follow up after the session.

8. The Lecturer

They talk AT the group instead of trying to interact WITH the group and leave the group in that very passive state. It’s almost like the participants have been watching a video in a dark room for an hour and then, when you try to interact with the group, you get blank vacant stares in return.

To counter this, you will need to either conduct some secondary warm up activity – possibly based on the guest speaker’s content or find a reason to break the group into smaller groups and engage in an activity.

9. The Antagonist

Possibly one of the worst outcomes is the guest speaker antagonises the group and gets the group hostile to what is about to occur. Fortunately, this is rare, but it can be as simple as an accidental offensive remark or as damaging as them being openly hostile towards the whole professional development process.

Recovery from this ranges from apologising for the offensive remark – and reemphasising the positive points of their content. If they are openly hostile, then recovery is much more difficult. You may need to address every one of their negative points with a positive. This will consume a fair amount of your time and can be quite draining. Don’t forget to inform the organisers that they should avoid using this person as a guest speaker in future.

The antidote to most of these is to check with your guest speaker beforehand what they are going to say. Make sure that you tell them how long they have and keep them on time. Ideally ensure that any guest speakers that you allow into your training room are also trained presenters, not just a senior team member who is not skilled at holding the attention of a group or creating an engaging, interactive environment.

A few final tips: Never belittle or diminish the guest speaker or their content. Always be encouraging, especially in regard to their content … Try to refer to their content in your session, referring to them by name “As XYZ mentioned in her introduction …” After all, they may be the one determining if you ever work for the client again.

If they are likely to be presenting frequently, suggest to the organisation that they invest in the individual’s professional development and encourage them to attend a presentation skills workshop.

Fundamental Training and Development offers a range of workshops in this area, tailored to your specific needs.

One final note: There are plenty of excellent guest speakers out there … so good in fact you hardly notice them … and that’s a good sign, invite them back.


Article b
y Adam Le Good, Director of Fundamental Training and Development